April seems like about a thousand years ago, but even back then, we realized the chances were slim to none that we’d be able to hold the 17th annual meeting of our association, the Society for the Advancement of Consulting, in New York City this fall as planned.

Too much was up in the air with the ongoing pandemic. Even if large meetings were allowed in that timeframe, would air travel be safe? Would people feel comfortable flying into the New York area and traveling on public transportation to get to the meeting? Would our international attendees be able to join us?

We correctly surmised that these would be insurmountable issues, so we pivoted to producing an online meeting instead. We knew we’d miss the engagement and camaraderie of an in-person event (not to mention all the exciting things about being in Manhattan in the fall!).

But we also realized we had new opportunities: We could attract a larger group of global attendees who might not have been able to join us in New York. We could schedule top-notch speakers we might not have attracted otherwise. We could run sessions at times friendly for our audiences in Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim.

How do you plan and pull off an outstanding online event? Here’s where to start:

Throw away the old playbook. Take a few minutes to bemoan all the things you give up by not holding an in-person event. Then let it go. It just isn’t possible now and everyone understands that. Focus on creating the best virtual event possible.

Embrace the possibilities. What can you do when travel and location are not obstacles? What new types of programs can you create? How can you engage your audience in new and creative ways.

Treat this like a real event. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re “only” running a virtual event. All events are virtual now. Create a compelling event that your audience won’t want to miss.

Organize, prepare, then organize and prepare some more. Treat this like a large-scale in-person conference. Plan out the entire day, from beginning to end. Prep session hosts. Send reminder emails to both speakers and attendees. When in doubt, send reminders again.

Make things as interactive as possible. Mix up keynotes with 1:1 interviews, panel sessions, and interactive birds-of-a-feather and breakup sessions. Schedule informal networking sessions during the day. Create a way attendees can mingle and chat with others.

Plan for the unpredictable. No matter how much you prepare, some things will go wrong. Speakers will not show up on time; audience members will lose their logon credentials; connectivity issues will be arise. The more things you can anticipate and plan around, the smoother the entire event will be.

Give the audience a break. Literally. Don’t ask attendees to sit in back to back sessions for hours at a time. Include a break between sessions and longer breaks throughout the day.

Archive everything. Record everything. This removes the pressure for attendees to watch everything live. Give them the opportunity to watch sessions afterwards.

Be prepared for success. It’s possible you may attract more attendees than you would have gotten before. Make sure you have a well-resourced support team, enough capacity to support additional last-minute attendees, and the ability to add new speakers or sessions if circumstances warrant.

Our event went off very smoothly. Attendees told us how impressed they were with both the content and the process. There were a few glitches, but nothing major. Would we do this again in the future? Quite probably. I’ll summarize our key learnings in my next post.