Tips for Creating a Great Virtual Event Experience

By Jenna Tomasello and Victoria Cain

The COVID-19 pandemic has transitioned much of our world and our work from the office to online. But what happens when your work is grounded in wellness, healing, and, most importantly, human connection? The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) had to grapple with this question when it became clear that their Professional Training Program in Mind-Body Medicine could not take place in person. CMBM came to The Hatcher Group looking to transition their five-day training to an online format for the first time while maintaining the warmth and intimacy of their in-person events.

CMBM’s model is centered around evidence-based techniques for emotional well-being and community building. Over 5,000 clinicians, educators, and community leaders in the U.S. and around the globe have integrated CMBM’s model of self-care, self-awareness, and mutual support into health, mental health, education, and social welfare systems. From students in Broward County following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, to children in conflict-stricken Gaza, and U.S. troops and veterans suffering from PTSD, CMBM employs the largest, most effective program for healing population-wide psychological trauma.

As part of the five-day Professional Training Program, health and wellness professionals learn the fundamentals of mind-body medicine. They take part in supportive small group sessions capped at 10 people and led by trained faculty, and leave the training with a strong sense of community and connectedness. Our team was eager to help CMBM continue their important work by bringing their program to life online.

While the transition from in-person to virtual has its challenges, there are opportunities to make an event unique, engaging, and even more impactful. Here are a few tips – which we deployed in our work with CMBM – for successfully bringing in-person events online.

  1. Always keep attendees top of mind.Transitioning from in-person to online can never be an apples-to-apples experience, nor should it be. First and foremost, tailor the format and sequencing to meet the preferences and needs of the attendees. Consider what’s essential to keep from the in-person experience and modify it for a virtual environment. Perhaps condense the number of days or hours spent on live webinar sessions, incorporate more self-paced elements, such as pre-recorded videos, or create opportunities for small group breakout sessions to facilitate personal connection. Additionally, since virtual events require a lot of screen time, be sure to use high-quality, varied visuals, and incorporate interactive elements, including slides, videos, and poll questions to keep participants engaged.
  1. Don’t underestimate technical difficulties.Prepping speakers, testing technology, and ensuring everything is in place for smooth and successful execution is critically important for virtual events; in fact, even more so than for an in-person event. Be sure to schedule practice sessions with your speakers to review platform features, troubleshoot any technical issues, and practice their presentations in advance. It’s essential that your speakers join 15-30 minutes before their live session starts for a last-minute technology check and to test displaying any slides, videos, or music. Also, ensure all visuals and multimedia files are saved in a universally accessible folder to quickly pivot to a Plan B in the event of unforeseen technical difficulties after going live.
  1. Step-by-step guides take out the guesswork.Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what a virtual event will look like for a participant, speaker, or support staff until they experience it themselves. Developing training and user guides on the technology platform itself will help to orient all involved and reduce the number of questions and day-of issues.  Additionally, creating a run of show that outlines roles, responsibilities, and time commitments is critical to keep everyone organized and prepared to fulfill their distinct roles during the event.
  1. Build the right team.Compared to in-person events, virtual events often require more support staff for smooth execution because of the technology involved and the challenge of problem-solving remotely – you can’t run from room to room, putting out fires by yourself! Be sure to stack your team early by confirming staff time commitments and outlining responsibilities well in advance. Even if a few extra pairs of hands feel like overkill, it is better to have more support than not enough.CMBM’s first online Professional Training Program was a huge success, with nearly 200 professionals joining from all over the world. Because the event was available online, attendees from Venezuela to South Africa were able to attend, which would not have been possible had the event taken place in person. While a virtual event can’t achieve the same intimacy of an in-person gathering, there are ways to promote engagement and connection through careful event planning. We knew our collaboration with CMBM had successfully achieved the vision and goals for the event when, during the closing ceremony, faculty, staff, and participants switched on their video cameras to spend the final hour of training singing, crying, and expressing their deep gratitude for what they experienced together.
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