10 Tips on How to Shift Physical Events to Virtual Ones

By Karen Sippel ~ Managing Director at The Centre for Global Enterprise on 13 May 2020Technology


Six months ago, if you had told me that my team at the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC) would have to host an online graduation ceremony for 200 women, I wouldn’t have believed you. 


Pre-covid, we had planned for months to host an event in Nigeria in mid-March that would gather hundreds of women from across Africa, Europe and North America. My main concerns at the time were getting a visa and navigating Lagos traffic!


Fast-forward to early March and things were very different. Making the decision to cancel the event was the relatively easy part. Turning our event into a virtual one? Challenging, but not impossible.


My organization has been running blended (i.e. online and offline) learning programs for years and have learned a few things about generating interest and managing engagement online. Here’s how we flipped our in-person event to a virtual one, with less than three weeks notice.


  1. Mobilize your team. You’re going to need all hands on deck. The people who coordinate your presenters and attendees, your comms and marketing leads, the crisis communications expert, the folks who handle your tech, people who are great at logistics, whoever approves your budget, etc. Gather everyone in a video meeting to plan your next steps, which leads to...
  2. Source a full-featured webinar and video conferencing provider. Zoom is popular right now, but there are many options on the market. Test all its features well in advance - the day of your event is not the time to sort out your security preferences or experiment with breakout rooms.
  3. Share documents. Since you might have limited or slow access to your organization’s server, cloud-based document sharing (like a shared G drive from Google) will be helpful here.
  4. Re-evaluate your event’s agenda. What can you reasonably turn into a webinar? A keynote? Sure. A networking event? Might be harder. And, you might be pleasantly surprised by the response. Turning in-person breakout sessions into Zoom-enabled, small group workshops facilitated by an expert yielded positive results for us.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Figure out your core message, get the leadership team’s  agreement, and stick to it. Share facts, be open and honest, and stress the importance of being flexible and innovative in this challenging time. 
  6. Rally your speakers and presenters. Some may be hesitant about the online format. Be ready to support them and help them translate their planned talk/panel/workshop into an online event. Assign staff members to provide technical and substantive support when you go live. You’ll need a moderator to handle the online questions and curate the best ones for the presenter. Test the technology with each speaker so they’re as comfortable as possible. Check your Zoom settings so rogue attendees can’t disrupt your session.
  7. Overhaul your schedule. A virtual event does not have the same cadence as an in-person event. Consider stretching your event over more days than you originally planned. With everyone in their household working and doing school from home, your attendees may have other responsibilities, so spreading out your event might result in stronger attendance and engagement. 
  8. Factor in longer breaks. When you’re in-person, you can jump from session to session and feel energized by the crowd; the same is not happening online. Zoom-fatigue is real! Sitting in front of a computer for hours watching people talk can be exhausting. Accept that people are going to get distracted by being in their office or house and may walk away for a bit. Give them reasons to come back.
  9. Appeal to your vendors. If you have to cancel an in-person event, try to recoup as much of your expenses as possible. Everyone is going to take a budget hit in this situation. As a nonprofit, it’s my responsibility to minimize expenses as much as possible, while being fair to the vendors who are also losing money on this.
  10. Wipe the exhaustion away and put on your confident, cheerful leader face. Your team and constituents need a steady hand more than ever. Show up to as many of your virtual events as possible and be active and present.


That initial virtual event in March went so well - and covid-19 is proving sufficiently persistent - that we are now planning our next virtual event, slated for September, where we will digitally convene 200 women entrepreneurs for another round of learning and networking. 


Learn more about AWEC and how you can get involved in our work empowering female business owners across Africa: www.thecge.net/awec 


By Karen Sippel ~ Managing Director at The Centre for Global Enterprise