Lesson Learned from Arranging an Online Conference

Hunts Forum’s Deputy CEO Kathryn Shepherson shares her experience of organising the Connecting Communities Festival of Ideas in the midst of a lockdown.

The festival content is available here.

When I joined Hunts Forum in February 2020, plans were already underway for a countywide volunteer conference on 24 June. The themes, venue and refreshments were organised, and the first meeting I attended was around promotion and getting people to turn up. Then something happened.

The UK went into lockdown and everything went out the window, including plans for the conference. As part of this new world of online chats, meetings and webinars, we all got very used to looking at a screen all day. It became clear to me that we could still go ahead with the conference, but the idea of a day-long event was not feasible in this new way of working. Instead, we took a one-day event and stretched across a week, with one-hour nuggets of information on each day. That way, people could choose which parts they attended and hopefully allowed people with different work patterns to access at least some of the conference.

Picking a platform

My colleague Keith and I had a long conversation about which software platform we should use to run the online events. We went with Zoom because it had the features we needed, and it had worked well for our internal team meetings. There is an extra charge for Zoom’s webinar package, which could be an issue for some organisations, but we kept our costs down by just paying for it for a month. We managed to take it for a test drive with a smaller event we hosted in the run-up.

It was important to me that each day of the conference used a slightly different format. They were all online but we varied how the viewer watched and interacted with the hosts. The first was an interview format followed by questions from the audience. The second was a presentation with slides, followed by questions. We had one speaker who pre-recorded her training and appeared at the end to answer questions. This session also came with a PDF handout before the event. Finally, there was a networking event where the themes and ideas from throughout the week could be discussed and applied to Cambridgeshire. I would use all these formats again – they all had their pros and cons.

Keeping it simple

Big events require lots of admin, and it’s no different online. I would advise against using a mixture of software platforms, as this complicates things for both the organisers and the attendees. Online events involve lots of calendar requests, reminders and links to videoconferencing rooms, and it’s much easier if they’re all sent from the same place. I had nightmares about sending a wrong link and no one turning up on the day!

For our practice event, we used Zoom for everything: the booking system, sending out reminders, the event itself and recording it. For the main conference, we used Eventbrite as the booking system only, then Zoom as the event and recording platform.

Technology is only as good as the people using it

This was the next steep learning curve. The events went well apart from a few hiccups, all of which were down to our knowledge of the system and remembering our lists of jobs. This included giving the speaker permission to enter the event and pressing the record button. However, all issues were rectified quickly.

We recorded all the events onto the Zoom platform, which meant we could top and tail the videos and embed them on our website. We also downloaded the original video files so we had copies for future reference. This worked well.

Zoom includes the option to record webinars and discussions – useful for making the content available afterwards.

Make a strong start

Everyone’s computer and Wi-Fi connection is different, and people started to log into our events from about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to start. It might be an idea to do a register before the official start time so people are not still turning up during the first few minutes of your event. In future I will have a holding screen that welcomes people and says when the event is going to start.

Make the most of what you have

I would use the webinar function of Zoom again but I would ensure that we made the most of the system. Features such as Polls, Q&A and Chat make the event more interactive and engaging. It’s also important to explain at the start what each button does and how attendees interact with it.

From the feedback we received, the one thing people missed was networking. One solution might be to encourage attendees to use the chat function to interact with others. It might also be useful to encourage everyone watching to introduce themselves to the group.

Overall, I enjoyed planning and running this new type of event. I learnt a lot along the way and have ideas on how to improve things further. I do believe this what events will look like in future, making them more accessible but also cheaper to run.

The Connecting Communities Festival of Ideas is available to watch here.