The Big Switch: Lessons Learned From Making our Conference Virtual

Yael Shapira, OLAM's Director of Network Engagement and Programs, shares her top 5 lessons learned from planning our first virtual Focal Point.

Like many things in 2020, OLAM’s annual Focal Point conference, the premier Jewish convening on global Jewish responsibility, was not how it was intended to be. In “The Before Times,” my team and I were in the process of organizing Focal Point as an in-person gathering to take place in June 2020 in New York. I was reviewing catering menus, negotiating with local hotels, and getting people from our network of 50+ Jewish and Israeli global service, international development, and humanitarian aid organizations excited to book their tickets to join us from over 7 countries.

And then came the pandemic.

Plans had to be changed, conversation topics shifted, and local travel and health restrictions taken into account. Our well-laid plans were upended and the in-person June gathering became an October virtual one. But, like many things in 2020, silver linings were abound.

Now that I’m on the other side of the virtual conference, not only can I catch up on sleep, but I am proud of what my team accomplished: a highly professional gathering that fostered intimacy, learning, and connection and combined compelling content with (almost!) seamless technology. It was our largest most diverse Focal Point yet, with over 275 participants from 17 countries.

In the hopes that my experience can be of use to others, here are my top 5 lessons learned from planning a virtual conference.

1. The Event Is Only as Successful as Its Team

OLAM has a lean staff of 5 people, so there was a limit to what we were able to undertake. As we started to understand the complexity of what goes on behind the scenes of a virtual conference, we decided to bring onboard consultants and support staff with the necessary expertise to help us tackle various technical pieces and allow our team to focus on the content:

  • An event planning team – Among other things, their role was to research and recommend virtual platforms, understand and explain the ins and outs of Zoom, liaise with web developers and the producer, develop a timeline and to do list, while guiding us on the latest trends and best practices in virtual programming.
  • A producer – His role was to create a polished and seamless look to our plenary sessions, which were broadcast simultaneously on Facebook Live. He designed the Zoom meeting with our logo and brand colors, added titles to speakers, incorporated pre-recorded pieces so that they integrated with the live material, and spotlighted speakers according to a session script that we provided.
  • Tech leads assigned to breakout sessions – Each Tech Lead was in charge of recording the session, spotlighting speakers, muting/unmuting participants, sharing presentations, taking screenshots, monitoring the Chat, and much more. It’s important that this is a separate role, not taken by the session’s moderator or speaker. An added bonus was that we hired young professionals looking to commence a career in international development, so joining our staff allowed them to take part in the conference and expand their network.

2. Choose the Right Platform

2020 has been the heyday of the virtual platform industry and companies are becoming more competitive with their offerings and continuously upgrading their products. When thinking about the right platform for your event, some important things to consider are:

  • Do they offer personalized customer service? Having a designated point person adds greatly to the process of jointly developing the platform and understanding how to best utilize their features.
  • Do they stream video directly through the platform or is there a need to embed a streaming service?
  • Can they share examples of previous events so that you can show them what you like and what you don’t?
  • Do they offer features that will allow you to meet your goals, such as direct messaging options for attendees to enhance network or gamification options to bring in fun elements?

3. Mix of Modalities

“Zoom fatigue” is real. In response, it’s important to set expectations and provide an engaging agenda.

We adapted a number of our in-person modalities, such as small networking groups in breakout rooms, Open Space Technology, regional virtual happy hours, participatory workshops, and live polling (using Mentimeter). We found that the diversity of modalities kept people engaged and awake (not an easy feat, considering the conference ran until 10pm in Israel time).

4. Consistency of MCs

Having a consistent MC (Master of Ceremonies) throughout the conference – to introduce and conclude sessions and share useful announcements and logistics – adds cohesion to a virtual gathering and propels its educational arc. An MC can be a staff member or someone else (preferably from your community or network) and they should have good stage presence and the ability to pivot and improvise, if needed. For example, if a technical issue arises and there are suddenly five minutes of airtime to fill, the MC can comfortably lead an activity or ask the audience a question.

At Focal Point, two of OLAM’s staff members shared the role of MC, using a detailed script that made their role simple and straightforward at the time of the conference. Much of what they said was amplified through written announcements that we pushed out through the virtual platform.

5. Added Value

Hosting our conference online provided us with new ways to engage and enhance our community. When planning your virtual gathering, consider the following:

  • Are there people in your community who might not otherwise be able to join an in-person gathering who can join virtually? Without a limitation of physical space, how can you broaden participant attendance?
  • How can you create more diversity by bringing in new voices that are not normally spotlighted?
  • Which high caliber speakers can you invite, now that the potential barrier of geography and travel logistics has been removed?

Much of what goes on behind the scenes of a virtual conference is technical, but attitude is just as important. If you and your team view the in-person to online shift as an opportunity rather than a setback, and you communicate this to your community members at all stages – from the Save The Date to the post-conference survey – you too are likely to have an impactful and successful event.

Yael Shapira is the Director of Network Engagement and Programs at OLAM