Articles - 17th July 2020

The Beginner’s Guide to Virtual Events

Words by Katie Byrne
Illustration by Jon McCormack

How do you plan an event without a venue – or even a date? It might sound like the start of some 2020 riddle but is, in fact, a question that many freelancers have been pondering since the UK lockdown began.

According to research shared by Eventbrite, upwards of 1.3 million business events are held each year in the UK, with 7,000 outdoor events on top of that. Ranging from intimate workshops all the way through to five-figure-attendee festivals, it’s safe to say that many creatives have a toe dipped into the event realm. Think freelance organisers, photographers, hosts, designers, PRs… The list goes on.

Of course, since the country went into lockdown in March, the industry has ground to a screeching halt. Heartbroken venues have closed their doors, dates have been indefinitely postponed and government guidelines make the idea of hosting an IRL occasion – complete with crowds and queues and possibly even hand-shaking – feel like some kind of sad daydream.

However, the beauty of it all, this topsy-turvy, world-on-its-head nightmare that none of us can seem to wake up from, is that it’s a wake-up call. A chance to reassess, ascertain what’s important and flex what work really means as we busy ourselves with trying to decide out what, exactly, we do next.

When it comes to planning events against the backdrop of a global pandemic, you have three choices: postpone, cancel, or adapt.

If you’re working without the safety net of an organisation behind you or the support of a team around you, it can be hard to know what to do. But taking your event online is arguably the safest option in the current climate, as well as – whisper it – the one that’s most likely to happen.

Equally, online can afford you the opportunity to branch out into the event space for the very first time. WiFi connection permitting, the virtual world is your oyster.

In short, if you haven’t already explored the possibilities that online event can offer your business, now’s the time to raise your head above the parapet and give it your consideration.

 

Time to flex: are online events the best option for you?

First and foremost, what’s the event and do you actually want (and need) to take it online?

Think about your own limitations. Assuming you have the luxury of being able to decide whether or not you want to continue with the event – and aren’t reliant on it for money or sponsor satisfaction – you need to decide if you actually want to do this.

Chances are your priorities and the way you live have changed, massively. You’re probably working harder than ever before, in more directions than you’d ever imagined possible, with home-schooling kids, fluctuating incomes and a sprinkling of well-founded general anxiety all very much on the menu.

So is the event you’re thinking about launching online worth the effort and energy? Or should you shelve it for now and revisit it later on? There’s no right or wrong answer – and only you can decide.

“I’m frazzled,” admits one anonymous freelancer. “I’d been working on my event for about nine months but made the decision to cancel it in mid-April. The impact of COVID-19 means I have neither the time nor the energy for the event at the moment. I decided to scrap it and refund tickets, with the option to start from scratch when things are ‘normal’ again. It’s been a great relief to have one less thing to think about, allowing me to focus on what I need to right now.”

On the flip side, the hit-pause effect of lockdown could also provide the springboard many freelancers have needed to launch into something new. A combination of necessity factored with a nation of ‘bored in the house’ Brits, hungry for new hobbies, could offer the perfect storm of brand awareness and success.

“Teaching workshops online is something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” says illustrator Emma Block, who typically holds four in-person workshops per months. “It wasn’t until lockdown forced me to that I actually got on with it though – and it’s been great for my business! Sometimes the silver lining of a difficult situation is it can give you the push you need to get on with things.”

Many freelancers have been forced to turn online in order to survive the instantaneous impact that lockdown has had, with their businesses relying entirely on in-person contact with customers.

Yoga instructor Emily Harding realised the day after her studios announced their closure that she’d need to embrace digital. “I would have had to become a Deliveroo biker otherwise, as I’d been without any source of income at all,” she says. “I had to pivot, fast. I’ve been testing out different methods of delivery, including short meditations via Instagram and premiering full classes via my YouTube channel and more. I’ve also started offering one-to-one and group sessions via Zoom.”

For photography teacher Carla Speight – who usually runs classes for groups of about 40 – the biggest consideration of moving online was ascertaining how she could create the most engaging courses for her customers. “The biggest challenge I faced was replicating the level of interaction I’d get from a normal class,” she explains. “I use Zoom and Facebook groups, although I had to quickly learn on the job how to use Zoom and create online content! It all runs seamlessly now though.”

Sean Gleeson was forced to think quickly when his event-based company was instantly hit by lockdown. “We’re considered Ireland’s number one venue-finding service for corporate clients,” he explains. “The business effectively came to a halt overnight, with venues closing and events being cancelled.”

After a tough two months, Sean and his colleague Steve Cummins launched ZoomParty.ie, tapping into the nation’s growing usage of Zoom and Teams. “We wanted to bring people together for a great time,” says Sean. “We do comedy quiz nights, after-work parties and more. Companies around the globe are working with us now – we’ve been booked for online events in Paris, New York, Boston, Bermuda… The good word has spread and we’re delighted.”

 

A few questions to ask yourself for virtual event success

  • If you had begun planning an event before lockdown – do you want to postpone it, cancel it or reshape it for online?
  • Decide how crucial events are to your freelance business over the coming months. Do you have the time – both mentally and logistically, and will it add value to your brand?
  • If you aren’t already hosting events: is extending your business into the virtual event sphere something that could benefit your business as we head into the ‘new normal’?

 

What can you provide – and what does your audience actually want?

Whether you’re transforming an existing IRL event into an online equivalent or are looking at branching into a whole new realm of opportunity with start-from-scratch ideas, you need to know what customers will expect – as well as what you can feasibly offer.

For example: if your WiFi has nailed social distancing to the extent that even sending emails can prove tiresome, chances are you might struggle with streaming a live event from home. And if you’re required to edit videos sent over by speakers but have no idea where to begin, are you happy to learn?

“At first I was reluctant – I’m not very techy!” admits Lynda Coogan, owner of Wine Tasting Ireland. “But I quickly found that software like Zoom is very user-friendly. While hosting wine tasting experiences online is very different to in-person, my secret is to send a ‘welcome’ video in advance. That way, attendees see a familiar face and tend be more relaxed.”

Of course, whilst your own limitations (and that of your sputtering Internet connection) are important, it’s also crucial to remember what your audience wants. Whether they’re paid-for ticket holders or are simply an audience you wish to connect with via free content, it’s important to bear in mind how they’re most likely to interact with you, as well as to manage expectations.

Consider the platforms your customers use, and how they use them: for example, would they prefer to tune into a webinar hosted on Zoom or are they more likely to enjoy picking and choosing from content shared on YouTube? A nation that has spent the last three months learning TikTok dances and scrolling through Gemma Collins’ memes might not have the required attention span to sit through a five-hour digital conference…

One additional benefit of online events is they offer delegates a degree of flexibility. “It’s a great option for someone who can’t make a whole day, or who prefers to learn at their own pace,” says Carla. “Online allows me to break everything into chunks posted daily, rather than squeeze it all into one day.”

It works both ways, of course. Emily adds: “Being able to shut your laptop straight after a class or event and get straight back to ‘you’ time – without the faff of travel – is absolutely glorious”.

 

The tickets to success 

  • Research events similar to what you’re planning and if you can, sign up to attend them.
  • Work out who in your network might be willing to collaborate.
  • Run through the logistics, costs and technicalities involved.

 

So what does the future hold? 

For many freelancers and SME owners, online events were an unknown entity prior to COVID-19 – so will they still be relevant once things get back to some kind of normal?

The jury’s out. With ‘coronaphobia’ and so-called – shudder – ‘FOGO’ (that’s ‘fear of going out’, FYI) affecting Brits, it’s reasonable to assume hesitation around live events could linger. A lurking sense of unease, paired with ever-hazy guidelines, means factoring online events into any potential future plans could be wise.

“I recently ran a poll on my Instagram stories and over 100 people said they’d like to continue with the online classes, even when studios and gyms reopen,” says Emily. “I love teaching online and feel I can be more authentically myself, which has brought me a lot of job satisfaction and joy.”

“In my opinion, online events are here to stay regardless,” says Sean. “That said, when a vaccine eventually becomes available, confidence in in-person events will be restored. People need those face-to-face interactions.”

Simon Paine, co-founder of PopUp Business School, agrees it’s that human touch that’s key but has a few tricks for ensuring you can make the connection extend, even when it’s through a screen. His team were forced to head online when COVID-19 put paid to in-person sessions; their first fully online event saw them host the most attendees they’d ever had.

“We create breakout sessions on Zoom and Teams and also run live polls, which helps us decide how to go forward with the day based on energy levels,” Simon explains. “We also invite participants to switch their cameras on at times, to wave, give each other a thumbs up and smile.”

With all that said: if you’re patiently holding out for the industry to get back on its feet before you invest energy into your next freelance event project, government guidance should come imminently. With mounting demand for answers as to when the closely linked arts and events industries can properly reopen, a ‘go’ date is needed – and soon. After all, the traditional autumn trade shows and exhibitions are economic heavy-hitters that rake in billions for the UK economy each year – so it feels unlikely they’ll be left on pause.

In the meantime, ensure your event is ready to hit the ground running the moment you get that green light. From learning extra skills to setting up a mailing list, get it all sorted so you’re ready to go the moment you can. And on the plus side? Any future event you’re working on will feel like a piece of cake without the looming lurk of a pandemic alongside it. So cheers to you – you’ve got this.

 

You can do it! So you want to host…

A workshop: Look into platforms like Skillshare and Teachable, that allow you to upload paid-for content that you can market to your audience.

A conference: Consider live-streaming or dodge on-air fails and ask speakers to send you pre-recorded content.

A weekly class: An invite-only Zoom session is a great option for encouraging participant interaction, whilst YouTube Premiere can create some buzz around an upload.

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