Virtual large events

How large events also succeed in virtual space

Johannes, you've been organizing large events for many years, sometimes with hundreds of participants. What was your first thought when you said last year that from now on it would be digital only?

The first thing I thought about was the events we had already planned at the time and wondered how we would manage to move our formats completely into the virtual space in such a short time. This meant that we - and our customers as well - had to try something completely new. At the same time, the question arose as to whether we could do more than the online meeting platforms we had been familiar with up to that point, and how we could create a comparable atmosphere in the digital space.

How do you create the atmosphere of a large event and not leave anyone behind when everyone is connected from their home office?

First of all, it's important to note: There is no guarantee that you will reach everyone sitting at home in the home office. At analog events, bringing many people along is often a challenge enough, but there you get the ongoing, even non-verbal feedback very precisely and can intervene at short notice in case of doubt. This is only possible to a limited extent at an online event, and that's something you have to work with. Nevertheless, there are many elements that you can use to create an atmosphere in which people get involved in the event and, if possible, stay with it.

What would that be, for example?

You need attractive environments where people can meet each other even in virtual space. At a large conference we organized for executives, participants:inside were able to check into virtual rooms and exchange ideas at booths with a 3D look. As support, well-functioning and emotional imagery is very important, as well as the possibility for feedback in between and discussions in changing settings. You have to be very careful that there is not too much music coming from the front, because otherwise participants check out internally. I believe that this "keep participating" is a recipe for ensuring that no one gets the idea of falling asleep or getting bored in the first place.

How do you get so many people involved online?

There are many examples. With large discussion groups, for example, you collect questions in a chat. Ongoing prioritization of these questions with all participants and good moderation help to create a lot of interaction and transparency for everyone. Well set-up breakout sessions can enable participation at eye level. The targeted integration of "self-made" by the participants, such as personal statements via cell phone clips, photos, etc., also support a lively, participatory atmosphere - more bottom-up components in the event concepts create a different feeling of being included.

Technology is of course central to virtual events. What are your experiences here?

We can come up with the most amazing concepts, but without functioning technology that gives everyone access, it doesn't do us any good. That means we have to clarify a lot of things in advance. This starts with the question of which technical requirements the participants have on their computers and which programs and tools may be used at all by customers, data security, ergonomics, and so on. I'm really no IT expert, but these are topics that are best dealt with early on and the necessary experts are involved in good time - especially on the customer side. At the same time, the inertia of large organizations becomes apparent here: The new technical possibilities and the desire for innovative formats on the one hand, and the often laborious, coordination-intensive and time-consuming process leading up to the approved use of new tools and digital platforms on the other, is an area of tension in which we all have to move smoothly.

Are there any methods that have proven particularly successful in recent months?

It's important to keep offering quick, inspiring shifts in perspective and changing conversation settings. Another exciting method is hybrid events, where, for example, top management is streamed live from a studio and the other participants can join in the discussion through moderated live feeds into the studio. This and the use of telephone jokers etc. provide an exciting counterpoint to the rather sober interfaces of the usual video conferencing tools. It is and will remain just as important to include room for playful elements in such events.

How do you incorporate playful elements?

We have long had good experience with integrating theater into our events, for example. In virtual space, we are now developing and testing innovative formats together with actors and other creative people. Last year, we involved the participants of a conference online in the development of scenes. The actors were streamed live from a theater studio and acted out scenes from the company's day-to-day management. The executives portrayed in the scenes repeatedly found themselves in challenging situations where they had to make quick decisions and act as role models. So how courageously do they decide in a situation: option A, B or C and what happens then? We made these decisions with 250 participant:s in real time, using an online tool to vote on which direction the scene should take. This provides an illuminating snapshot of the prevailing mindsets of the participants. An incredibly exciting format for interaction along leadership themes. Such interventions are especially helpful when working on leadership culture and definitely possible online.

What are the most important learnings for you that you have gained in the past year?

One of the main learnings was to see that people are open and willing to engage in the adventure of virtual events - you just have to bring them along well. What we all had to learn quickly at the beginning: you can't simply translate from analog to digital. The virtual space does not offer a classic stage/audience situation or a physically playable space. We now have to think much more from the user's perspective and ask ourselves how they feel during an event when they are sitting in their home office. Tension arcs have to be much shorter in the virtual space, and this also changes the entire dramaturgy of the event.

Another learning is that the possibilities to react in the process are very limited at a digital event. You have to think a lot in advance. Overall, the preparation effort for digital events tends to be higher, because the technical part alone adds many topics. That is quickly underestimated. And another aspect is dealing with the unexpected, with breakdowns, bad luck and mishaps. Such things can always happen in such highly complex settings, despite all the planning. You should play this openly and stand by it. Stay calm and the end, something always works out!

How do you look at the year 2021?

We are all still in a pioneering phase in terms of large-scale virtual events. I think we'll still be trying out a lot of things. Not only are the technical possibilities developing rapidly, but many new creative formats are also emerging, and I'm looking at that with fascination. Of course, we would like to be able to host physical events again soon, and we feel that with our customers as well. But we all know that large events will no longer be the same as they were before Covid-19. As with every change, new opportunities will open up here as well, when one or the other event is reorganized in the future.

If you'd like to learn more about large-scale digital events, feel free to download our case, schedule a meeting via our contact form, or speak directly with our consultant:


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Johannes Antz
Senior Consultant
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