Online Conference Success

With reports in that some BNC members are choosing to postpone large events until they can deliver them live, many event professionals are putting their focus elsewhere. But what if the show must go on? What if you can’t delay and postpone?

Susannah (Susie) Murray, Head of Conferences & Events at the Liberal Democrats, had to do just that.

Here she talks to Melissa Paulden about how she had to quickly skill-up, adapt and deliver – not just to keep to the national political party conference calendar – but also to keep up with the expectations of stakeholders, the press - and members of the public and the party. Quite an organisational feat when you have just three months to get everything in place.

I have worked in events for almost all of my career. I have over 20 years’ experience in this industry and I chose to work for the Liberal Democrats because

I wanted to work for an organisation where I really believed in their ethos and felt like I was making a difference with my knowledge and expertise.

What appeals to me about the industry is its fast-paced nature plus you work with a wide variety of people and are always being challenged in unexpected ways and you get to see the end product of all your hard work - a great event!

The skills that I have that make me a natural event manager are: Organisational, multi tasking, communication and people skills, decisive, attention to detail, calm under pressure, problem solving and of course passion!

Apart from our recent online Autumn Conference, the best event at the Lib Dems has to be our Autumn Conference last year in Bournemouth. We grew the membership attendance by 37% on the previous year (it was our highest member attended conference ever) and the overall attendance by 41% - not bad for the first ever Autumn Conference I had run for the Party with a completely new conference team.

Unexpected situations can occur at any time, as any seasoned event planner knows, but when it does, and you manage to get the right result which means all parties are satisfied, that is always something to learn from.

Last year we organised two large physical annual conferences for the Party as well as seven smaller events. We are a small team so we all pull together to run these events. We all work on the events and divide the tasks depending upon our skill set.

We have had an unprecedented year. Back in March we hoped that after a month or two, life would be back to ‘normal’.

As the lockdown continued, it became increasingly clear that a physical event this year would be highly unlikely. We really wanted our members and supporters to have a conference of some description so that they can have their say and vote on policy.

We started looking for a platform to host the event in April/ May and the whole team started working on the event in June (the event was 25-28 Sept). It was a huge challenge for us as we had never run a fully interactive online conference before. Choosing the right online platform for your needs is very important so we looked at many different options. Project planning was vital and working from home meant that regular team video calls were essential.

We had a full auditorium programme with member interaction and voting, training sessions, fringe sessions, exhibitors, networking area. We wanted to have a diverse offering for our members and also wanted them to feel engaged.

We had to learn the digital side of the event very quickly. We had just over three months to deliver the event from start to finish (from the date that we chose the platform). That included building a new registration site, redesigning our website and documents to fit a virtual event as well as learning all about the platform itself. It was a steep learning curve!

I am not sure you ever feel confident until it is all over and it has gone well. We used a great online conference platform and had a very professional production company which helped make the conference a great success.

Digital was the primary focus. The online conference platforms have probably never been busier and as more companies use their products they are constantly developing them so keeping up with any system changes is important as well as really understanding the technology and ensuring that your attendees understand the technology too. We made a familiarisation video for all our attendees on how to use the platform as well as running sessions for our fringe/ training/ exhibition organisers.

We used Hopin as our online conference platform - it had all the elements that we needed for our event: auditorium, fringe/ training, networking, exhibition stands, voting, chat features. They were very responsive and helpful during the process. We also worked with a great production company, Vivid who ran the auditorium sessions for us and made them look very professional.

Understanding the technology and ensuring that your attendees do as well has been the biggest learning curve of managing a large virtual event. Double checking that all the information on the platform has been set up correctly and tested thoroughly prior to the start of the event.

The positives of running virtual events are: you can engage attendees from all over the UK and overseas without the cost of travel or hotel accommodation. They do not need to take annual leave to travel to/ attend the event and can dip in and out of the event at their leisure from the comfort of their own home. It is also more accessible for those who are less able to travel.

But a physical event it is more sociable. You bump into your friends, can grab lunch or a coffee with them or have a drink in the bar afterwards. Drinks receptions, lunches, dinners - these kind of events are difficult to replicate at an online event.

Overall, our attendees were really positive about our conference. It was well attended, had a really good variety of debates, speeches, training, fringe, exhibition, networking opportunities. We had over 20,000 votes cast and in total our attendees spent the equivalent of over 5 years at the conference over the four days!

Once a major political party conference is over, the first feeling is relief that the platform was robust, didn’t fall over and that we had really good attendance. Then elated that we did it! At a physical event you usually walk miles every day around the venue, at an online event you are working at your laptop answering queries from email, social media, phone calls etc. At a venue you close the doors at a certain time but an online event is never really closed until it is finished. Post event feedback is very important as well as all the team getting some rest before the next project.

Pulling together an online event in just over three months, whilst working from home, having thousands of members attend and interacting with the online conference made it all worthwhile. A huge thank you to the conference team and the rest of the Lib Dem staff and committee members who united in ensuring the success of the event.