Get off to a good start with virtual conferences at AU

The COVID-19 pandemic means that the conference and event industry has to face a new reality. At Aarhus University we are also starting to adjust to the fact that for some time to come, and perhaps permanently, we will have to be able to convert physically planned conferences into completely virtual conferences or to hybrid meetings, i.e. a mix of physical and digital meetings.

Events and Communication Support has put together a guide containing advice, special focus areas and questions that you should ask yourself if you are about to plan a virtual conference. The three forms of conference have different advantages and also require different approaches in terms of planning and execution. In any case, the virtual form can ensure that we are still able to 'meet' when the physical conference is not an option – and technology and functionality have more possibilities than we think.

The following outlines the advantages and disadvantages of the physical and the virtual conference form, but advice and special focus areas only address purely virtual conferences. We are always available for further advice, so do not hesitate to contact us.

This page is updated regularly. Last updated on 16 November 2020.

Physical, virtual or hybrid – what should you choose?

Before you start planning your conference, you should consider which type of conference you want to hold. Several aspects affect whether you should choose a virtual or a physical conference, or whether it should be a-little-of-both conference (hybrid).

For example, you should consider:

  • The pandemic situation with regard to planning and executing the conference, and the national (local) and international situation in relation to your presenters/participants and the countries from which they come.
  • Are you planning to invite international keynotes – and are they currently able to travel?
  • Should you have breakout sessions or similar during the conference?
  • Is this a conference or a meeting with one-to-many communication or with dialogue?
  • What is the purpose of the conference – and what output do you want – both for you as an organiser and for your participants (knowledge exchange/dialogue, information one-to-many, networking, other)?
  • What resources do you have at your disposal? Planning and executing a physical event require a lot of man-hours. However, the same applies to virtual events, where the roles are different, but the staffing may be the same.
  • What is your budget?

The physical conference

Obviously, the physical conference provides the best possible setting for networking and personal interaction between participants. Physical interaction also often results in greater trust between the participants and ensures direct involvement, togetherness and fewer misunderstandings. Meeting physically leaves room for the more unscheduled dialogue, where trust, chemistry and the opportunity to exchange experiences arise. The participants often experience a sense of community and connection. The physical conference is often restricted by space (number of participants) and time (1-3 days).

The virtual conference

The virtual conference needs to be planned differently and has other advantages. This type of conference provides better opportunities for fragmented participation and, in principle, has no physical limitations. The virtual conference is often more flexible (can be executed at several times of the day, can easily be split into parts and modules), time-saving and efficient. It allows participants to take breaks or to work in-between sessions, for example.

As a general rule, the virtual conference is best suited to a controlled dialogue, for example one-way communication (presentation with the option of a written chat function/questions), but may also contain breakout sessions and dialogue in small groups, which can allow more spontaneous dialogue, networking and options to connect. With efficient use of the chat function, the virtual conference can allow for more questions from participants than a physical conference, and dialogue in the chat function. For example, 3 out of 10 questions can be answered in the chat function, and subsequently it can be agreed with the keynote/speaker that he or she will answer the remaining questions in writing, and the answers will be distributed to the participants after the conference.

Finally, the virtual conference is likely to have a smaller climate footprint and can be less costly, because there will be no expenses for air travel, hotels and meals/refreshments, for example. On the other hand, additional costs may be likely for external technical support and perhaps to purchase equipment. Moreover, a virtual conference is time-saving for the individual participant, and there is no travel time or jetlag – or time away from the family.

Note that the networking part of a virtual conference requires additional effort, as the participants are not together physically. This may be a problem, perhaps especially for younger researchers. There is no face-to-face interaction, no conversations with other participants, no 'real' discussions between participants and speakers, etc. There are no random meetings that could potentially be interesting, and the participants are invisible to one another. This requires creative thinking and that the conference is adapted to the target group. The use of breakout rooms should be considered, so that the groups in which you place people are perceived as relevant and have an appropriate number of participants. You can also try to hold an after-work gin tasting event and specify how the participants can subsequently link to one another, for example on Linkedin, etc.

The hybrid conference

A hybrid event or conference consists of a combination of the physical meeting and the virtual/online element.

For hybrid conferences, we advise having small or large groups of participants who can follow the conference on a large screen together, but at a distance. For example, if the target group is a municipality with 30 participants at the conference, it may be possible to set up a location together with the municipality, where the participants can watch and follow the conference together. In this way, the participants can get the physical conference experience, as well as the opportunity to talk about the content during the conference with others who are interested in the same topic. 

This allows participants to participate together in the virtual part, but also gives them a physical network. This will probably be particularly relevant when we can travel again, but we cannot/do not want to travel far.

Aarhus University's choice of digital platforms

When planning a virtual conference, the choice of platform (and associated functionality) can be important. Aarhus University can provide support for Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Note that the platforms should be viewed as virtual meeting rooms, where you can control the content. This is not a full solution for your conference. A separate registration in Conference Manager, for example, is still necessary, and payment is also outside the platforms.
We cannot recommend one platform over the other. They can do almost the same, so the choice is typically a matter of preference for the individual organiser. However, below is a comparison between the two platforms.

Click on the image below to go to a downloadable PDF.

In addition, there are various guides and guidelines on how to use the platforms:

Virtual location/venue

It is important for the good virtual experience that you have considered the 'layout' of your virtual venue:

  • Think about light, sound, background, camera height at eye level, location of microphone – and decide where to shoot your conference (at home, in a studio, room?). Should this be 'styled' and staged like a 'TV setup with a moderator'? There is a big difference between using the microphone and camera in your laptop and using an external camera or microphone. Also, consider placing extra microphones – and check the acoustics and background noise.
  • It may be a good idea to rent video/microphone equipment if you have segments that need to be recorded prior to the conference. Include in your budget any expenses for local setup/support if your keynote/speaker does not record his or her part at AU.
  • Make a technical timetable and staffing plan, and find out who can help you with the technical setup:
    • Who is the main person responsible for technology and network connection and any connection to speakers?
    • Who controls the slides, chat function, answers questions from participants, divides the participants into groups and invites them to separate breakout rooms and closes these rooms again?
    • Who is responsible for polls and other interactive initiatives during the event?
    • Who rounds off the conference and sends out slides afterwards, etc.?
    • It is a good idea to consider the following 'roles': host, co-host, moderator.
    • What resources should be set aside? An example is a major international virtual conference with 1,800 participants: four platforms, 16-hour conference over three days (instead of 1.5 days, which was originally planned for the physical conference). 16 employees were involved in the process – four of them on a full-time basis.
  • Make clear agreements with keynotes/speakers:
    • Test the technical setup, including sound and light, and test the content.
    • Talk about location with the speakers, and discuss whether there should be any interactivity during the event.
    • Tell the speakers that they will receive direct response and feedback from the participants in the same way as with physical presentations.
    • Ask the speakers to think about background, clothing, etc. adapted to the format.
  • Rehearse with every person with a role in the process. Remember: Your presenters/keynotes should not relate to the technical aspects – you need to prepare them and guide them in terms of light, background (uploaded background image with AU logo), background noise, glasses of water, etc.
  • Consider whether everything should be recorded (with the speakers’ permission), so that it can be shared or revisited after the conference.
  • Consider whether part of the presentations should be recorded in advance. This will reduce the number of elements that have to fall into place on the day of the conference. You can prepare the video and the link in advance and thereby make sure that the technology does not cause problems. Note, however, that this will prevent any interaction between the speaker and the participants. Consider agreeing with the presenter that questions in the chat function will be sent to him or her afterwards, and that the answers will be made available to the participants afterwards.
  • Consider whether to use only one platform (e.g. Teams), or whether to combine the platform with interactive tools such as Slido, Mentimeter, recordings from YouTube or Zoom, polls, Kahoot, Conference Manager app, etc. Consider gamification, which ensures variation and involvement from participants.

Online execution (before)

When planning and executing your virtual conference, think of it as a physical conference. This means that we recommend making a timetable and a staffing plan or a technical script, so that everything is thought through including settings, dialogue formats (presentations, breakout rooms, roundtables, etc.) and changes in technology and equipment along the way. Focus on both soft and drier aspects, even though the event is virtual.

Settings

  • Consider the outcome of presentations as opposed to professional discussions. What makes the best possible outcome in relation to the overall goal of the conference?
  • Consider the length of the day(s) (not too long) as well as the duration of presentations and breaks. For example, plan a morning and afternoon module lasting a few hours to leave room for a natural lunch break.
  • Make sure to have sessions that do not last for more than 60 minutes (45 minutes are optimal). Also make sure to insert breaks between the different presentations.
  • Prepare a couple of questions yourself for the presenter after the session, just as you would typically do for physical events. This can give some of the participants the ‘courage’ to ask questions themselves.
  • Make sure there is time in the presentations for the speaker to answer questions from the participants in the live chat, for example. Make sure to have a moderator to select the most relevant questions.
  • Encourage speakers to use PPT, video or other elements in their presentations.
  • As a participant, panel debates feel more lively than presentations, as the tone of voice, content and expression change from speaker to speaker. This can also keep your participants alert. Panel debates require good management by a moderator and perhaps a host during the conference. There should be no more than three-four participants in panel discussions. It is a good idea to let the panel members talk with each other rather than just answer questions from the audience.
  • Parallel sessions are best handled when registration for such sessions can be announced with the registration for the conference. In this way, the moderator can set up breakout rooms for the sessions selected by the audience in advance.
  • Use breakout rooms. Perhaps you can find out in advance what topics in the event the participants will be interested in and thereby pair them in breakout rooms depending on their interests and competences. Make sure that your breakout room is facilitated, and that there is a person 'backstage' to help the participants get started and tell them when to finish.
  • Make sure that there is a moderator present in breakout rooms and inform the participants about the moderator. Clarify the role of the moderator or the chair before, during and after the breakout.
  • Do not forget breaks and social events. Breaks can be used to brand AU/Aarhus with a video about the university and the city of Aarhus (see the section 'Useful information' below).
  • Make sure that your website is manageable and easy to navigate with regard to programme, deadlines, guidelines and access to information, sessions and links.
  • Consider what day of the week would be good for the conference and, in particular, the time of the conference (if global) – for this you can use https://www.worldtimebuddy.com/
  • Draw attention to the time frame for the individual programme items and keep to time.
  • Consider the tone of the conference in terms of formality: If you want a formal conference, we recommend using a studio at AU that signals AU as the sender. If you want a more informal conference, organisers, keynotes and presenters could use Zoom from their home university or from their own home.
  • If you choose to hold a conference or event in English, for example, the moderator/anchor must have good English skills, so that everyone can understand what is being said.
  • Carefully plan your time. A physical conference cannot be converted 1:1 into a virtual one, as the participants cannot be expected to concentrate for as long in a virtual conference as in a physical conference. You should shorten the conference or spread it over several days/times, for example. Keep in mind that participants are more easily distracted online, so it is important to include variation and interaction in the programme.
  • Make sure that your presenters are trained in talking to a camera and not only to a live audience with feedback. Participants behind a computer screen are distracted much quicker, so focus on visual content and dynamic speakers.
  • Plan the communication to the participants – before, during, after.
  • Communicate to your participants before they 'show up' – in a welcome email, for example. Balance expectations, so it is clear what you expect from them (for example, participate!, use thumbs up, and participate in polls, ask the participants to enter their full name and title/organisation/country at check-in, so they can see who everyone is).
  • Clarify what the participants can expect from you (for example, that you will keep them waiting in the lobby before the meeting, that they 'arrive' with their camera and sound turned off, but that you expect or do not expect them to turn them on, that you will share knowledge and send slides after the conference, that they can chat during these periods, etc.).

Technology

  • Make sure that the internet connection and technology have been thoroughly tested and are working. Keep your participants informed in a chat function or by email if you have technical outages or issues.
  • Distribute, perhaps in the chat function, short guidelines and rules about the digital platform to the participants at the beginning of each session.
  • It is a good idea to send regular emails to participants and tell them about the current deadlines and decisions regarding the conference. We recommended that you send a link to the digital platform to the participants on the day before the start of the conference instead of on the day of the conference.
  • Consider offering extra support for participants who are not used to a virtual platform.
  • As an organiser, it is a good idea to communicate the following to your participants in advance: Keep your screen on, so that the others can see you (and you can see them) – this will make it easier for you to network and is also a security aspect. You can encourage them to participate actively with questions, participate in polls, use thumbs up, etc. Recommend that they test their broadband speed here: https:bredband. DK/Speed Test. Click on 'Start test'. The download and upload speed should be at least 10Mbps.
  • Let the participants enter the virtual room 10 minutes before the meeting. This will give you time to help those who may have technical issues. Those who do not experience problems could, for example, answer a poll related to the topic of the presentation.
  • Make sure that the participants have access to abstracts for all presentations online before the conference. Also make sure that the literature references mentioned in the presentations are made available to all participants.
  • If possible, use gamification software, which can be accessed via a browser. In this way, you avoid that the participants have not downloaded a specific app and therefore cannot interact with each other.
  • We recommend using questions, polls and competitions to keep participants alert and motivated. When you engage them and listen to their input, the conference will be more interesting for everyone. Therefore, let the participants answer questions relevant to the content of the conference. Show the results in real time and build your sessions around these answers. Competitions can be quite fun and can also expand learning.
  • And test, test, test!

Registration

  • Inform potential participants as early as possible about the options for online participation.
  • Market the conference according to the relevant setting. Online conferences are often marketed well via social media. You can use short video teasers with keynotes/organisers to get more registrations.
  • If you use Conference Manager as your registration system, remember to adapt the system according to whether the conference is completely online or a hybrid conference. For example, remember to make two different order confirmations at hybrid conferences.
  • Have a clear policy regarding payment: Why do participants have to pay? Why is it more/less/the same as 'normal '? Is access to the conference 'locked' for those who have paid?

The social aspect

  • If necessary, take longer breaks of half an hour to a whole hour between presentations – and preferably with scheduled, short discussions during breaks. For example, you can set up a number of small Zoom discussion rooms, where participants can register on the links they want. If the programme has been published before registration, people can already at this point register for the discussions they wish to participate in, but it may also be valuable to let the participants register for discussion groups after each presentation.
  • For example, organise workshop sessions, where everyone is sent to breakout rooms according to a prior expression of interest. Define the number of people there can be in such a 'room' to secure the desired discussions and make sure that everyone has time to speak.
  • For hybrid conferences, we advise having small or large groups of participants who can follow the conference on a large screen together, but at a distance. For example, if the target group is a municipality with 30 participants at the conference, it may be possible to set up a location together with the municipality, where the participants can watch and follow the conference together. In this way, the participants can get the physical conference experience, as well as the opportunity to talk about the content during the conference with others who are interested in the same topic.

Online execution (during)

  • Limit the number of slides, and make slides simple and not too overloaded.
  • If possible, record presentations and let the participants have access to them for a week after the conference, for example.
  • Presentations recorded in advance provide flexibility in that the presenter/participants can rewind and revisit/relisten to parts of the presentation, and when they are shown during the conference, the presenter has time to keep an eye on incoming questions and answer them while the presentation is running.
  • Consider creating a 'soft ending' to your conference, where the organiser + any speakers stay online for half an hour after the seminar is over, so that the participants can chat.

Online execution (after)

  • Everything should not be made publicly available after the seminar to respect paying participants. Make sure that your participants want to participate in real-time and not just receive the information afterwards. If you have recorded (parts of) your event, you should clear with keynotes/presenters that the event will be published, and your participants must be informed of the sessions to be recorded in order to comply with GDPR legislation.
  • Evaluation: Learn from your mistakes, think about post-conference activities/networks.

Be aware of virtual behaviour and code of conduct

People behave very differently online and offline. Therefore, it is important to balance expectations with your participants and prepare yourself for different behaviour online.

  • How to be a good organiser: Make sure that the technology works, and practise before the event to make it appear more professional. Prepare breakout rooms and the files, PPT, etc. to be shared between screens. Close other programmes on your PC. Stage your meeting/lay out/decorate. Think about your background, lighting, body language and clothing! Remind the participants that body language and communication are different digitally. Make sure that it is clear to the participants what is expected of them. If they need an app, Mentimeter or something else, this must be clearly stated in the welcome email, so you do not lose anyone along the way.
  • Allow time for (possibly 30 min.) participants to log on and make sure that the technology is working. As an organiser, you must also be online, so that the participants can see you and get answers to their questions.
  • You can also test your own broadband speed here: https:bredbånd.dk/hastighedstest. Click on 'Start test'. The download and upload speed should be at least 10Mbps.

Useful information

Online behaviour
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/technology/personaltech/online-video-meetings-etiquette-virus.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/joyceearussell/2020/03/28/so-now-youre-in-video-meetings-the-dos-and-donts/#7408dd8c12b0

https://www.businesswest.co.uk/blog/virtual-meeting-etiquette-5-dos-and-donts

Hybrid meetings

A simple guide for hybrid events

Difference between meeting and webinar

https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/115005474943-Meeting-and-webinar-comparison

Get off to a good start with Webinar

https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/200917029-Getting-Started-With-Webinar

Engage your participants

https://www.meetingdesigninstitute.org/art-audience-engagement-hybrid-events?utm_source=Meeting+Design+Institute&utm_campaign=45a16eeffd-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_03_14_COPY_04&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f509d108e2-45a16eeffd-357245702

Q&A vs. C&I (Conversation and input)

Zoom guides

https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us

Film material for free use during execution or during breaks

Film about the Aarhus region (1.37 min.): Https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeQKodfH1JE
This film may be used in contexts where Aarhus and Aarhus University are to be profiled.
Note that if you want a film that is targeted at the individual congress or conference, you can contact the VisitAarhus Convention Bureau

Historical film about Aarhus University (with English subtitles, duration: 2.23 min): https://youtu.be/pK3Ilk7rsfc

Drone recording of Aarhus University (without sound, duration: 0.30 min): https://youtu.be/fkg9ld62iTU