When moving their events online, many organizers focus much of their time on choosing the right platform. That’s important, said Cindy Airhart, CAE, senior director, meetings and travel, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but equally important is setting a high bar for the event’s production values.
Convene Zoom chatted with Airhart and Joe Faulder, director of creative and strategy at Projection, AAP’s longtime AV and production partner for its 2020 Virtual National Conference & Exhibition, to learn how they — along with Jared Cohen, AAP’s director of national conference and exhibition, whom Airhart credits as being the event’s main architect — made production a priority when designing AAP’s first-ever digital event, Oct. 2-5. Here they share the initiatives that made the inaugural event a success.
Consider all factors when pricing registration. Held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday through Monday, the virtual program was a day shorter than the in-person event but offered the same number of CME credits (42). The in-person registration fee is $600; registration for the virtual event was priced at approximately half of that. “This is a hard time financially for a lot of people and we knew that the content had value,” Airhart said. “We didn’t want to lower it to a complimentary event — and it paid off.” The virtual format and reduced registration cost provided access to more new members, Airhart said, and attracted more international attendees and non-members. Professional attendance for the online event increased 52 percent from 9,671 in 2019 to 14,700 for the virtual event. The virtual event also attracted 21 percent international attendees, 1,100 more than the prior year.
The right moderators make all the difference. In a virtual event, “it’s still important to have a really strong opener, to make sure it feels live,” Airhart said. “Until we went live, I didn’t realize how vibrant it would be with the right moderators. They were able to connect with the audience through the screen and the audience was able to chat and send their good energy through the discussion board. It really made it feel like we were gathering together and connecting in a time that we don’t feel very connected.”
AAP’s virtual event emcees were pediatricians David Hill and Joanna Parga-Belinkie, hosts of the popular podcast, Pediatrics on Call. The two launched the program with a comedic video (see below) showing Parga-Belinkie in pajamas eating breakfast at home with her husband and young children and getting ready to host the event, and Hill, who apparently didn’t get the message that the event was not being held on site as originally planned in San Diego, “showing up” at the convention center to find it empty. It set the right tone for rest of the event, Airhart said.
“Every live session had a moderator and their job was to monitor the Q&A and feed it back to the presenters, and there was a system for that,” Faulder said. Moderators were a mix of staff and volunteer leaders. “We had a huge team and a huge virtual help desk,” Faulder said. “People with different backgrounds and skills around the association who could answer a variety of questions. And they used Webex Teams as well — sort of a virtual walkie-talkie.
“I think that was something we did really well,” Faulder continued. “We all got onto Webex Teams two weeks before the live event and built rooms for product theaters and the expo hall, plenary, live education sessions, section councils, and the right people were in those rooms. It’s like Slack — you had constant feed of communication between all the planners. That was really important.”
Another “great thing about having a live moderator,” Airhart added, “is sometimes when the session is running, you can coach them: ‘Hey, say this. Hey, remind the audience of this.’”
Minimize your live presentations but allow for interaction. “When you try to do everything live, you’re leaving everything in the hands of the presenters, internet connections, and whatever technology they have — you can’t have somebody in their house coaching them every step of the way,” Faulder said. “So we had to pick what parts were live and what parts were prerecorded. Most, except one of our keynotes, were all prerecorded because the presenters were so VIP, but we worked really diligently with them on producing those recordings to make it feel like they were live — even small things like saying, ‘Thanks so much for that introduction, Cindy, let’s get into my talk.’ If you don’t include those little lines, it’s obvious that it has been prerecorded. The funny thing is, I don’t think anybody knew that they were prerecorded, and that’s what we wanted to achieve.”
There were five concurrent education sessions running at a time, about 60 to 70 percent of which were prerecorded. The presenters would come on live for Q&A sessions, and that’s “where you’d get the engagement and interaction,” Faulder said. Plenary sessions didn’t feature Q&A sessions, “but we had the live chat, which was so important,” he said. “It was just a constant stream. The live education sessions, the five concurrents all had live Q&A, and it went really well. The questions were coming in in droves.”
Place a high value on production. For the plenary and the VIP sessions, Faulder said, “we did a recording with a producer and a technician and we sent them recording packages — high-end laptop, high-end webcam, nice microphone, a hardwired internet cable. And then we use a software called vMix, which is a high-end broadcast production tool for virtual. And we would do a tech set-up call with the presenter.” The calls, lasting about an hour, walked speakers through such logistics as setting up the technology and getting their lighting right. And then the recording call was another hour. “Some of them wanted to do them all at the same time and we’d book two hours,” Faulder said, “but it was really hands-on for the high-end recordings.”
For the majority of the breakout education sessions, the presenters recorded themselves but were given very specific instructions and access to a virtual speaker ready room — where they could book an appointment with a technician to get live feedback— which was open for three weeks before the event. “Then everybody had a rehearsal, even if they’d done a prerecording. So they got to come in and see what their prerecording looked like,” Faulder said, “and then see what the transition into the live Q&A looked like.”
Airhart said that the process was “quite demanding of the speakers. We asked a lot of them and we felt guilty about that sometimes. Normally they just show up, go to the podium and go, but now we’re asking them for four pre-calls, and a recording — and they all did a wonderful job of giving their time.”
Open big. Launching the event on Friday night with a performance by headliner Jennifer Hudson reaped unexpected benefits. Airhart said that Hudson’s concert was designed to get people to log into the platform early to familiarize themselves with it and to make sure they didn’t have any issues because they wanted to resolve them before the following day, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke to the group. “But we were surprised that Twitter just exploded with the happiness over Jennifer. … In fact, there’s a wonderful picture of a small child pretending to be on a microphone, this little girl, this little two-year-old in her diapers singing her brains out to Jennifer Hudson.”
In addition to Hudson’s private concert, the digital event featured a cooking lesson with Wolfgang Puck, trivia game-show competition, a fun dueling piano event, the Melisizwe Brothers from “America’s Got Talent” fame, a virtual fun run, and non-medical tech and wellness sessions.
Self-paced learning is beneficial. Faulder said that feedback indicated that attendees appreciated viewing the sessions at their own pace. At the in-person event, he said, participants have to choose between sessions that interested them that were running at the same time. In addition, the streaming provider AAP used, BoxCast, offers a DVR function, so that if an attendee logged in late to a session already underway, they could “just rewind to the beginning of the live stream,” he said, “and see it from the beginning.” That’s a function that the physical event can’t offer — which doesn’t “bode well for going back to what we did before,” Faulder added. On-demand sessions are available through the end of January.
You have to incentivize people to go to the exhibit hall. “We had a really successful exhibit hall,” Airhart said. “We had Tradeshow Logic jump in and manage our exhibitors in a hands-on way. They had the opportunity to talk to a service rep, develop a video — even the small exhibitors — and create a digital experience that could be engaging.”
Airhart said that virtual event organizers can’t just “set up a static page for the exhibit hall” and expect people to come. You have to plan activities to encourage visits. “We had a scavenger hunt that was really successful,” she said. “We raffled off four iPads, and you could see the competition of the scavenger hunt in the exhibit hall build virtually. Tradeshow Logic was great with that, really innovative.”
Attendees sought out the exhibitors “early in the game,” she said. “As soon as the system opened Friday morning, they were in the exhibit hall asking questions and interacting. We did normal traffic-builder-type things,” which included social media posts, and there were no live sessions scheduled during the time the exhibit hall was open.
Make an emotional connection. What AAP does so well at the in-person event, Faulder said, is to bring emotion to the experience as well as the science. AAP puts “on a show,” he said. For example, every year, the current AAP president gets to “deliver their message to the audience and it’s full of really important actions that the association is taking, new initiatives,” he said. “And I’ve done probably seven or eight physical AAP events now. And after each one, there is a standing ovation that lasts at least a minute. And I get shivers talking about it. In the plenary, there are 4,000 people in the room feeling, ‘Yeah, we’re part of this together.’ How do you do that in virtual event?”
Faulder said he worked with Airhart on what they could do “to create the drama and give people the space to digest what they just heard and not just go into the next piece of content. It was very simple,” he said. “We did a 3D-virtual environment for the president’s address,” and when she concluded, “we did this very slow, steady camera pullback and almost left it for six or seven seconds too long, and then it cut into a black corporate American Academy of Pediatrics logo that slowly faded up. Then there was a very dramatic piece of piano music underneath it that was just enough to make you go, ‘Whoa.’ And we gave the audience that 20-30 seconds and then went into the next piece. Those are the small things that completely changed the experience for someone at home.”
“It was important to make sure that the president didn’t look like she was in her living room,” Airhart added. “This was her moment, right? It was her moment to tell the association members that we are there for them.”
Add transition elements. The music AAP played between sessions was so well-received that on the last day of the event, Airhart said, responding to requests, “we released a Spotify playlist.” Sessions also included countdown timers before they started because people want to establish right away that they are in the right session and when it will begin, Faulder said. “The countdown timer is my go-to for livestream because it creates anticipation too. You’re like, ‘Okay, here we go.’”
Short videos were also interspersed between sessions to help with transitions, including a one-and-a-half-minute video of AAP staffers recording a message from their homes that built on the theme of “in an environment where everything has changed, nothing has changed in our commitment to you,” Airhart said. “And it was done in such a way that it drew emotion.”
Not everything from the live event needs to be included in a digital version. Something Faulder said he would do differently next time is to resist the temptation to include everything that’s a part of the physical event in the digital edition. “When we finally got to show, we’d all killed ourselves to get sessions with polling and translation and every piece that we offer live,” he said, “and we all felt like, ‘Wait a second, we could scale this back and still have an amazing experience.’”
“That was absolutely a takeaway,” Airhart agreed. “And you end up having overlapping topics sometimes. In an in-person environment you don’t notice as much as in a virtual environment that your speakers and topics start to overlap a little bit, but we offered a lot and we agreed that we could have definitely pulled back a little bit.”
In the end, however, all of those efforts were noticed and appreciated. “I think the last day, we watched the [chat] feed and the attendees were starting to thank us and tell us what it meant to them, and most of us were almost in tears because it was overwhelming how grateful they were,” Airhart said. “You also don’t get that in an in-person environment.”
Airhart’s experience creating a digital event for the first time has made her enthusiastic about the future for her business events colleagues. “We have gone through so much this year and I know that we’re going to come out of it stronger by doubling our skillset. We’re going to be able to be virtual, hybrid, in-person planners and suppliers,” she said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.