Planning a conference in the time of COVID-19: Tips for organizing a successful online event

Picture this:

Autumn is here, and with it comes conference and workshop season. Maybe you are planning an inaugural event. Or maybe you are accustomed to planning an annual conference using the same venue every year. But things have changed due to a global pandemic that puts strong restrictions on crowds.

Suddenly, your event is in jeopardy. How can you organize a conference or workshop now if you aren’t allowed to have more than 50 people in a room who all need to stand or sit two metres apart from each other? Is there any way to pivot and create a dynamic and engaging event all while respecting the rules of physical distancing?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this scenario a reality for events around the world and has left organizers scratching their heads about what to do next. An increasingly popular option is moving conferences and workshops to virtual platforms. While this is not a new concept, the sudden need to embrace the virtual world has many organizations shifting focus from in-person to online.

Here are a few tips to help make your virtual conference, workshop, or other event stand out.

Virtual conferences still require a lot of planning

There’s more to planning virtual conferences, workshops, and other events than considering the type of technology that will be used to deliver the materials. You need to rethink and restructure the ways the organizers and participants interact with each other and attend sessions. It’s important to remember that virtual conferences and other events still require just as much logistical planning as their face-to-face counterparts.

It is critical to have a strong organizing committee that can be innovative at taking the components of a physical conference or workshop and shaping them into an engaging virtual model. Your committee will need to think of logistics such as what “venue” will be used and who has technical expertise in managing those arrangements, recruiting and training volunteers (yes – they are still needed) in managing digital sessions, and considering activities for entertainment and social interactions (yes – this is still important).

In many ways, virtual conferences can be less forgiving than physical ones if something is not working as planned so the committee needs to be very organized to ensure all kinks are ironed out before the event begins.

Technology is key

With a virtual conference, many considerations need to be made for the types of technologies being used. To make your decision, you need to research components like videoconferencing services and platforms, text-based platforms for communication, shared whiteboards, virtual worlds and virtual reality, and archival storage systems. There are many tools available and the best option for your event will depend on budget, technical requirements, media support, and IT support.

Equally as important is the technological experience of the participants, including the requirements for them to join the event. Will the requirements reduce accessibility of the conference or workshop to some who are interested? For example, if an interested participant has limited internet connectivity, are there any options for downloading content afterwards? It is key to consider the audience you wish to attract and to work within their possible limitations. Security and privacy issues also need to be taken into consideration with the increase in virtual conferencing platforms being targeted by cyber-attacks.

Networking is still possible online

Let’s face it, many of us enjoy attending conferences for the social components and often steer clear of virtual conferences because there is a perception that they are lacking in this area. However, virtual meetings are becoming a way of life and with some creative thinking and experimenting, unstructured social interactions can remain a valuable component of online events. Here are some alternatives that you can add to your next virtual event.

  • Chat roulettes

As a way to replace coffee breaks, these breakout sessions randomly pair two or four people in a video chat to have a conversation. When someone decides they are ready to move on, they simply go back to the main room and choose a different group to join.

  • Social rooms

Participants can hang out and meet people in virtual social rooms. Setting one up could be as simple as a participant posting a message saying they are available for a discussion and inviting others to join.

  • Speakers only

Provide opportunities for speakers to interact by setting up “Speaker Rooms” and “Speaker Events” so they have an opportunity to network with one another.

  • Evening activities

Consider traditional social activities such as live entertainment and tours and offer a virtual version for participants to join in.

So while the prospect of planning a virtual conference, workshop, or other event might seem daunting, it is possible and there are many options for making a successful and engaging event.


Association for Computing Machinery. (2020, May). Virtual conferences: A guide to best practices.