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What does it take to organize a successful virtual event?

James Ellsmoor is the Founder of the Virtual Island Summit, a pioneering event that was created before the pandemic and the dramatic shift to virtual events in 2020. He talks here about the new role of digital communication and the opportunities for events to be virtual to reach more people and take a global outlook. James also leads a course on virtual events, starting next week.

What motivated you to start running virtual events even before it became so vital this year?

Island Innovation, which hosts the Virtual Island Summit, works with remote, rural and island communities to help drive innovation and sustainability across all sectors. We saw an opportunity to connect people in places as diverse as Saint Kitts, Shetland and Samoa who are separated by thousands of miles but are often working in parallel. It would have been financially impossible to run an event like this in a physical setting, and so going virtual allowed us to have this global reach. It was also far more inclusive, ensuring participants could join without the high barriers to entry such as travel expenses and visas. It also meant we minimized carbon emissions and were able to keep our events free to participate

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold and lockdowns were implemented, what led you to think about running this course? Did you expect as many people to sign up this first time?

For our company, the lockdown didn't change our work setup as we were already working entirely remotely, with a team spread across Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Jamaica, the UK, US and Venezuela. As the pandemic started, I was suddenly deluged with requests for a "quick chat" for people wanting to figure how to take things virtual and operate in this space. Not having the time to respond individually to all of these requests but knowing that I had a wealth of useful knowledge to share, I decided to hold a free webinar and then a more in-depth virtual events course for anyone wanting a deeper dive. I knew that there would be demand and it was amazing to have participants joining from all over the world and work with them at such a turning point in history.

What do you think people found most useful from different elements of the course and the networking opportunities? Did you find any interesting differences between the groups?

The best part for me was live group discussions, where everyone would share their experiences and we would get to see very different perspectives. This means that instead of just learning one way of hosting a virtual event, we could approach the logistics from a variety of angles. There is never a one-size-fits-all solution and every technology option for hosting an event has its own pros and cons! It was fascinating to see how non-profits, event management companies, universities and entrepreneurs each had a different way of approaching a problem, as well as how much they could learn from each other. To use examples of our participants, a South African business trying to promote their service has a different outlook than a Tasmanian grassroots campaign group or the Government of a Caribbean Island. What was extremely helpful was to contrast how different technologies or communications style would fit better in each case, and work with each participant to figure out what would work for them. Beyond Zoom, there are a range of new platforms appearing that fulfil different functions such as networking (e.g. Remo), agenda hosting (e.g. Pathable) and registrations (e.g. CVent). We like to integrate multiple platforms for an optimal virtual event experience.

What kind of events have people already held virtually and some of the success/challenges they faced?

The most important aspect for a successful virtual event is building good networking and engagement opportunities for participants. No one likes showing up to a webinar that is as interactive as watching television, so it's really important to give attendees a reason to show up LIVE... and to keep coming back! People often approach virtual events as a technical issue, but it is important to think of them as a communications challenge too. Deciding on which technology to use is just the first step, and so it was important to work with each participant to guide them through the process of designing an agenda that would work in a virtual format and then ensuring that all of this is communicated well to a participant.

It was very rewarding to help people through the process when many of them were struggling to adapt their businesses. It was fantastic to see participants pull together successful events, in some cases with thousands of participants, and many of them decide that they would permanently move them to a virtual space! One of our clients was from the Government of Curaçao in the Caribbean, which has held a physical expo each year to promote their products. After moving it online they realised that they could reduce costs and reach more people and were unlikely to return to a physical format again.

How do you plan to do it differently for this next course?

The core course content will remain the same, but we are constantly tweaking and updating it as this space is moving so quickly. There are now so many new platforms appearing every day and frequent changes being led by market leaders, such as Zoom, so keeping up with them all is a challenge.

We will adapt the new content as things evolve and invite previous participants to participate to ensure that there is an ongoing connection, and to build a sense of community.

Week 1: Set the foundations for your event

Week 2: Setup the tech for your event

Week 3: Create revenue streams and secure sponsorships

Week 4: Market your event and get signups

Week 5: Confirm your agenda and secure speakers

Week 6: Manage networking and keep your attendees engaged

Week 7: Build and manage your virtual team

Week 8: Carry out logistics during your live event

You also run the ‘Virtual Island Summit’ platform which brings together thousands of islanders from around the world to share good practices on sustainable development. How is the event shaping up for this year and how many people you expect to take part?

The Virtual Island Summit started before COVID with the idea that connecting people in some of the remotest parts of the world to share solutions for sustainable development could be a powerful tool. This year, we are on track to have over 10,000 participants, including political leaders, such as the Prime Ministers of Fiji and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the President of Guyana. It's important that this event is an interactive networking experience that provides valuable information and allows participants to form new connections around the globe by using the latest tools available and an interactive agenda. As great publicity this week, we were featured in Nature, one of the biggest scientific journals.

How do you see the future in terms of evolving software, opportunities to do things differently with virtual events rather than going back to face-to-face events?

There is such rapid evolution in this space, it is exciting but can be overwhelming trying to keep track! I think there was a general trend towards the use of virtual events, and this has accelerated something that was already happening. Of course, virtual events will not replace physical events any time soon, but they offer an exciting opportunity to do things differently and complement them. The benefits are clear, with virtual events being cheaper, more inclusive and producing less carbon. Perhaps, we will see a rise in "hybrid" events now, where we have local hubs taking place in person connecting into a global network - that's our plan for the Virtual Island Summit next year!

Susanna Cartmell-Thorp

Island Innovation’s How To Run A Successful Virtual Event Course runs for 8 weeks and starts next week. You can learn more here:

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