We have run a traditional Landlord Law Conference every year since 2013 and in January of this year, we had no reason to think that 2020 would be any different.
The hotel had been booked since the previous June and we already had in the region of 50 ‘early bird’ bookings.
Then came coronavirus.
By the end of February, I was seriously concerned about our ability to run a Conference and by early March it was clear to me that a traditional conference was impossible.
However, I did not want to cancel it completely. And, it occurred to me, there was no need to do so. I had already invested in some ‘summit’ software for another event that had not gone forward. Maybe we could use that?
I would need to investigate.
Considering a Virtual Conference
The software I had bought into was called Hey Summit (affiliate link). It looked pretty good. The Hey Summit software could:
- Run the conference – all the talks would be delivered via the software, and they would deal with managing attendees logins, email notifications and all the rest of it. Automatically.
- Link to pre-recorded talks so they would play automatically at the relevant time, and
- Link with webinar software for the live talks
- Allow me to import attendees into the system
A change of webinar software
For the live talks, we needed one of their approved webinar programs – which did not include GoToWebinar which we used at that time.
Having looked at all the alternatives I decided to go with Big Marker which, although more expensive than other options looked better and was actually cheaper than GoToWebinar.
So I duly signed up and have been using it ever since. It is not 100% perfect but on the whole, I am pretty pleased with it.
Changes to the Conference program
As many people had already paid for the Conference I was rather boxed in as to how I could charge for it. I decided to go for more value at the same price and therefore extended the conference to a two-day event, gave all the talks an extra 15 minutes for questions, added two extra Q&A sessions at the end and included some extra talks.
All our speakers were up for doing a virtual event – and I think quite excited at the prospect. The game was afoot!
Our main Conference sponsors are Hamiton Fraser and they were brilliant. Very supportive as always.
As they clearly could not be there in person we did a couple of promotional videos to play over the lunch break and they had a link to their website on all the conference pages and emails – which was hopefully helpful to them.
Our other exhibitors backed out – save for Hammock, the new landlord banking service. I did a recorded interview with them too which we played in one of our sponsor slots. This is now on YouTube here. It’s a very interesting service they offer so do watch it.
We also had a sponsors video from the NRLA and I did one for Landlord Law (the company behind the Conference!)
Making the change public
Having made the decision, booked the speakers, and cancelled the hotel booking, I then had to tell everyone.
Thankfully most people who had already booked came with us. Some decided to cancel and received a refund, and others opted to push their booking forward a year in the hope that we would have a traditional conference in 2021.
We also got quite a few bookings from people who would not have attended a live event as it was too far to travel which was nice.
Many people were, of course, upset that our traditional conference would not go ahead but there was nothing we could do about it. I was sorry too but you can’t argue with a pandemic!
Preparing for the Virtual Event
As I had zero experience with Hey Summit this meant extensive testing with my web developer Gill. We did quite a lot of testing in early March and then left things for a while as I went off on other projects (the Lockdown Learning project, our Legal Cases webinars etc).
Suddenly, as is the way of things, I realised that the Conference was just a couple of weeks away, so we had to do more testing. I was a bit worried about it, mainly because (apart from testing) I had never used Hey Summit properly and this was a big event for us.
Testing out Big Marker
I also needed to get all the speakers to do a test with the new Big Marker webinar software so they were familiar with it on the day.
I was glad I had!
I had planned to have everyone visible via webcams, at least in the Q&A, so people could see the speakers. However, it became clear with the testing that this was going to be impossible.
Some speakers, such as David Smith were OK (David has a new house with super fast broadband). However, some of the other speakers had less than satisfactory broadband which could not cope with running the system with the extra burden of the webcam – although their system managed perfectly well with just the PowerPoint presentation.
I decided therefore that apart from my initial welcome talk, all talks would be ‘behind’ a PowerPoint. I know that in our post Conference feedback some delegates said that they would have liked to have seen the speakers – this is the reason why that was not done.
On the day
And so the day (or days) came.
One of the problems with running the virtual Conference was that I had to be there all the time. Which in a way was very nice, but in another way was tiring and sometimes stressful.
Although there were only two main problems:
- One of the speakers (who had I think experienced connection issues) logged into the webinar room just 3 minutes before we were due to start. I won’t say who it was. But all the speakers had been asked to log in at least 15 minutes early. As the minutes ticked by, and I sat there like a lemon unable to do anything, I was desperately planning what I was to say if (as appeared increasingly likely) the speaker failed to show. It was such a relief when I saw them appear. And they did a really good talk too so alls well that ends well.
- Another one of the speakers, Justin Bates, got chucked out of the room half-way through and it took about 5 minutes before he got back in again. I’m sure he won’t mind me naming him as it was not his fault. But that was the only problem which was apparent to the viewers and everyone was very nice about it.
So the talks went well. I showed my face for my initial welcome talk as I thought that people should see at least one face. Which had, of course, necessitated some drastic cleaning and tidying of the area behind my desk – I am not a tidy woman as my family will testify.
I was a bit worried about the Q&A sessions but they went well (apart from some background noise) and we had some excellent discussions. So a good event.
Reflections in retrospect
It was definitely the right thing to do. We had some brilliant talks and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
The software worked beautifully. In fact, I have had people asking me about it so they can use it for their events (my affiliate link for Hey Summit is here).
Comments in our feedback survey were very positive and we had a Net Promoter Score of 76 which is pretty good.
So we will definitely be doing it again.
In fact, we may have to – as I have grave reservations as to whether a traditional conference in 2021 can go ahead if we still have social distancing (how can you get any atmosphere if everyone has to stand 2 meters apart?). So it’s a good thing our Virtual Conference worked so well.
I am quite excited about the possibilities for more online events and I suspect I will be using Hey Summit quite a bit over the coming months. It is the way of the future, no doubt about it.
So watch this space!