The Elements Behind a Successful Nine-Day, Multi-Association Virtual Event

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The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences typically holds an annual in-person congress that includes events for dozens of its member associations. This year, FHSS helped the groups shift to virtual, welcoming 6,200 attendees over nine days.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) is in a unique position. It helps its members—Canadian national associations in the humanities and social sciences—plan and host their conferences over several days at a single location.

Pre-pandemic, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences took place at a large venue where members from around 70 Canadian associations would attend one or more conferences over seven to nine days. But for 2021, FHSS shifted the Congress to virtual, found a platform to host all the events, and ended up welcoming more than 6,000 attendees at 1,700 sessions over nine days.

Laura Chajkowski, FHSS director of congress and events, shared some successful strategies for other groups to consider as they plan and execute virtual events.

Post-session networking lounges. At in-person meetings, if a session was great, people will linger in the room and engage with the speaker or other attendees. However, in virtual sessions, attendees are often tossed from the room by the platform with no way to interact. FHSS created a fix for this by offering participants another virtual space. “As the session was starting to run over or was coming to an end, our event technicians were on the ready to provide links to their networking lounge,” Chajkowski said. “We found that that was a great way to keep the conversation going.”

Virtual event bags. When people go to in-person events, they typically receive a conference bag to carry their stuff. FHSS created an electronic bag, which was a hit. Attendees could, with the click of a heart icon, add any presenter’s PDF files to their virtual bag. When they went to the exhibit hall, attendees could also collect vendor materials in the bag. Vendors could also pay to get items preloaded into attendee bags.

Tech assistance. At face-to-face conferences, speakers occasionally show up in the wrong room. The same thing can happen in the virtual world. With the virtual platform that FHSS used, they could see who was in all the rooms. “We never lost a speaker,” Chajkowski said, noting event techs could message each other the name of a speaker who wasn’t in a room for a presentation and do a systemwide search for that person. “They would find the presenter somewhere else. They would say, ‘Hey you’re in the wrong place,’ and they would virtually walk them to their session room and make sure they got in.”

Virtual speaker prep.  FHSS offered clinics where speakers could log in to the platform to do tech checks and rehearse keynotes. “I believe it’s important to prepare the speaker for how to present virtually versus in person,” Chajkowski said. “There is a difference. Explain how to better utilize polls or surveys. … Those are really important elements because those are what’s going to keep the audience engaged and interested in more and more of their sessions.”

Time zones. If you’re hosting a national or international conference, Chajkowski said it’s important to make all attendees feel included. If there’s a good mix of East and West Coast attendees, try to offer keynotes a little later in the day, so those on the West Coast don’t have to get up early to participate. With international presenters, Chajkowski said to make sure their sessions align with their time zone—presenters shouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to present.

But no matter what you offer participants, keep in mind that the virtual experience shouldn’t try to mimic the previous face-to-face event. “We tried to convince these associations that what they did in person they shouldn’t try to replicate virtually,” Chajkowski said, but noted that many did try to replicate the in-person feel. Still, she thinks associations should take advantage of some of the perks virtual conference offer, including the ability to space out the event, rather than cram it into the same three- or four-day span an in-person conference uses.

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