Should You Rethink Your Conference Schedule for the Virtual Environment?

Unlike face-to-face conferences, virtual events don’t need to be limited to a set amount of back-to-back days. Keeping that in mind may help you create a schedule that better meets your stakeholders’ needs.

As I wrote about the other week, virtual conferences require a different staffing structure. But there’s another structure that you may want to reconsider too: the conference schedule.

That’s because, unlike in-person meetings, virtual conferences don’t necessarily need to be confined to a certain amount of back-to-back, 12-hour days since travel is not required. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of creating a schedule that better suits attendee, speaker, exhibitor, and sponsor needs.

Here’s a look at some options:

Don’t start with a keynote. While in-person conferences typically commence with a keynote or other type of address, that might not be the best way to kick off a virtual event. Right now, many people are craving connection and talking to their peers. Knowing that, consider starting your virtual event with an opening breakfast where you put people in small groups to get to know each other.

Consider shorter days. If you’re expecting your attendees to sit in front of their computer screen for eight hours straight, think again. Zoom fatigue is real, and with most participating in your event from their remote office, having a daily schedule that’s only a few hours long is sure to appeal to them. For instance, how would it look if you reconfigured your two-and-a-half-day event into five half-days? Or you could have your event run over several weeks or even year-round, like the United Fresh Produce Association.

Limit the number of sessions in time blocks. While an in-person conference may have 10 or 15 sessions in every time block to ensure that there’s seating for everyone in meeting rooms, that’s not a consideration in the virtual environment. In fact, having too many sessions to choose from could leave attendees feeling overwhelmed. Instead, consider limiting each time block to three or four sessions.

Move traditional nighttime activities to the day. Networking happy hours, dinners, and evening receptions are staples of live events. But it could be hard to count on virtual attendees to want to participate outside of traditional office hours. Knowing that, think about offering this type of programming throughout the day. Could your evening awards program become a lunchtime reception?

In addition to these possible examples, I’d argue that, like in-person events, it’s important to include some quiet time or white space for attendees into your virtual event schedule. In fact, in today’s environment, attendees probably need more breaks to address family and household needs, get away from their screens and up from their chairs, and to grab a snack.

I appreciated this advice from the Omnipress blog on this same point: “In our experiences, we found that several virtual events featured ‘optional’ or ‘fun’ programming during break times. The problem with this is it makes attendees feel like they’re missing out on something they’ve paid for. Don’t make them make a choice, just give them the time they need. It’s okay to have some ‘white space’ on your agenda.”

How has your association reconfigured the conference schedule for its virtual events? Please share in the comments.

(Mark Kolpakov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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