ASAE Annual Meeting

Are Your Virtual Events Healthy or Delicious?

By Association Adviser staff • August 18, 2021

Are your virtual events healthy? Or delicious?

At first, associations’ reasons for going virtual were more focused on being healthy: virtual events are cost-effective and, in general, more inclusive. But Beth Surmont, CMP, CAE, vice president for event strategy and design for 360 Live Media, and Arianna Rehak, CEO and co-founder of Matchbox Virtual Media, note that virtual events could be incredible catalysts for specific, delicious outcomes such as:

  • Community engagement
  • Creating a body of knowledge together
  • Creating something exciting

Now that the global association community has gotten to see what works, and what doesn’t work thanks to a pandemic that forced us all to go on a virtual diet with our events, what makes virtual events delicious? We need to make the main entrée, side dishes, and dessert tasty and filling for everyone! Surmont and Rehak invited attendees at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting into their virtual event design kitchen for a peek at their event cookbooks.

Open your virtual event design test kitchen

First, Surmont and Rehak noted that associations should encourage more one-to-one connections at every virtual event. How do you do that if you don’t already have a recipe? You test, test, and test: Open a test kitchen by getting your event team together for event design brainstorming sessions. It’s important to think of your event as a complete meal, and to consider what goes into creating a great meal:

  • What can you offer before the event in terms of a palate cleanser that will get attendees excited for more? 
  • How will guests arrive at your event? They can’t eat if they don’t know how to get to the table.
  • What can you offer as the event opens up? It’s important to think of the event as a whole meal. 
  • How will you finish out the meal? You want your dinner party to end on a memorable note.

Great chefs wouldn’t plan an appetizer, entrée and dessert separately without thinking how one complements the other. Think of your events the same way. How does each component of an event contribute to an overall great experience? Good chefs also plan their ingredients out, and know ahead of time how to use them properly. You must be intentional about what you put into a recipe, when it is served, at what temperature. You also must be intentional about how you’ll help attendees achieve their goals in attending your virtual event.

Out of your initial team brainstorming, you’ll get “recipes” for different event elements. These are working blueprints for different aspects of your event that you can build upon as you see what works and what needs improvement.

From the attendee chat: “We can do 101 type stuff virtually just fine. In-person events do not need to always be next level. Sometimes, comfort food is just what we need!”

Recipes for delicious virtual event

Rehak and Surmont recommended a few virtual event “recipes” to make your virtual events more delicious:

Topic Tournament: 

A topic tournament is a high-energy moderated panel that gets people awake. It’s a group design session to discuss and co-create solutions to a relevant community problem or goal. Topic tournaments operate on the premise that ideas get better when they’re shared and added to by multiple people.

Topic Tournament

Design Session: 

Similar to a topic tournament, a design session focuses on one specific problem and how associations have handled it in the past. A shared document or spreadsheet on which participants write their ideas, and others add on those ideas by writing in their “Yes, and…” ideas is central to design sessions. At the end of brainstorming and writing ideas on the shared document, a moderator gives all participants time to explain their ideas.

Outcome Breakout: 

Outcome breakouts are outcome-focused sessions with networking mixed in. They’re used to find solutions to a problem or to discover new approaches to a project. An outcome breakout consists of a quick panel session (10 minutes or so) who introduces the topic. Attendees then break into small tables or virtual rooms to discuss the central, compelling questions and submit their feedback in person or via virtual form. The group then discusses all solutions together. 

Add a little seasoning to any group session by making an icebreaker out of coming up with a team name!

Scavenger Hunt: 

The purpose of this is to have a good time while building relationships! Scavenger hunts prompt participants to find answers to questions—trivial or serious—online within a given time frame. The focus is on team building, not so much knowledge gain. You could have participants build a quick scavenger hunt, and then assign another group to complete that scavenger hunt. Or you could assemble one before your event and have all participants complete it, either individually or in teams, at the same time. Add additional spice by: 

  • Offering prizes
  • Creating hunt-specific hashtags
  • Using a Padlet to track scoring alone the way
  • Announce the winners in a live session and on social media

Speed Networking: 5/15/5

Best for speed networking or receptions. It’s a session where 5 people gather for 15 minutes to answer 5 questions. You can have people shift tables after 15 minutes to meet more people and answer a new set of 5 questions. Benefits: avoids small talk, gives you something to talk about easily. Introverts and extroverts love it!

For the final course, Rehak and Surmont recommend a debate-style session. Debate sessions are good for bringing up topics that have the potential to become contentious, but still need to be addressed – for example, the value in hosting free events vs. paid events. Making a discussion about this debate-style opens the door to making it more lighthearted. You can assign people to teams, or let them choose their own teams. The debate is led by 2-4 speakers, but you should have an equal number for both sides. Follow a traditional debate format: opening arguments, rebuttals, closing arguments. Have a moderator/referee. Then add a conversation at the end to allow for more nuanced discussion adn to land the session on a softer note. 

There’s a lot of opportunity for post-production with a debate event: 

  • Video of the debate
  • Bog articles or social media posts that invite further comments
  • eBook that expounds upon all viewpoints and ideas discussed

Entertaining in hybrid or tri-brid mode

Surmont and Rehak observed that working on virtual events often makes you better at designing in-person events. Virtual events require you to think more detailed about who is coming, what they want to accomplish, and how your event is going to help them get there. There’s a trend of intentionality. 

What if your meal experience is taking place in two dining rooms? When it comes to hybrid events, Rehak recommends letting digital do its job, and letting in-person do its job. Meaning, tailor your programming to each audience somewhat separately. It’s hard to bridge the gap between digital and in-person. You risk creating an experience that lacks something on both sides if you try too hard to bridge it. But, it’s wise to have a central hub where everyone can gather: an app, a website, or an online community forum. 

Rehak also brought up the concept of a tri-brid event: When you have one category of experiences that are entirely for the face-to-face (F2F) community, one for a completely virtual audience, and a third for experiences that bridge the two communities, like watch parties. Introduce more virtual tools into the F2F portion, like live polls that can be collected from both a live and online audience. Another design element that helps unite these three audiences is knowing there’s a live conference, but pre- and post-event, every attendees is a virtual attendee. The information we send is almost always online. How can you use these online pre- and post-event experiences to help attendees get to know you, the host, as well as other attendees and sponsors? How can you jump start the collaboration and conversations that make up a great event?

Even at in-person events, every attendee is a virtual attendee pre- and post-event. How can you use those online experiences to enhance your event overall?

The next generation of events are going to be more outcome-focused. We’ve seen that online events can and should be more intentional. Your association’s focus should be on bringing people together to catalyze a necessary conversation or to build momentum behind an idea. What is the menu that will help achieve that?