As large-scale gatherings continue to present logistical and public-health challenges, more and more events are going virtual – including conferences. While this has caused massive losses for many companies, there are also opportunities if you seize them. One report showed that 86% of attendees of online meetings reported higher engagement than in-person experiences. Note also that travelers are wary, with 15% of respondents to one survey reporting that they would not travel even after all restrictions are lifted, so preparing for a future of virtual conferences should begin now even if you haven’t registered for any upcoming virtual events.
Recently, Ivy Exec Co-Founder and Vice President Alex Baranpuria and Senior Strategic Development Officer Lauren Lorenzo attended the Graduate Management Education Conference. We sat down with them to find out what advice and insights they have to offer to virtual conference attendees to ensure that you get the most value out of your time. Here are their top tips.
1. Be over-prepared
Dropping into a booth, or having visitors drop into your booth on a virtual platform is significantly less dynamic than it would be having people drift in and out of an area in-person. Because of the more forced nature of interactions (you and a potential customer might be the only two in a Zoom room for your “booth”!) it’s essential to be over-prepared for any scenario. Furthermore, due to the nature of video chats, where conversations can drag on a bit and it’s harder to get “pulled away” organically, your interactions will be longer and more in-depth. Before the conference, have a planning session with your team to better understand who you may meet, what your goals are for different interactions, and what you want to get out of the conference. At the same time, plan your schedule carefully to make sure that you’re able to get the time you need in different sessions, events and booths.
2. Plan to attend smaller-scale sessions
Alex and Lauren both recalled that one of the most rewarding and enriching aspects of the conference they attended was the smaller breakout rooms that were offered which hosted 5-10 people at a time. In these small groups, people were more able to share their experiences and expertise without those awkward video-chat moments that can occur when you have 50+ people on a call trying to interact. Additionally, these sessions also often have a structured topic of focus making the experience even smoother. If your conference offers these breakout sessions, you can strategically plan which ones you will attend, or even host, to make sure that you enjoy high-quality interactions and exchanges with other attendees.
3. Utilize conference apps or other portals
Many conferences that have gone virtual offer supplementary technology to help participants round out their experience and explore the conference offerings more easily. In this case, the conference had an accompanying app which included the ability to message and interact with other attendees. Take advantage of these programs to get your work and your brand out there, just as you would if you were walking a conference floor and networking in-person. If your conference makes it easy to see who is attending and connect with them, take the opportunity to reach out either in-app or by email to establish new connections, set time for virtual “coffees” and interact with new people as much as possible. This is a much more effective way to conduct outreach than sending cold messages either before, or even after the conference.
4. Consider your appearance
You might wear a suit and tie to a normal conference, but it looks a bit strange to appear in your video chat in a home environment in formal office-wear. Dress smartly and professionally, but in a way that doesn’t seem awkward in a home office setting. For men, this may mean a button down without a tie or jacket, and for women it may mean a simple blouse. Alex and Lauren suggest that the keywords when choosing your outfit should be “professional” and “approachable”.
Your appearance at a virtual conference isn’t just what you wear. Take the time to assess your environment’s appearance as well. If you can create a neat background that is as uncluttered as possible, you’re already in good shape. If you’re able, you can take the extra step of setting up some additional lighting (always from the front, behind your camera, never from the back) and ensuring your sound set-up is high-quality and clear. Always be aware of whether or not your mic is muted, and if your sound is on you should never have a side conversation during a session or call. Remember, you are representing yourself and your business, so make a good impression. Finally, when you are on a call, focus on that experience. If you’re using your phone off-camera, or distracted by things in your home, it will show and it will reflect poorly on you.
5. Be authentic!
Attending a virtual conference is a new experience, and a strange one. It’s ok to acknowledge this in your conversations with other attendees! In fact, the more genuine you can be about the unique circumstances, while still maintaining your professionalism, the easier it will be to build authentic connections that go beyond the conference dates. Communicate about what you miss from traditional conferences, but also the opportunities you see in this platform. You may not be able to connect as many people as usual, but there is also the potential for those connections you do form to be stronger.
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