Attendee video chats and automatic language translation were tipping points in moving an annual show for wedding videographers online.
For most of its history, WEVA EXPO, the annual conference and exposition for members of the international Wedding and Event Videographers Association (WEVA), rotated among high-profile U.S. destinations, including Las Vegas and Orlando.
But in 2011, its address was a URL—the 21st annual WEVA EXPO was held entirely online. For two days, from Oct. 5–6, WEVA presented live-streamed keynotes and 30 prerecorded conference sessions, along with virtual networking, a live video-editing competition - “The Battle of the Videographers” - and an online exhibit hall where participants interacted with exhibitors via live video. After Oct. 6, the event website remained open until the end of December, allowing visitors access to all the education sessions as well to exhibitors.
Found in Translation
After two decades in physical locations, WEVA Chairman Roy Chapman decided to move the event to an online-only format for a number of reasons— not the least of which was the fact that the association’s members are all in the video business. The online environment is even more demanding when it comes to engaging attendees, he said, and WEVA’s speakers and members know how to make video visually stimulating. “Our members are artists,” Chapman said. “They are all very concerned about the quality of the presentations.”
A virtual-only conference also made sense because it eliminated travel and lodging costs for WEVA members, many of whom are international. Plus, most members are independent business owners who pay travel and lodging expenses themselves, and over the last few years were finding it difficult to absorb the lost revenue from taking time away from work. “The economy hit our industry hard, ”Chapman said, with many members taking on second jobs. The cumulative effect took a toll on attendance at WEVA EXPO.
But just as important as lingering economic realities are the very recent advances in teleconference platforms that make it possible for attendees to communicate online with other participants through video, rather than by text alone. It’s not the same as physical face-to-face interaction, Chapman said, “but it’s close.” During the 2011 WEVA EXPO, speakers participated in live question-and-answer sessions, and video chat rooms allowed multiple attendees to gather at one time to talk.
Another deciding factor in taking WEVA EXPO virtual had to do with translation. By presenting prerecorded conference sessions online, WEVA could translate key programs into Spanish or English and add captioning. The online platform also offered attendees the option of using instant language translation to send messages; they could type comments in Spanish and have them appear in English, and vice versa. Using in-person translators in the sessions would have been prohibitively expensive, according to Chapman, who intends to add text-translation services in 18 languages for the association’s next online conference.
The Virtual Planner
Linda Elland, president ofA2Zmeetings in Sarasota, Fla., has worked as a planner for both versions of WEVA EXPO - online and face-to-face. As she prepared for the virtual event in October, so much had dropped from her to-do list - everything from dealing with speaker flight delays, to food-and-beverage functions, to setting up and tearing down rooms—she wondered if there would be any responsibilities left for her during the event.
Were there ever. “Oh boy,” Elland said. “I spent just as much time coordinating and wrangling everybody as a virtual planner as I did on-site. Even though I was not running from room to room to room, I had three different computers open the whole time, plus I was texting, and talking on the telephone and by Skype.”
On the planning side, preparation and attention to logistical details were just as critical. “I would not tell a novice planner to go into something [as complicated as this],” Elland said. “You have to know what happens on land in order to know what some of the outcomes could be.” Good communication skills were, if anything, even more critical for the online event, because Elland was readying speakers in multiple time zones and working with some of them through a translator. She said: “The world clock is your friend.”
One meeting detail created a reaction from Elland, a nearly 30-year veteran of the meetings and hospitality industry, that was close to awe. When the text-translation technology—an envelope- pushing innovation—wasn’t ready in time, rather than proceed without the bilingual component, the entire event was postponed for three weeks. Normally, that would have created “utter chaos,” Elland said. “For the virtual event, we just made an announcement.”
There were things that Elland would have improved. For example, attendees would have profited from more orientation in using the new video-chat features. “Some people never did get the full value of the networking, because they didn’t get it,” she said. “There was so much going on.” Although she prefers face-to-face networking at a physical meeting, Elland said, “this platform really does allow for relationship-building.”
Chapman wouldn’t argue that attendees don’t prefer interacting in person. But the online event proved to be an affordable, accessible way for WEVA members to keep up with trends in the industry: Attendance tripled compared with the 2010WEVAEXPO. “This is not a replacement for an in-person show, ”Chapman said. But “you need to look at your own organization and ask yourself why people come to events and what motivates them.”
Take Away Wanted: Virtual Planners
After following developments in technology for many years, WEVA Chairman Roy Chapman jumped into virtual meetings with both feet at the 2011 WEVA EXPO. And he thinks that the meetings industry has just scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of virtual events. He’s keeping an eye on 3-D, he said, which “is coming on quickly and is going to change everything.”
One thing that is not going to change is the need for meeting planners, Chapman said. As virtual meetings - which are less expensive than physical-location meetings - become more technologically sophisticated, there will actually be an increased demand for meeting planners, because companies and organizations will add more meetings. And “there is no way you could do a show [like the 2011 WEVA EXPO] without a meeting planner,” Chapman said. “An online show is just as frenetic as one in a physical location.”
To learn more about WEVA EXPO, visit www.wevaexpo.com
. For results of a virtual-events survey, conducted by virtual-events technology company ON24, http://bit.ly/virtual-meetings
Barbara Palmer is a senior editor of Convene.