Kelly Schultze Nov 13, 2020 1:57:20 PM 22 min read

How to run an awesome virtual event in 10 *mostly* easy steps

How to run an awesome virtual event in 10 *mostly* easy steps

2020 kept most of us on our toes and we were constantly adapting our operations to address the challenges the year presented. At BETA, one of our biggest challenges was hosting Twin Cities Startup Week (TCSW), our week-long in-person innovation festival, in the new climate of social distancing.

Since the festival in September, we’ve heard that many of you had a great experience and we continue to receive questions about how we rapidly pivoted the country’s second largest startup week to the digital world.

In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into how we put on the first-ever virtual TCSW as well as the key takeaways and insights we learned through the process. 


1) Understand your goals and what people value about the event 

Understanding what you’re trying to accomplish and what people value about your event is the critical first step in moving an in-person event online. Once you have a good understanding of these goals, you can use them to create action plans and make strategic event decisions. 

One of these decisions will be what platform(s) to host your virtual event on. Our number one priority for TCSW was to provide a meaningful attendee experience, and we knew one of the top things that people love about TCSW is the networking opportunities and connections that come out of it. Because of this, we selected the virtual events platform, Hopin, because there are many networking features for attendees to connect with one another on the platform. 

Our clear goals also led us to changing our event format in the virtual setting. Normally TCSW is exactly that: a week full of startup events that take place across the Twin Cities. Because of the new virtual setting, we decided to spread out the festival across three weeks with our track events scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursday and with other signature events sprinkled in-between. Our inclusivity goals for the event enabled us to create our process for recruiting and selecting events and the thought leaders that presented at TCSW. Knowing your “why” and goals at the beginning will make all decisions easier and aligned as you prepare and host your virtual event!

Opening Party TCSW 2019. 


2) Become an expert at your platforms

Once you select the platforms you will use for your online event, the next step is to do everything you can to become an expert user. By doing this, you will be able to understand how to best utilize these platforms to create a meaningful experience for attendees.

Once we experimented using the Main Stage of our virtual event platform, Hopin, we knew it would be the best experience for both speakers and attendees to pre-record this content to minimize technical issues. We then used the Sessions area of Hopin to hold Q&A sessions with the main stage speakers following their stage recording. This allowed us to provide high quality main stage content, and allow attendees to connect with the speakers realtime to ask questions and network. 

Becoming an expert of your platforms allows you to understand their limitations so you can plan accordingly and be able to communicate limitations and potential issues with your audience ahead of time. You will be able to clearly communicate the process and what to expect to speakers and attendees ahead of time to proactively combat issues!

 Of course, it’s nearly impossible to learn everything about a platform, especially the backend of it, and because of this, it is important to become familiar with the support teams of each of the platforms so you can get the help you need when you’ve exhausted your understanding. 


3) Platforms we used for TCSW 2020 & takeaways

Once we selected Hopin as our virtual event venue, we realized their registration portal was not as robust as we had hoped (e.g. we could not create customizable questions for attendees when they registered for the event, etc.). As a result, we used Eventbrite as our registration platform for attendees. 

We selected the Emamo platform to build the TCSW schedule that attendees could look through and create their own personalized schedule, because it integrates with Eventbrite. As we got deeper into the platforms, we realized that Emamo and especially Hopin were extremely manual on the backend (for example, tickets need to be manually uploaded into Hopin by ticket type when you use an external registration platform.)

 Because we left registration open throughout all of startup month, we were constantly uploading csv files with new attendees into Hopin in order for them to have access to the platform. Because of the manual nature of these three platforms, attendees and speakers were sometimes confused by delays in communication and updates. 

If we use Hopin again for future events, we would need them to integrate with Eventbrite or improve the customizability of their own registration portal. Overall, the combination of the three platforms was manual and tedious, but this was felt most by our internal team and not the end user, which we view as a win for 2020!


4) Work in person with your team leading up to and during the event

A major takeaway from TCSW this year was the importance of working in person with our team leading up to and during a virtual event. When we came together for an afternoon in July before startup month in September, we were able to brainstorm best workflows and processes together that were critical to the later success of the event. We did not work in person as much as we would have liked to in preparation for the event due to COVID, which was a struggle internally.

We believe working in person, even just once a week, would have kept us on the same page and provided the human connection necessary to stay motivated in the work. During TCSW, we had a socially-distant command center in WeWork where we were able to work together in person. The center consisted of a main stage video production studio, individual working booths, and large conference rooms where we could work near or with one another. We missed working in person in preparation for the event as much as we missed having an in-person event! 

Versus Experiential Team at the TCSW 2020 Production Studio in WeWork. 


5) Intentionally schedule content

Intentionally scheduling content is key for the success of all events, especially in a virtual setting. To combat attendee virtual fatigue, it is important to build programming breaks into the schedule and include dedicated time for networking and connecting with other event attendees.

For TCSW, we had six tracks with different focuses taking place every Tuesday and Thursday for three weeks (Sales & Marketing, Founder, EdTech, Healthcare, Sustainability, and Food & Agriculture). We had track related sessions scheduled each of these days with general entrepreneurship topics sprinkled throughout all track events. We had two different types of events: pre-recorded events on the Main Stage and live events in the Sessions area. We used the main stage for our premium track specific content that worked best in a one-to-many format, and we used the Sessions area for events that were more interactive and encouraged attendee participation. 

At any given time we had two to three sessions going on and we staggered their start times to minimize competition, allowing attendees to attend as many events as possible. We built in 15 minute breaks into main stage content so attendees could use that time to connect with speakers after their event in our Community Lounge in the Sessions area of the platform. 

It was also critical to partner with other organizations that have events going on around the same time to strategically schedule and leverage each other’s events and audiences! Finally, make sure to intentionally schedule meaningful content for premium ticket holders. We had a variety of both virtual and in-person VIP events that we wove throughout the three weeks for our VIP attendees to connect with and learn from one another.


6) Create a robust communication plan

Operating in a virtual setting means you have to create a more robust communication plan than ever before for all stakeholders impacted by the event. The things we take for granted at in-person events have to be carefully planned for and communicated clearly to prepare for operating in a virtual setting. 

For example, at in-person events, everyone can show up if they know the location and where to park. At virtual events, there are many more barriers to entry — attendees need to use the right link, with the right internet speed, on the right browser, with the right device, with the right ticket type, with the right knowledge of how to navigate the virtual venue…  with so many more details that are irrelevant in person. For TCSW we created communication plans for the following stakeholders, and we still have massive areas for improvement in our communications: 

  • Speakers 
  • Attendees
  • Sponsors
  • Volunteers
  • VIPs
  • Partner organizations


7) Support and appreciate your speakers and attendees

Navigating this new virtual world and the platforms associated with it is new and challenging for event organizers, and it’s also new and challenging for event speakers and attendees. It is essential to build systems and opportunities for them to get experience on the platform and a chance to test out the technology before the event, so they can have a positive experience on event day.

To support TCSW event hosts and speakers, we:

  • Hosted dress rehearsal events on Hopin so they could explore the platform, test out the tech, and envision what it would be like the day of their event
  • Created a TCSW Guide for Event Hosts so organizers and speakers had key Hopin information all in one place
  • Held a TCSW event host virtual happy hour via Zoom so organizers could connect with and learn from one another before startup month began
  • Communicated with and supported them constantly through our TCSW Slack channel, personal and group emails, phone calls, etc.
  • Had a private speaker green room open at all times during the six TCSW tracks where speakers could practice, ask questions, and test things before their event

To support TCSW attendees, we:

  • Had clear directions, information, and resources on the reception page of the event (the first thing an attendee sees when entering the event on Hopin)
  • Created a TCSW Guide for Attendees so they had key Hopin information all in one place
  • Created a TCSW Hopin Demo video so they knew what to expect and how to navigate the platform
  • Had a TCSW Help Desk booth staffed at all times during all TCSW events on Hopin so attendees could get the help they needed when they needed it
  • Created transition slides that played on the main stage in between sessions that helped guide people to different areas of the virtual venue

Overall, the event is for those who attend it, and as the event organizer, you have to do everything you can to support attendees and ensure they have a positive experience. Beyond that, thank and appreciate them for being willing to navigate this new virtual event world with you.


8) Record all the virtual content and sessions

One immense benefit of having a virtual event is it’s much easier to record the content. Having the content recorded where it lives on and lasts immensely expands the impact and value of the event for the speakers, attendees, and sponsors. Speakers can use their session recording to build their personal brand and share in their networks, attendees can go back and watch their favorite sessions or watch sessions they weren’t able to attend live, and sponsors have more brand exposure. If you are hosting a virtual event, make sure you record the content, and create a plan for how it can provide value even after the event concludes.


9) Collect feedback - you’ll need it

Just as important as hosting the event is collecting feedback from it so you truly know what impact it had. For our events, we pay special attention to NPS scores, what people liked, what we can improve on, and how we did at achieving the goals we created for the event. In this virtual event world, we asked many questions around the attendee and speaker experience with the technology used, the changes we made to cater to the virtual setting, and our communication throughout the process. Your stakeholders know best - cherish and treasure this feedback, use it to improve your future events, and thank those who share their insights and perspectives with you.


10) Take time to have an honest debrief with the team

Team members that put on the event are also key stakeholders to collect feedback from. Take ample time to dissect the event with your team: what worked, what didn’t, and how can we learn and grow for next time. Going through attendee and team feedback as a group and having discussions around each positive and constructive response will help everyone be on the same page, motivate the team, and generate new ideas for your next event. 

This is also a time for the team to express their own thoughts and challenges they had throughout the experience. Having a psychologically safe environment where team members can express their true feelings and know that other team members care about them is essential. Together you will come up with ideas and solutions that improve the event for attendees and also the team. Show appreciation to the team for being brave and taking on this challenge together! If they feel seen and appreciated, they will stick around to make the next one even better.

The Twin Cities Startup Week 2020 team: Eri O’Diah (Marketing & Communications at BETA), Erik Anderson (Operations Intern at BETA), Grace Northamer (Operations Intern at BETA) McKenzie Erickson (TCSW Track Lead) Laura Beier (Copywriter at BETA), Kelly Schultze (Operations Lead at BETA), Casey Shultz (Executive Director at BETA), Benjamin Van Sistine (TCSW Production Lead and Director of Experiential Design at Versus Experiential)


Written by BETA Operations Lead: Kelly Schultze, née Buhl