Taking One of the Federal Government’s Largest Conference Virtual: What We Learned

As we watched the coronavirus spread and country shutdown, it became clear that hosting a national public health conference in person in August was not going to happen. This wasn’t just any event; this was one of the largest events the federal government hosts — National Ryan White Conference on HIV Care & Treatment. This year’s event was expected to draw 4,500 attendees for a full week of events and 300 educational sessions. While our client finalized their decision, we moved fast to figure out how to shift this massive event to a virtual environment that would replicate the high-value conference experience and still met federal accessibility and security standards. And we had less than three months to do it.

LRG, a national communications and outreach firm headquartered in Washington D.C., has planned and executed the Ryan White Conference since 2016, helping reimagine and grow the event hosted every two years by the Department of Health and Human Services. We had planned complex events for federal, private sector and nonprofit clients for decades, including virtual events. But pre-coronavirus, a virtual event was more often a webinar or an online town hall, not a complex, weeklong conference with breakouts, networking and other familiar conference experiences.

Through a tremendous collaboration with our federal client, the LRG team executed a successful event in August that ended up exceeding attendance expectations with participation levels reaching nearly 9K at some points. Throughout this process we refined our approach and learned some important lessons that we are putting into practice for our busy schedule of virtual events:

Rethink everything. Managing a virtual event is more than creating a Zoom account. You have to rethink the fundamental format and vision for your event. Think about your audience, how they are likely to participate and what is important to them. You can’t simply move your event from a ballroom to a chat room. You need to re-create the entire event.

Get the right technical help. You’d never run your own AV when managing an event at a hotel. The basics of virtual platforms may be easy to master, but you will definitely need technical help when it comes to using these platforms for large-scale events. For the HHS event, we partnered with PSAV, which has a national support team and an adaptable virtual platform called Chime that integrates multiple technologies to produce a high-impact event. We had a team of AV techs working with us to make sure every detail of virtual technology was optimized and we were ready for inevitable technical glitches that can crash an online conference.

Be ready for a whole new set of problems. When something goes wrong at a hotel venue event, you are in the room and can usually solve the issue quickly. You lose some of that control in a virtual event, so you must have a way to identify issues fast and have systems in place to solve them. We had a backup microsite site ready to go in case our entire virtual system went down. What happens if you lose a live speaker’s connection? We pre-recorded key sessions and always had additional pre-produced video spots on standby in case we needed to fill a sudden gap in programing.

Some things are best live and in-person. For the National Ryan White Conference, we designed a conference studio and production space at a local hotel, a convenient and safe space for our emcee and keynote presenters to speak live. It added professionalism and cohesiveness while ensuring that our headliners were not at the mercy of a potentially spotty wi-fi setup. Following all CDC guidelines, the LRG and PSAV teams were able to collaborate in one large room on any issues that arose.

While virtual events lose some of the value of in-person networking, they have some unique advantages even if there wasn’t a pandemic, including making broader participation easy. I think the future of events will be a hybrid model, and many of the virtual components we are developing will continue well into the future.

It’s a new world that requires a new way of thinking, planning and execution. We have seen that it can work and will continue to find innovative ways to support our clients.

About LRG. For more than 20 years, LRG has been a leader in managing complex events for the federal government, nonprofits and private sector clients. With a focus on outreach, we integrate technology, logistics, design and creativity to connect people and communities. Learn more at lrginc.com.