I'm Miia Newman, Healthcare Innovation Consultant and Event Planner; these are my thoughts on Re-Eventing the Wheel
The 'Re-Eventing the Wheel' Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry.
Tell me about yourself & your background in the meetings & events industry.
I am a healthcare innovation consultant at Atlas Research in Washington D.C. My background is in hospital operations and process improvements. Part of our overarching portfolio is hosting 3 large events: a healthcare innovation conference, a project management and change management training, and an event to build a business case for promising practices in healthcare. Our first event was in October 2020, and we have been prepping since April to make the event completely virtual.
From your perspective, describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.
From a healthcare perspective, our top priority is safety in order to have these conferences and events, which makes sense because our primary client is in public health. We are trying to meet the expectations and the needs of these conferences and events while still doing it safely, but we are still working on what a virtual conference is going to be. You want it to be fun while also maintaining the networking aspect of it. We wanted to make our event as interactive as possible while still holding the event virtually.
How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?
We started planning the next event literally the day after the event happened in October 2019, but a lot of things got scrapped when COVID-19 hit. We had to rethink the entire experience. Last year we had 400 people in a small room in DC; you obviously can’t do that now. How do you engage people when you don’t have their attention in the room? We looked at apps that still gave the feel that people can interact with each other, and finding that platform for the October event started in April/May. One question we had though, was what are the little things you can do to create excitement and hype if people are sitting behind their screen? So we had a full virtual experience for participants but did the pre-recording in a studio for our speakers. We did a host/guide of the event by filming rapport and keynote addresses that we could play for participants and intersperse with people live on a web-conferencing platform.
It took a while, but we landed on what our "must-haves" were for the conference: "face-to-face" contact (everyone has to have their camera screens on), different apps for networking (the main thing I feel is lacking in a totally virtual environment), and making sure there’s dedicated time to have people connect and get to know each other.
What technologies do you see emerging from this?
We’ve been using an event app to host events. If you’re looking at a keynote address and you shake your phone, it pops up with others who were shaking their phone and then you can connect with them. The chat feature on the side of the screen is the most important thing you can have in a virtual event (the chat needs to be seen!). We’ve had text chat basically since the inception of the internet and it’s finally being utilized to its fullest potential. Even in a live event, we should have that chat feature on our phones. You have realtime feedback about the topic while it’s still in your mind.
If you had a technology wish list, what would it be?
A chat feature! I’m really on the networking kick; I don’t think it’s realistic to ask someone to sit down for 6 hours and listen to someone talk. You need to engage in an event, not just watch. Gamification was a big portion of the last platform we used. We need to be investing more in user engagement and keeping people’s eyes glued to what’s happening.
Gamification: we had keynote speakers, exhibitors, demos - throughout each of those, a code would be hidden. You’d see it flash on the screen while someone was giving a presentation, and you’d go to the games tab in the events space and put the code in. We had 200 codes in people’s bios, within presentations, if you zoom chatted with people you got a code - it went over really well! It kept people listening. Included a list of tasks for them to do - guided by questions.
What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?
Reach a broader audience: You don’t have to be free for a full 3-day conference, nor do you have to fly anywhere. Plus, it doesn't have to interrupt your life, so a lot of our clients just joined when they could.
Flexibility: You can have way more people attend. Last year we had 300 people attend and this year we had 1,000 people register. We’re in healthcare innovation, so we really wanted more people to see this and it worked!
Content control: You can work with your presenters to get their presentation however they’d like it.
Easier to schedule: Everything is recorded very nicely. A lot of people went into the event space afterwards and re-watched videos and saved them. Everything is in one space!
Face-to-face interaction: Not having 400 people to chat with in a room is disappointing. There are ways to work around it but you probably have to work a little bit harder. You have to be more outgoing virtually - you can’t bump into someone. You have to schedule time to meet with someone and it feels less organic.
How do you see this affecting the attendee experience?
Some people loved virtual more than an in-person conference. It does accommodate whatever your lifestyle may be. We’ve been doing the conferences as half-day conferences to accommodate those in the West Coast.
Can you share some insights around hybrid events?
IEX was the conference in October. It had all participants fully remote, but the only hybrid part of it was a small Atlas team in the office checking in with all the different components. We had some live sessions that were recorded in a studio with the leadership of VHA. We also had some pre-recorded sessions. We have two other events moving forward that are 100% virtual, and we are very focused on safety.
How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?
We’ve always had a little bit of a virtual component to our live events (apps, Youtube livestreams, etc.). So naturally, we were a little more prepared for this. Day-of-event operations now is just having a task lead for each of the different components of the conference and having them be on the computer to make sure nothing crazy happens. Someone on your team is always in direct contact with the producing team. Being virtual is so much easier to do now!
When do you think in-person events will start up again?
We’re pretty much foresee events being virtual at least until April. October may be virtual again too. If we do invite people, it would be a very small core group.
How do you see travel impacting this?
We very strictly adhere to the state travel guidelines - even for recordings. We will stick to that until anything has changed. We operated by the headline test: if you don’t want to see it on the front of a newspaper, then you shouldn’t do it.
How do you see the events industry evolving from this?
The industry as a whole has gotten creative. We were definitely in panic mode at the beginning but now that we’ve done something - the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive and in some cases, better than in-person events. You can have people from all over the world without travel. I think a virtual component in the events space is here to stay and it’s a good thing. It makes it a more inclusive experience.
What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?
Inclusivity! We really did take the opportunity to have people speak who normally wouldn’t be able to. We got Mark Cuban to speak at our event! One of our activities was “shark tank” - we had people pitch and people bid money and resources to make it happen. You can have fun: big names say hello and blip off. We were just thinking of creative ways to generate some hype. We had a talkshow vibe going on throughout the whole conference. We had an external quippy person guiding people throughout the whole experience. Being fun is a good opportunity.
The "Re-Eventing the Wheel" Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry. Have someone you'd like to see featured or some ideas on questions we should ask? Please email Nicole.