I'm no stranger to the events business. It's in my blood. During the past 30 years, I've been involved in organizing, producing, and keynoting thousands of events. I even built a technology platform and a broadcast studio that I've used for livestreaming virtual keynotes and live conferences since 2007.
That said, the impact of Covid-19 (coronavirus) on events is unlike anything I've seen in my experience. Health scares in the past, such as SARS, barely had an impact on events. This time, it's clearly different.
As recently as last week, HIMSS, the largest health care conference in the U.S, was canceled just days before it was scheduled to take place. In addition, SXSW canceled its annual event in Austin, Google canceled its I/O event, and Facebook did the same for its F8 developer event.
I can't tell you exactly how the trajectory of Covid-19 will impact your event. However, as the host, if you do cancel an event there are many options to take your it online.
The challenge in doing so isn't the technology available but rather that very few people really understand what it takes to pull off a virtual event. Many think of webinars and PowerPoint slides with a voice-over. Nothing is more mind-numbing. Worse yet, event planners will just prop people up in front of a camera with no training. At the other extreme, we've become so accustomed to seeing professionally made video on social media that we think producing a video event is as easy as hitting a button on Facebook Live. It's not.
But if you follow some basic rules, virtual events are not only possible but, in some ways, even more powerful than a real-world venue-based event.
Know the Technology
First, while it's tempting to say that you shouldn't let the technology decide what your event should look and feel like, the reality is that you need to understand the capabilities and limitations of current technology options. I've seen far too many people put together ideas for extravagant events just to realize that available technology won't support their vision.
The good news is that you can produce an online video event using basic off-the-shelf video equipment, hardware, and software. Look to software such as OBS, a free open source studio that works with popular streaming platforms such as Twitch, YouTube, DailyMotion, Facebook Live, and Dacast.
My personal favorite, which I've used for dozen of events, is Wirecast, a very powerful software-based studio with the ability to switch between multiple cameras and include excellent animations for under $500.
Lastly, don't skimp on the cameras and audio. Go with a professional video camera over one intended for webinars. This gives you control over the camera settings and framing shots.
Second, don't try to model your virtual event after a live event. Think outside the box. For example, rather than just having a presenter talking into a camera, what about having a mock small audience present and in the video frame? This provides the speaker with feedback, which may sound simple, but unless you spend your life speaking to cameras, not having a human to respond to feels and comes across as totally unnatural.
Your keynotes are the cornerstone of your event. They set its tone. Make sure that speakers are comfortable in front of a camera and that they have done this before.
Third, get a full-stack video director who has done this before and can take responsibility for every aspect of the broadcast. A great director will make all the difference. He or she will coordinate every aspect of the broadcast, from prepping the speakers and making them feel comfortable on camera, to managing the many moving technical pieces of a virtual event, to ensuring the quality of the broadcast.
Having been part of dozens of virtual events, I couldn't begin to list all of the pieces that need to be adequately juggled to make an event come off smoothly. Having one person responsible for the full stack of technology and logistics is absolutely essential.
Of course, there's much more, but if you follow these three pieces of advice you'll have a solid foundation in place. Although the coronavirus will naturally run its course, virtual events won't go away. This may even be a tipping point for the transition to more effective online events as a natural complement to venue-based events. Whatever the case, you'll be making a solid investment in an asset that will inevitably be part of the event landscape going forward.