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How A Virtual Swimming Lesson and an Industry Conference Highlight Virtual Event Excellence

No-one can have missed the exponential rise in virtual events since the Covid-19 crisis started.  The growth curve has almost matched that of the virus itself. Now, everyone is delivering virtual events and it’s especially, and ironically, true in the travel sector in which we work.

More content, more insights, more support is a welcome addition to our sector and there have been some great virtual events.  But there have been more which have left the viewer wanting and the impact of this interests me for a very good reason.  Apart from the personal interest I have in attending events, we have been guiding our travel sector clients on event formats, content & delivery for years…we know what makes a great, impactful event and we understand how poor events can negatively affect a brand. The problem with everyone delivering virtual events because they are considered “easy”, is a glut of average content and worse still, the potential for long-term, negative brand impact

So it got me thinking – what makes a great virtual event?

Recently I have been witness to two excellent virtual events.  The first was observing my wife teach twenty children their regular swimming lesson via Zoom, without a pool in sight (most people pull a strange face trying to understand that when I tell them about it).  The second was an association event for over nine hundred delegates in the business travel sector.

Both of these events had meaningful impacts on their audience because they had three core things in common;


Being true to yourself and showing your weaknesses, as well as demonstrating your strengths, are important not just in a virtual event but in a physical one too.  What you think may be seen as weakness is very often perceived as the opposite provided it is reflected in the right way.  But in a lockdown situation, where people are craving connection with others, being authentic/real/whatever you want to refer to it as, is absolutely critical.

Authenticity In Action: In the case of the swimming class, being honest and admitting to kids that this was weird but a fun challenge got them all on board from the start.

At the association event, the emotion on the faces of the leaders at points in the conference journey was plain to see.  It was clear they were fully invested and that caused the delegates to be as well.

The Right Format

We guide clients all the time on formats to keep the audience engaged in physical conferences.  It’s tough when our devices call our attention all the time.  Now amplify that and you can understand how keeping people’s attention on virtual events is tougher than a physical one. There are all sorts of tricks to maintaining attention when running virtual events.  From interesting session formats, to the format of the event on screen (think rolling chat functions, periodic polling via mobile devices, random viewer unmute options etc…).  The important thing is to match the right formats to the content, audience and your objectives for the event.

Formats In Action: After some soulful searching on how my wife was to teach these kids when there wasn’t a pool in sight she came up with some great ideas.  Playing videos of winning Olympic swims and quizzing students on technique, getting kids to wear goggles and show technique on screen plus fun games which got them exercising (“Go grab something with the letter A and bring it back – Go!”) all featured in the high energy, 90-minute calls.

At the association event there were essentially four formats: single speakers, interviews, panels and Pecha Kucha. Switching between them, introducing polls through a mobile app and using videos, music and exercise breaks to move between sessions made for an almost seamless and engaging experience.

A Community Feel

Creating meaningful connection via virtual events requires you to create a community feel, the sense that everyone joining the meeting is there for a reason and sharing the same experience. Calling out participants, celebrating success and creating environments where participants talk to each other as content is shared are a few examples of how you can achieve this. When community feel is done right, it really enhances the sense of connection to the event and the brand delivering it.

Community In Action: In the swim call, my wife created teams and paired kids off to compete on challenges, got them talking and was sure to praise when things were done well.

The association made sure they referenced the names of those who asked questions, used a Chat function streaming on the main screen as a place for Q&A, industry Chat & banter and they recognised people in a set of awards.

Authenticity + Format + Community = Positive Emotional Impact

Getting these three things right can result in a powerful impact despite the obvious challenges of virtual events.

Despite the toughness of delivering a swim lesson on dry land via a computer screen the attendance at the weekly swim classes has been great and that’s because the combination of authenticity, format and community has an emotional impact on the kids, the parents and even the coaches.  The same can be said of the association event– many of the comments which followed that event were so human and heart led.  After the event I, and others I spoke to, felt a sense of disappointment that the event was over and like we had been totally immersed in the event just like it feels after an effective physical event.

But getting these three things wrong can end in wasted time, money and effort and the resultant long term switch off from your target audience – something I have experienced with some other virtual events I have attended.

(Swimming) Lessons For Our Future

When we start to return to physical events as the threat of Covid-19 starts to subside, virtual will continue to evolve.  Companies have learnt that virtual can be a great, cost effective way to increase connectivity, so these type of events won’t just disappear.  And we are likely to see a number of virtual components feature more heavily in our physical events, creating a hybrid experience. These could include;

  • Patching in virtual speakers (before it was a last resort – now it is a unique opportunity to access experts and content like you couldn’t before)
  • Streaming content to virtual delegates
  • Hub & spoke events where local delegates gather physically but connect virtually with other groups

So, investing in getting virtual events right now will result in a more efficient use of your event budgets in future.

At FESTIVE ROAD, we take our clients through a 7 step approach to delivering events which enhance your brand. Find out how we can help you achieve the impact you want as we support you through objectives, formats, speaker acquisition, briefings, rehearsals, delivery and moderation.

Creating something with authenticity, with the right formats and with a focus on community will ensure that you get the results – so go get those goggles and dive in!

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