Juan Vides, CEO of TECHACS Corp., a Garden City-based digital...

Juan Vides, CEO of TECHACS Corp., a Garden City-based digital marketing firm and founder of Winning on Wednesday, a networking group he started a year ago, says being able to chat and interact is crucial to engagement. Credit: TECHACS Corp. / Juan Vides

Now that the pandemic has put live events and corporate gatherings on hold, businesses and local groups have transitioned to virtual presentations.

And that seems to be the norm that will continue for some time.

Even one of the region’s largest business events, the HIA-LI Annual Trade Show and Conference, for the first time will be held as a two-day virtual event Oct. 7 and 8.

The trade show pre-pandemic was normally held in May as a one-day event at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood and draws about 5,000 attendees and 375 exhibitors.

“We now have an opportunity to get people from all over the world,” says HIA-LI president and CEO Terri Alessi-Miceli. “We anticipate it being quite successful.”

With virtual events like these being the new norm, experts say it’s critical businesses and groups look for ways to boost engagement to make up for not being in-person.

HIA-LI president and CEO Terri Alessi-Miceli says the group's annual trade show...

HIA-LI president and CEO Terri Alessi-Miceli says the group's annual trade show and conference, for the first time, will be held as a two-day virtual event. Credit: Bob Giglione

HIA-LI says it’s incorporating technology into its event to help with engagement including giving attendees the ability to click through and tour the different virtual booths and enabling attendees to also book appointments to speak directly with vendors live via chat.

This is a good idea, experts say.

“Virtual conferences and events have to enable people to engage as they would in real life,” says Wayne Kurtzman, research director for the social and collaboration practice at Framingham, Massachusetts-based IDC, a global market intelligence firm.

A May 2020 IDC survey found the shift to virtual events were a modest success with room for improvement, he says. On the technical side, event organizers and attendees both identified engagement during the event as one of the top areas for improvement along with audio quality (organizers) and the need for closed captions (attendees).

The survey found less than half of the events offered live chats to ask questions of speakers or for audience interaction.

This takes away from engagement considering 55% of survey respondents said if provided, they would use an in-meeting or at event chat feature, Kurtzman says.

Almost half of virtual event organizers found that virtual events were less expensive than in-person events, he says. Engagement on platforms can often be accomplished with features that already exist on many of the conferencing event platforms, he adds.  

Juan Vides, CEO of TECHACS Corp., a Garden City-based digital marketing firm and founder of Winning on Wednesday, a networking group he started a year ago, says being able to chat and interact is crucial to engagement.

He enables the chat function in their virtual meetings and also found having breakout rooms within Zoom for his networking members to more intimately chat and interact also helps with engagement. For more on Zoom breakout rooms see nwsdy.li/zbreakout.

Each Winning on Wednesday meeting has about 50 attendees and they have four virtual breakout rooms, where participants can network with different members. They also have a different icebreaker question they ask weekly that members can discuss in the breakout rooms in addition to networking, says Vides, who also serves as moderator.

If you have larger events, workshops or seminars, it pays to have a moderator to keep the event on course.

Joe Campolo, managing partner of Ronkonkoma-based Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP,...

Joe Campolo, managing partner of Ronkonkoma-based Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP, says virtual events will never replace the value and quality of live events, which makes presenters have to be "even more engaging and relevant." Credit: Nicole Rochelle Photography / Nicole Rochelle

For Business Unusual, a weekly Zoom webinar hosted by Ronkonkoma-based Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP, there are two moderators for the 50 to 100 live viewers it usually gets, says managing partner Joe Campolo, who co-moderates with Melville-based financial adviser Peter Klein of Aline Wealth. They also have different speakers each week to discuss different aspects of navigating the pandemic, which helps with engagement.

“Each week builds upon the last,” says Campolo, noting the free webinars were started in May to fill a need for businesses coping with the pandemic.

He says virtual events will never replace the value and quality of live events (the firm had at least two live events monthly in its training room pre-pandemic), which makes presenters have to be “even more engaging and relevant.”

Alessi-Miceli agrees and says after each of the HIA-LI’s virtual weekly webinar programs it asks participants for feedback via an emailed survey including what are the biggest challenges they’re facing, which helps craft programming.

Dean DeCarlo, president of Mission Disrupt, a Huntington-based digital marketing...

Dean DeCarlo, president of Mission Disrupt, a Huntington-based digital marketing agency, recommends promoting events through social media. Credit: Mission Disrupt

You may also want to incorporate interactive polls into your event, says Dean DeCarlo, president of Mission Disrupt, a Huntington-based digital marketing agency.

There are third-party platforms that allow you to do this such as Poll Everywhere, DeCarlo says.

Beyond that, to help drive attendance, he recommends promoting your event through social media, but most effective is uploading your email addresses to the Facebook ad platform, which allows you to target those contacts with Facebook event ads.

Companies could set a daily budget that could range anywhere from $10 a day and above for maximum visibility, DeCarlo says. .

Lastly, good video, lighting and audio are key, Kurtzman says.

“It’s a tiny investment you’ll be using for years,” he says.

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Virtual conference engagement methods:

• Live chat to ask questions of speakers (43.1%)

• Live chat for participants to communicate (40.2%)

• Online community used to facilitate future discussions (31.4%)

• Polls with real-time results (29.4%)

• Virtual happy-hour or other breakouts for attendees to network (25.5%)

Source: IDC Virtual Events Study, May 2020; Percentages represent 102 event organizers in North America surveyed during May 2020