Virtual Events Are No Stopgap: 5 Tips to Make Them Successful
By Samuel Mueller, CEO and Co-founder at Scandit
Many companies had hoped for a gradual return to normality in 2021, with conferences, exhibitions and team outings resuming at some point in the year. However, with lockdowns and disruption set to continue, businesses will now be considering whether they should start planning for virtual events rather than assume in-person events may return imminently.
With such uncertainty, how can businesses unaccustomed to virtual-only events ensure that those planned for 2021 will go off without a hitch? At Scandit, we hosted a four-day company-wide team-building event in September 2020 called Basecamp One that brought together our 250+ colleagues from 21 countries. This included our very own version of TED talks and saw our employees climb thousands of kilometres, helping us bring the company to new heights, both physically and metaphorically.
Looking back at our own event – a mix of digital and physical experiences – we can provide useful tips on making such an event successful and a more permanent fixture of the business calendar.
‘Making do’ is not enough
When planning any kind of event, your mindset and approach are the most important things to get right. Given our rapid growth over the past few years, team outings have become a critical part of Scandit’s team culture. COVID-19 certainly disrupted our end of year plans, but we were still keen to mark the occasion, even under challenging circumstances.
An entirely virtual event rapidly became our ‘Plan A’ for the occasion. Treating it as anything less, or merely thinking we were ‘making do’, would not have been good enough for us and would have likely led to failure. In the end, Basecamp One became a virtual get-together for all our employees. It was a great way of saying thank you for all the hard work, plan for the year ahead and a chance to share our values. And, of course, a chance to have a lot of fun. A massive amount of time, planning and work needs to go into planning a virtual event, so it requires your full care and attention.
Plan as much as possible
When hosting a virtual event, with attendees spanning multiple countries and time zones, planning is absolutely crucial. Give yourself as much time as possible so that you can deliver the very best event. You have to think of the different event components, develop the theme and branding for it, and then begin to understand how things will work logistically and what technology will be needed.
Due to COVID-19, we made the decision to pivot from our usual in-person team event to a virtual one in early July despite having spent a lot of time planning for the original event already. Even if you already know you will be running a fully virtual event, start the planning process several months in advance to ensure you have enough time to overcome any inevitable obstacles.
Rally towards a common goal
Every company has a shared mission and goals they are targeting. Bringing these to the forefront of a virtual event and building a theme that aligns to this mission will help unite and engage employees. This is especially important in the current climate where employees are distributed and working remotely. For us, the analogy of climbing to Mount Everest’s base camp enabled us to reflect on the success we have collectively achieved to date, but also focused everyone on the future – preparing to reach the summit.
Once you have established a strong theme aligned to business objectives, it provides a platform to shape the whole event around – including the activities, branding and any guest speakers. If executed well, this will lead to a far more engaging, fun and successful event which will unite employees towards a common goal, generate a shared spirit and set the scene for the year ahead.
With that in mind, you must make sure attendees are engaged. You don’t want people thinking ‘oh no, not another Zoom meeting!’ Instead, try and replicate the engagement, fun and enjoyment you’d expect at a physical event. You have to go that extra mile to make sure activities are exciting, and colleagues can easily share their experiences. For example, we introduced a series of dedicated Slack channels and sent a branded gift set to each employee to complement the theme.
Here are a couple of ideas that will help make your virtual event a more thematic and lasting experience:
- Get employees outside and working together: If possible, it’s great to encourage employees to get away from their computer screens and into the great outdoors. Set them joint tasks and challenges to get them working together and bonding virtually, even if they can’t be together physically. For example, in tune with our Mount Everest theme and to represent preparing for the ascent ahead of us, the Scandit team were tasked to climb a summit local to them – even if it was just a metaphorical one. Collectively the team achieved an elevation gain of 64,688m and planted the flag we sent them on their own ‘summit’.
- Roll out your inspirational speakers: While we might not be able to sit together in an auditorium, video conferencing makes it possible for employees to be inspired from the comfort of their homes. For example, our virtual offsite was keynoted by a guest speaker who aligned to our overall event theme – Jamie Andrew, a Scottish mountaineer who is also a quadruple amputee.
- Provide staff with a budget: During company outings, employees will typically be looking forward to a fancy meal or an experience at a bar. Why not provide each employee with a budget so that they can cook something memorable at home? We found this helped generate engagement on our dedicated Slack channel and led to shared experiences, virtually.
Expect the unexpected
Even with all the planning in the world, you should still expect the unexpected. With so many moving parts to creating a global event, you must be able to think on your feet and add enough time to your plan to react to unforeseen circumstances.
For us, customs turned out to be an unexpected nightmare, and it could well have been the same, even in a pre-COVID environment. The plan was to send our employees a surprise parcel, but with such a variety of customs rules in each country, achieving this was harder than it should have been. Granola bars, for example, couldn’t pass through US customs – not something we would have considered here in Switzerland!
Ensure all employees have the same experience
If a virtual event is to be successful, everyone should have the same opportunities and tools regardless of their location. We wanted to create a strong feeling of being connected for our own event – but making sure all attendees have the same quality experience is no easy task.
Finding a time for each session and activity to suit all countries can be a major headache. Thus, we decided to record all workshop sessions and made them available on-demand, so employees could enjoy the different events at whatever time best suited them.
Different customs and time-zones can cause issues, but we wanted to ensure every employee had the same level of excitement in the lead up to the event. To help create this buzz, we sent a surprise parcel to every one of our 250+ employees across the globe. The box included several gifts and a card hinting at the fun to come at Basecamp One. Containing gifts and props that aligned to the overall theme and activities, such as BBQ equipment and climbing accessories, the gesture created curiosity and highlighted to employees that this would be more than a standard Zoom meeting.
Out of reach, but not out of mind
At a time when global issues continue to have major effects on our lives, business leaders have a responsibility to ask themselves – do I really need to put employees on a plane and send them across the globe to an event? Successful events can be held virtually, however, the level of planning, alignment and budget should not be underestimated. On the face of it, there may seem to be less logistical considerations compared to a physical event but the attention to detail is required in other areas to ensure engagement and compensate for the lack of in-person interaction. Logistics aside, developing a strong theme and establishing an achievable, common goal should be at the heart of any event to help unite and motivate everyone towards the next milestone. Going forward, virtual events can help companies create a sense of togetherness, even when face-to-face gatherings aren’t possible.
Watch a recap of Basecamp One here