Hosting an event can easily cost companies thousands, even millions of dollars—and the bills rack up fast. There's the prices of renting space, equipment, seating, lighting, decorations, booths, and hiring caterers. There's travel. There's lodgings. Considering ditching it all and going virtual?

In addition to all of the costs associated with hosting hundreds of people in a physical space that can be eliminated, consider the benefits to your guests: All registered attendees, both domestic and foreign, can easily access your virtual event at no extra cost, saving thousands of dollars worth of travel expenses and hotel accommodations for international partners, employees, and clientele.

Virtual events also allow a potentially greater breadth of customization options. The only limitation to virtual events is your own imagination. The space can be big or small; simple or elaborate. Providers have created past virtual events that look like convention centers, malls, actual physical landmarks, and locations like London or New York. While customizing a virtual event isn't cheap—top providers charge anywhere from $50,000 to upwards of $70,000—it's certainly thousands of dollars cheaper than the traditional alternative.

The event's content can be instantaneously accessed again and again. Companies can keep events open to continually add new content to attract new users, and participants can return to an event to relive or download a specific speech or session.

Virtual events can maximize your company's event potential, in terms of connecting to and expanding your audience. Experts and service providers suggest four chief practices that they believe are absolutely integral to any company that wants to hold a successful virtual event.

Hosting a Virtual Event: Master Your Timeline

All events require a great deal of planning, and virtual events are no exception.

"Many companies say you can execute a virtual event in two weeks," says Denise Persson, CMO and vice president of of marketing at ON24, a virtual events company based in San Francisco. "From a delivery standpoint, that's certainly not the issue; the issue is that if you have a lot of content to gather prior to the event. You might prerecord content, you need to promote your event, and you need to sell sponsorships. Those are the things you need to consider before you start planning."

Experts suggest for mid-sized events, leaving yourself a base timeframe of 16 to 20 weeks, depending on your experience with event planning. But there's no hard-and-fast rule here: If you want to involve sponsors, speakers, and stakeholders, consider allocating even more time. Most virtual event providers recommend about three-to-four months to plan for experienced companies, and about five-to-seven months for those businesses new to virtual events.

"Many companies have their ongoing sponsorship programs that always look the same, they know what's working for them in terms of driving attendance to the event, so for them it's very much of a process," Persson says. "But if it's your first time, really make sure you have enough time."

Keep in close contact with those in your team working on your event, and be sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities in concurrence with your timeline. If you're enlisting a virtual events company, don't worry about the webcaster; planning on the producer's part takes very little time.

Hosting a Virtual Event: Go Heavy on the Marketing

"One of the differences between the physical event and the virtual event is that when you book for the physical event, you buy your airplane ticket and you buy your hotel. So the odds are, you're not going to forget it's on a certain date," says Malcolm Lotzof, co-founder and CEO of InXpo, a virtual events provider based in Chicago. "With a virtual event, you don't buy anything: You don't buy tickets, you don't buy a hotel... You better mark it off on your calendar."

Without these extra commitments, heavy promotion is absolutely crucial to a successful virtual event. Letting people know the event is on is two-fold: Get people to register, and then convert your registered crowd into attendees.

Once the event draws close, keep in regular contact with your sponsors and attendees.

"Typically, you'll send out at least three reminders," says Phil Friedman, CEO of CGS Virtual Events 365, a virtual events production company based in New York City. "Send one a week prior to the event, a second reminder a day prior to the event, and a reminder the morning of the event, and then during the day of the event."

Consider, and use, all of the digital tools available: direct mail, online posting, newsletters, and social media tools are all at your disposal.

"At the end of the day, the virtual event is an online digital media event, so any digital media technologies that you can use would be good because the people that are going to come are usually people who have some connection to digital media marketing and advertising programs," Lotzof says.

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Hosting a Virtual Event: Design in Specifics

The most outstanding virtual events take advantage of the various tools unique to the platform. However, when designing your event, don't include features for the sake of including them. If they don't have a function, leave them out. Always be cognizant about how you want your customers to interact in the space.

"It has to be attractive, well designed, easy to use, intuitive—all of those things we're so used to in playing games and gaming and so forth," Friedman says. "You also want to engage the participants: You can design interactive games, you can create want to make sure that your participants are engaged and that they spend as much time as possible on the site."

Typically, providers give the customers plenty of self-service tools to customize the look and feel of the virtual event to their liking. However, with so many different ways to run your virtual event, you might get a little overzealous with your features. Fight the urge to include potentially distracting features—as cool as disco balls are—if they don't work for your event.

"Less is more," Lotzof says. "The more you focus on specific content, the better it is. We've had events where we've had 300 exhibitors, and the quality of 300 exhibitors' booths cannot be the same as the quality of 10 exhibitors' booths if you really put the effort into those 10 exhibitors."

Lastly, be sure to vary your offerings. Balance some educational booths with some fun games, and continue to mix up video and audio components to give your attendees some variety.

"The content has to be very well designed so it's engaging and educational," Friedman says. "Every small detail needs to be addressed, not unlike a physical event."

Hosting a Virtual Event: Focus on the Live Content

The live and impromptu nature of live events still holds an advantage over virtual events. If the speaker delivers a perfectly inspirational speech, or if the speaker accidentally falls off the stage, the unexpected nature of physical events is what makes them memorable, meaningful, and worth returning to.

"The best content created in the world at an event is created at a physical event," Lotzof says. "If we have the ability to attach our virtual component to a physical event, we get to benefit from all that content that gets created, and the physical event gets the benefit of reaching hundreds of times of more people."

These events that blend live and virtual elements are called hybrid events, and most virtual event providers are reporting increased popularity and success with these events. For example, companies are embedding live speakers and roundtable discussions into their virtual worlds via green screen.

"It just makes the user experience a little more immersive, a little more interesting visually," says Tricia Heinrich, the senior director of strategic communications at ON24.

With the ability to seamlessly integrate videos of people and places into your virtual event, most providers encourage companies to use as much video as possible. Live video is by far most engaging tool for participants, so if you plan on making a statement, go buy a camera, a green screen, and get to work.

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