How to convert an on-campus conference to a virtual event

Rather than canceling the 2020 Simmons Leadership Conference this month, planners for the 41-year event are bringing it online
By: | April 9, 2020
Former First Lady Michelle Obama, a notable speaker at the 2018 Simmons Leadership Conference, spoke with Simmons University President Helen Drinan on stage. Photo: Lisa CohenFormer First Lady Michelle Obama, a notable speaker at the 2018 Simmons Leadership Conference, spoke with Simmons University President Helen Drinan on stage. Photo: Lisa Cohen

Working with the theme “defining power” for their annual women’s leadership conference, organizers of a 41-year Simmons University’s event are showing just how powerful they are in finding a way to continue amidst coronavirus closures in Boston and throughout the world. The Simmons Leadership Conference attracts thousands of middle- and senior-level women from companies and organizations across the country and around the globe. This year, the April 16 conference will take place online. 

The new format—planned in under four weeks—retains its headliners: tennis champion, activist and entrepreneur Serena Williams; media pioneer and TEDWomen editorial director Pat Mitchell; Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw; and economist and author Dambisa Moyo.

The conference will broadcast live from a virtual main stage powered by Cisco and Vbrick. Besides listening to keynotes and panel discussions, participants can engage in moderated Q&A sessions and in live polling. 

Elisa van Dam, vice president of strategic partnerships and convenings at the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, spoke with DA about the process of converting a physical event to a virtual one. 

 

Q: Who on campus is involved in planning this event?

A: The core team is from the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. This includes myself and Susan Brady, who is the CEO of the Institute. We are fortunate to be supported by individuals from across Simmons, from senior executives, to our marketing and web team, to finance. We’ve also created a video, “The Show Will Go On,” that gives a behind the scenes look at the team. 

 

Q: When was the decision made that it could be done virtually and what motivated the team to find a way to still make it happen?

A: The Simmons Leadership Conference is an event that so many participants look forward to each year. It’s also the longest-running women’s leadership forum in the nation, and we were determined to have a conference this year. We started thinking about the possibility of going virtual at the beginning of March as the coronavirus crisis was expanding in the United States. We made the final decision to switch to a virtual event shortly after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced the state of emergency on March 10.

 

Q: How was the virtual event technology chosen? 

A: Cisco has been one of the key sponsors of the conference for many years, and two Cisco executives are on the advisory board for the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. They immediately offered to work with us and have been an amazing partner. 

 

Q: What kind of attendee base are you anticipating?

A: The 2020 Simmons Leadership Conference was sold out last fall with over 3,200 attendees expected. With the change to virtual, we have been able to accommodate more participants and are expecting approximately 5000 attendees. 

 

Q: How did speakers react to the decision to switch to a virtual conference?

 A: All of our speakers have been incredibly supportive of the move to virtual. So many other events are being canceled, and they’ve expressed how happy they are for the opportunity to share their stories, and to have the chance to inspire and motivate others—especially at a time when that inspiration and motivation is so important. 

Like all of us, this is their “new normal.” This is a difficult and scary period for many people, and I think the speakers, like all of us on the organizing team, are excited to have the opportunity to share something positive and uplifting.  

Leadership conference tech connections

Simmons Leadership Conference speakers will be utilizing Cisco DX80 Collaboration endpoint devices and broadcasting live from the streaming Vbrick link, while the attendees have the opportunity to engage in moderated Q&A and live polling. Through Webex Teams, attendees can chat with other attendees, learn about partners and sponsors, and experience “open” networking with the conference community, according to a Cisco spokesperson.

Q: In what ways are you helping to support attendees in attending and networking virtually?

A: We have created a “connection center” to allow participants to network with each other, have conversations on particular topics, and even visit virtual exhibitor “booths.” We have also assembled a dedicated team that will be operating virtually on the day of the conference to help participants navigate technology questions. We understand that this is a new format and we’re excited to make it a memorable and meaningful experience for participants.

 

Q: What advice do you have for campus event leaders at other colleges and universities on moving physical events online?

 A: We established several key principles as we started thinking about making the event virtual. First, we wanted to redesign the event based on best practices in virtual learning. Simmons University was one of the earliest entrants into online education back in 2011, and we’re fortunate that the institution has been a longtime leader in this space. We’ve drawn on that experience and expertise to create a world-class event.  

So rather than just broadcasting the event as it was originally planned, we thought about how to make it most engaging as a virtual experience. We’ve condensed the day, added opportunities for audience participation, and moved some content to video-on-demand only. 

Second, we wanted to provide a virtual offering for as many of the key aspects of the on-the- ground conference as possible. For example, we’ve created a robust virtual networking experience we think participants will enjoy and benefit from. 

Lastly, we are communicating as often as possible with all of our internal and external stakeholders, since the situation has been evolving so rapidly.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.


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