Lessons Learned from Moving a Massive In-Person Event Online

Taking the well-oiled machine that is Cvent CONNECT and transforming it into an entirely new experience wasn’t easy. From the initial pivot to getting buy-in, strategically designing the event to new technology considerations, Cvent’s director of meetings and events, Rachel Andrews, and senior manager of meetings and events, Paulina Curto, share lessons learned from moving the world’s largest event technology and hospitality conference online.

The Digital Pivot
While pre-event risk conversations occurred back in 2019, the decision to go virtual began in March, as COVID-19 concerns and uncertainty around in-person events grew.

There were many stakeholders to consider. Options were first weighed internally by a risk assessment group, followed by the global planning team and finally management team. Meetings were also held with Caesars Entertainment, which was supposed to host the 2020 event in Las Vegas. Going virtual was a big decision and not taken lightly. Cvent has always touted the value of face-to-face interaction; however, virtual has become the new normal.

Reimagining the Event
Typically, event planning is organized in a very linear way but the switch to online required it to be a fluid process.

To begin, it was necessary to define the virtual event goals. This was achieved by asking a series of questions: Why do attendees go to an in-person event? Why does Cvent host this program? Why should attendees go to a virtual event? What’s in it for partners and sponsors?

Answers revealed the primary objectives differed for in-person and virtual events. Going online, the main goal was a product launch.

Next was content deliberations, which included simultaneous discussions about what type of technology was needed to support and execute the programming. Areas addressed included whether sessions would be live, pre-recorded or a mix, and if dedicated appointments would be offered, as well as opportunities for networking (chat-based or via video). As the scope continued to grow, so did the list of technology needs.

Then a ‘tiger team’ was assembled. This is essentially a diversified group of experts brought together for a single project, need or event. Historically, a variety of internal stakeholders and external support resources, including temporary staff and vendors, come together.

With the switch to virtual, Cvent staff worked most closely with their creative teams; production partner Ovation; content marketers and conventional digital marketers who reimagined how the content should be showcased; an event technologist who provided up-to-date roadmap enhancements related to Cvent technology that impacted programming; product management and technology, which were the liaison between planning, product and engineering teams; and audiovisual, IT and operations for speaker equipment and the Internet.

One of the biggest challenges was determining the planner’s role with the transition from in-person to virtual event. This meant leaning into the traditional skill sets of a planner while adjusting perspective. Normally, the planner sources venues; now, they’re tasked with finding the right technology. Virtual events require planners to become something akin to a television producer as they record sessions and/or prepare live broadcasts.

Budgetary Changes

Virtual may be less costly but not necessarily in ways imagined. When creating the budget, Cvent staff looked at the agenda and technology needs, then worked backwards from there. An event’s agenda combined with the level of production dictates how money is spent.

Funds reserved for the venue were allocated to technology (the virtual venue). To achieve seamless, high-quality video production, staff had to source the right environment (studio) for filming, video player, production company, video capabilities and extra video editing support.

While partnerships are always important, there are more opportunities to deliver custom, curated sponsorship opportunities with virtual events since more people can be reached. For instance, Cvent curated a virtual margarita mile happy hour to highlight Visit Dallas. It also engaged attendees with a cooking demonstration from Caesars Entertainment.

Lights, Camera, Action

Going virtual resulted in a whole different experience. The majority of the work was done in the month leading up to the event similar to directing a movie. Much of the time spent during the event involved running live sessions and actively monitoring virtual booths.

A command centre was set up with computers to ensure sessions played when they should. There was a Zoom bridge with key stakeholders not on-site, including production, professional services, external vendors and IT. Virtual booths were managed on a variety of laptops so that content could be played and monitored. Cvent staff wore personal protective equipment and socially distanced to maintain everyone’s safety.

The Days After

Unlike an in-person event, digital conferences live on after the fact. Sessions are still available on-demand for a specified period of time. Sales representatives continue to arrange meetings with customers. Then there’s the planning team, which has to work through engagement scoring or digging through the attendee journey and looking at a level of insight never seen before.

There have been many lessons learned from the first-ever virtual Cvent CONNECT:

  1. Always allow more time before the event.
  2. Hold event goals as decision-making north stars.
  3. Ensure to level set roles and responsibilities.
  4. Create core teams and keep in mind there’s a learning curve for all involved, including presenters, content managers, tech teams, sales and executives.
  5. Set timeline expectations for stakeholders.
  6. Include content owners on the recordings.
  7. Lean into the technology and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  8. If hosting a virtual event for the first time, work with corporate communications or a third party on contingency plans and to determine attendee communique, public relations and emergency services.

Madison Layman is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, a public research university in Williamsburg, Va. Madison’s passion for writing began before she could read, with a nightly verbal diary dictation transcribed by her obliging parents. When she’s not writing, Madison is binge-watching TV shows, baking elaborate desserts and memorizing pop culture facts.


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