Flourish 2020, our gift card conference that brings together industry leaders each spring, was scheduled to kick off in Chicago on March 16th, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Like many other organizations that had events scheduled for 2020, we had to change our event strategy as the pandemic grew into a global crisis. By acting quickly, being decisive and adapting the event format, we were able to turn the planned three-day, multifaceted conference into a virtual experience in a matter of days (and a few sleepless nights).
It started the week of March 2, when my fellow Flourish co-founder, Holly Glowaty, was supposed to get on a plane to London to attend another conference. Hours before her flight was scheduled to take off, she changed her mind. We knew if her plans were impacted, Flourish attendees may be having similar concerns about attending our event. We had already heard from several attendees that their organizations had instituted travel bans and they would not be able to attend. As of March 4, our approach was to continue as planned with the conference, but with the escalating coronavirus fears, we knew the only responsible course of action was to postpone the in-person component. A week and a half before the event was scheduled to begin, we decided taht Flourish would become a virtual event
We know that our attendees count on Flourish each spring to assess holiday-season performance, gather information to jump-start the next fiscal year, and conduct meetings to optimize partnerships and processes. Capitalizing on the fact that our attendees already had the days blocked off to attend the conference, we pushed forward for the event to kick off on the March 16 start date. We embraced our new reality and over the course of 10 days, transformed Flourish into Flourish Virtually. We learned a lot along the way, as detailed below.
Five Live-to-Virtual Lessons
Be ready to adapt: I truly believe that one of the greatest skills entrepreneurs need to have is adaptability and the situation we found ourselves in called for it in abundance. We knew we had to pivot and move forward.
Community and partnerships matter: We made the announcement that Flourish was going virtual on a Friday and by the following Monday we had a meeting on our calendar with a company that offered to help produce the virtual sessions. With their support, we delivered 25 percent of the original sessions. We are grateful to work in an industry where everyone truly wants to see each other succeed, especially in times of crisis.
Virtual sessions can enhance the next in-person event. Let's be real: Video conferences and webinars aren't our go-to option when seeking conversation and networking. We knew we weren't going to be able to take all the content we had planned and turn it digital. Instead, we focused on the content that was most timely, had an expiration date, and fit in a virtual format. Many of the sessions serve as a "part 1," with "part 2" to be delivered at the next in-person event so that we can continue the conversation and address issues we introduced virtually.
Be prepared to explain the tech. Networking is a critical component of the our event, so the team set out to find a platform that could deliver that experience online. We tested several solutions before selecting Remo three days before kickoff. In the limited time we had, we put it through its paces (or so we thought), and were excited to use this new platform to offer "virtual table talks" and "virtual speed networking." As we launched into the virtual table talks on the first day. it was apparent that further explanation on how to use the platform was necessary. The circus that ensued was comical at times and we greatly appreciated the abundance of patience our attendees had as we all worked through the kinks together. We took the information from the table talks and created a brief how-to tutorial that we presented at the beginning of speed networking the second day. This helped things run much more smoothly and we look forward to using this platform for other virtual sessions in the future.
Interaction is key. Virtual events run the risk of losing one of the best elements of live events: human interaction. One simple way to mitigate this and keep the human element front and center is to turn on your camera. I know it's not always easy or comfortable to do, but showing your face really helps the audience stay engaged. We had several sessions where presenters did not turn their cameras on and some that did. Being able to read the presenters facial expressions and body language went much further than reading the content on their slides. Interaction from the audience is critical too. Get them engaged. Ask them questions. Make them part of the conversation.
While our trial-by-fire introduction to transitioning a live event to a virtual one wasn't without hiccups, we appreciate the support and patience of the Flourish community. We are encouraged to use what we learned and excited to apply the lessons to future virtual content that can be used to drive change and advance the industry.
Kristen Thiry is co-founder of the Flourish Conference and K&H Connection. She was named one of Incentive's Top 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry.