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COMMENTARY: How conference planners are trying to keep online events meaningful

An online high school prom in Baton Rouge, La.
An online high school prom in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Youth Coalition via AP

Working from home, in the midst of a pandemic, I’m not leaving the house often these days.

Yet for someone with nowhere to go, my social calendar is surprisingly full. From virtual family meets, virtual fitness classes, virtual DJ nights to virtual Sunday service too, there is a lot going on in my living room. My inbox is also full of invitations to a plethora of digital events over the summer, as life under lockdown lingers.

Countless events and festivals have been cancelled through the summer — with many now moving to virtual platforms. Some organizers are experimenting with virtual events for the first time and the learning curve will be steep.

READ MORE: Zoom fatigue? How to tell loved ones you don’t want to video chat

While there are certain aspects of in-person experiences that can’t be replicated in the digital space, virtual events also provide unique opportunities that can prove beneficial for businesses over the long haul. From breaking down geographical barriers and venue capacity limitations to creating connections that could translate into more meaningful in-person meetings down the road, there are definitely upsides to be found.

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But as we move to more virtual events, such as concerts, religious services and panels discussions, it’s important that we make accessibility a priority. The digital divide is real and those without internet access or updated software will be shut out of these growing digital communities. We mustn’t allow the elderly, people in low-income communities, particularly students, to be left behind as we forge forward with new ways to support one another virtually.

Zoom 101: How to host or join a videochat
Zoom 101: How to host or join a videochat

What makes for a meaningful virtual event, one that you’ll want to invest your time and hard-earned dollars into?

“Choosing an experienced and engaging host is critical to the success of any event — but particularly a virtual one,” says Priya Chopra, president and founder of 1Milk2Sugars Communications.

“Not only are hosts contending with — let’s face it, finicky — technologies, they’re often fielding live questions from the audience while MCing in real-time. It’s a lot to juggle.”   

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When it comes to a virtual event, the host not only has to be comfortable in front of an audience, speaking clearly and dynamically on the fly, but also know the subject matter and understand the technology or platform they’re using, Chopra says.

“In the end, it all comes down to energy,” Chopra adds. “If you and your team are excited about the event, believe in what you’re doing and put maximum effort into pulling it off, that energy and excitement will transcend through the screen.”

READ MORE: Zoom 101 — How to host or join a videochat

Authenticity, even in a virtual setting, is also important for creating a great experience.

For SheaMoisture, a brand rooted in the Black community, its eight-week Virtual Series holds particular significance.

“It is important to represent our community in everything we do because we face so much under-representation everywhere else,” says Abimbola Rafuah, associate brand manager of SheaMoisture.

She says there are many high achievers in the Black community in Canada, women who have built successful businesses, who are admired, and have embraced their natural hair.

“We want to bring these women to the forefront. We don’t want social distancing to compromise on this important dialogue. We want to provide a virtual platform that sheds light on these beautiful stories and heroes,” she says.

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“As a community, our hair is part of our identity, but there is so much more to celebrate ourselves, too. This is why you see a vast array of content in the Virtual Series, too — panel discussions, business skills, hair tutorials, women of colour stories, live DJ sets, and so much more.”

Coronavirus: The Canadian behind the viral hit @RateMySkypeRoom
Coronavirus: The Canadian behind the viral hit @RateMySkypeRoom

Chopra agrees and hopes we will see a much-needed shift as we delve deeper in the digital space. “The whole idea of panel discussions is to represent more than one point of view. Women of colour can offer such valuable perspective on the perseverance and ingenuity it takes to succeed in a society that still underestimates us.”

Angela Osborne and Taryn Herritt, co-founders of The Atelier, which organizes business conferences, say they initially resisted the pivot to virtual events. But once they shifted their mind-sets and re-imagining what a digital event could look like, they pulled out all the stops to ensure that their event would be an unparalleled experience and would provide actionable inspiration and empowerment for their community to rebuild with resilience for the second half of 2020.

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Focus and clarity are also key, for both organizers and attendees.

They say the goal and intention behind their upcoming event, The Atelier: Digital 2020, is for the audience to leave with an understanding of how consumer behaviour has changed, how to adjust business strategies, and how to adopt a refreshed mindset to tackle a hopefully soon, post-COVID-19 world.

READ MORE: More Canadians likely to shop, eat out than go to concerts, sports games in 2020: poll

Osborne and Herritt say it was absolutely essential for them to find a way to incorporate the memorable moments and interactive elements of their signature live event into this online conference.

“We still wanted to somehow activate the five senses, so for us one of the first decisions we made in planning The Atelier: Digital 2020 was incorporating a curated box to accompany our custom, virtual event venue,” they told me in an email.

“The Atelier Experience box truly enhances the virtual experience, as we’ve included gourmet snacks, a bottle of wine, coveted beauty products and a suite of wellness items, including some really special products from female-run small businesses.”

The idea resonated extremely well with their audience, and when tickets launched last week, the VIP ticket (which includes the Experience Box) sold out in two minutes.

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Coronavirus: Thousands of high school students participate in virtual prom
Coronavirus: Thousands of high school students participate in virtual prom

I think much of it comes down to how we, as participants, use this technology too. Research shows that passively scrolling through posts and viral videos generates different mental effects than actively interacting online, like messaging and commenting on posts and chatting in virtual sessions.

Just like in person, interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse.

We are finding creative new ways to move our real-world support systems, social gatherings and higher learning online.

Ironically, while the internet had once forced many people apart, this virus is forcing us to now use it to come together.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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