Transform your conference programme into a virtual event

6 minute read

Your physical programme template may have served you well over the years, but it needs reshaping to be ready for a virtual event.

Right now, it feels like the world has been upended. Painstakingly made conference plans are under threat and you may feel at a bit of a loss. If you’re switching to a virtual event, take time to accept that it may end up looking very different from your original face-to-face vision. Then brush off your shoulders and remember that different doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Every planned session from your physical event won’t make the leap to virtual. And that’s ok. Spend time and effort on the sessions and interactions that matter most to your audience. And be reasonable about what you can achieve when pivoting to a virtual event.

Translate your sessions into virtual event deliverables

Whether you prioritise live on-screen interactions or polished presentations, virtual tools come with their own set of rules. Check the per-session capacity for each tool you’re planning to use. And if you’re a small team trying to pull this off, pre-record as much as possible to minimise your workload on the day. Here are some common ways we’ve seen conferences translating their sessions to virtual.

Ex Ordo's Virtual Conference Platform

Keynote speeches = Live stream

Since this is primarily one-way communication, a simple live stream is probably your best bet. You’ll need a host to introduce the speakers and a virtual room that has the capacity to support all your attendees. Back this up with a pre-recorded version that you can post in case your speaker has any issues connecting on the day.

Panels, case studies and tutorials = Web conferencing

For more involved sessions with multiple presenters and speakers, web conferencing with a tool like Webex is a good way to go. If your chosen tool allows, you can change settings to allow new viewers to enter and exit without notifications (so the session can run uninterrupted). You’ll likely need a host and several moderators for these sessions, as well as a live chat feature to facilitate questions and discussion. And again, back these up with pre-recorded versions that you can play in an emergency.

Paper presentations = Pre-recorded video 

If you’re planning to have parallel sessions with multiple presenters in each, live-streaming or web conferencing may not be feasible from a cost or support point of view. Instead, collect pre-recorded presentations from your paper presenters. Some tools may allow you to hide these videos until the session goes live.

Q&As = Live chat or web conferencing

Your audience should have a way to ask live questions after each presentation. Ask presenters of videos to be available online after their video is played to answer questions. IEEE’s ICBC conference is collecting papers, posters and tutorials as pre-recorded videos. One clever thing they’ve done is asking tutorial presenters to record their presentation in two halves so the organisers can hold a live Q&A intermission in between.

Poster sessions = Digital database

Unless posters are a big draw at your event, don’t get too caught up trying to make this feel like a physical event. Try hosting a searchable digital database of posters. Presenters can upload video, contact details, or extra materials and attach them to their poster slot. If you have a tool that allows people to like entries and search popular ones, this can help create the buzz of a live session as well.

Don’t forget about informal virtual sessions and content

Don’t forget about the importance of informal content at your event. Like an ask-me-anything style interview with an industry star. Or a live chat room for special interest groups to hang out between sessions. Have a brainstorm session to throw out some wild ideas – they just might become the star of the show.

Restructure your programme so it’s viable online

At an in-person meeting, your attendees enjoy a physical separation from their everyday schedules and distractions. And breaks and personal interactions provide the stimulus to help them stay alert and engaged throughout. So, how can you create these supports virtually when everyone is joining your event remotely?

Cut sessions that won’t translate to a virtual event

Some events, like practical workshops, can be difficult to translate to virtual. And, unless you’ve got a bottomless budget, you’ll likely have a limited number of virtual “rooms” to host live-streaming or web conferencing, so you’ll have to prioritise. Cut the sessions that won’t translate. But consider recognising any work that was accepted for publication as “published” for author resumes, even if it didn’t make the leap to virtual. When the Society For Public Health Education annual conference switched to virtual in March, they made some tough decisions like cancelling workshops and roundtables. But they didn’t abandon them entirely. They still collected powerpoints from these events for distribution.

Shorten your schedule to keep online event attendees engaged

At a virtual event, people likely won’t have the headspace blocked out to attend a full day of programming. So shorten your session lengths, trim your daily schedule, and even consider cutting a three-day event down to two. But check you’re not compromising continuing education credits. Make sure your event still offers enough credit hours to attendees.

Host core live sessions at times that suit audience timezones 

If your audience is dispersed internationally, you’ll need to consider their time zones. To avoid asking anyone to log in in the middle of the night, have dedicated times in your programme to host big-name speakers, popular sessions and sensitive materials that presenters don’t want left on-demand. Ideally, select a few hours that work for all attendees’ time zones. If that’s not possible, make up for this with planned re-broadcasting times.

Schedule longer breaks (and lots of them) 

Plan some downtime where people can stretch their legs and grab a cup of tea or a breath of fresh air. And make these breaks longer than you would at a physical event. There’s no catering to make food magically appear as your attendees exit a session. And making meals and snacks takes a wee bit longer than loading your plate at a buffet. In addition, your attendees will appreciate a longer break from the screen.

Host some content on-demand to extend the virtual experience 

Cutting sessions and shortening your programming is hard. And setting live streams at a time that is ideal for everyone can be difficult depending on your audience. Thankfully, hosting content on-demand can help ease some of these conflicts. By collecting pre-recorded video presentations (and recording most of the sessions that you host live), you can offer attendees a more flexible way to experience a larger conference at their own pace and on their own timeline. It’s up to you whether this on-demand content will be integrated into your digital library, or hosted on the conference website or virtual platform. Regardless, on-demand is a must-have addition to a good virtual conference experience.

Reimagine your venue as an online hub

At an in-person meeting, your venue unifies your audience and directs navigation around your event. Without a unified way to guide people around your virtual event, you’re in danger of losing them. So whether it’s a website or a virtual conference platform like Ex Ordo, you need to create one central place for delegates to gather.

Create an online conference hub

If you’re forcing attendees to hop between unrelated websites to access different sessions and content, it’s easy to lose the sense of community your event is meant to provide. To hold a successful virtual event, you need to create an online space to host it, in the same way you need a venue for a physical conference. This virtual hub should give attendees everything they need to attend your event.

Ex Ordo's Virtual Conference Platform

Have a central place to gather for the virtual conference

Think of the hub as your virtual venue that delegates arrive at. It should be the central place where you organise everyone and give them access to the most relevant and timely content. Delegates should be able to use it to tune in to see breaking news, conference announcements and live updates when sessions are starting.

Include all the necessary online distribution channels 

Scholarly conferences are top-heavy with presenters, and delivering 1000 live presentations in 40 web conferencing “rooms” all at once isn’t feasible. Instead, your hub should include a mix of live and pre-recorded content, as well as all the necessary background reading like PDF papers, posters, and source files.

Help virtual delegates meet other people in the room 

No delegate wants to feel like the only soul in the room, and conference networking is naturally a large part of face-to-face events. So your hub should allow delegates to talk to fellow attendees, message presenters and get help when they need it.

Take a peek at Ex Ordo Virtual

We’ve been on a 10-year journey to design exceptional software for research conferences. Now, we’re building a virtual conferencing platform where you can rally your community. Using integrations with tried-and-tested streaming and video software, we’ll create a live space that caters to your content’s diverse needs and let you control who can access what. We’ll also help bring your first virtual conference to life with friendly, dedicated support.

Go ahead, check out Ex Ordo Virtual.


Dee McCurry

Dee helps shape the new features we build at Ex Ordo. She enjoys thinking through customer needs, and loves finding the words that make a complicated process simple. When she’s not bashing on a keyboard, you’ll find her weaving baskets from willow or drinking fancy herbal tea. Sometimes both at once.