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Applying What We've Learned About Hosting Virtual Events

Applying What We've Learned About Hosting Virtual Events

Two Health Sciences insiders share takeaways for better future events from a year of online conferences, meetings and more.
Virtual events are here to stay so finding the right platform and process will help you make the right presentation.

Primarily working from home may be coming to an end, but online meetings and events are likely to remain a big part of how we work. We’ve all seen the many gaffes and gremlins: forgetting to unmute, screen-sharing the wrong window, fritzing in and out of bad connections – and no one wants to relive those experiences.

With many hours of trial and error under their belts, Ross Dubois, special projects manager at the College of Medicine – Tucson, and Tracy Shake, director of community outreach and education at the UArizona Arthritis Center, have built some expertise in planning and producing virtual events. They were happy to share with Health Sciences Connect some of what they’ve learned to help others create and manage their virtual offerings.

Find Your Formula

Tip No. 1: There's no one-size-fits-all formula for virtual events. When Dubois began adapting the College of Medicine – Tucson's Research Day into a virtual event, he started with an inventory of its key content, namely 11 faculty sharing information about their work.

He quickly realized that with so many presenters, keeping the faculty to their allotted 10-minute time slots was critical. Maintaining attendee focused and attention during the eight-hour event would need a change in thinking, too. Visual information on screen would help the audience better track names and topics. Anything to make the delivery more engaging would be critical, not just bells and whistles.

Tracy Shake said giving the audience what they want and need will make any event – virtual or in person – a success.For Research Day, these factors added up to pre-recorded presentations to ensure the event didn't run overtime and to allow speakers to get their deliveries just right. A live Q&A session kept the overall event from feeling "canned," and a live streaming studio software, StreamYard, let Dubois drop in graphic text, backgrounds and transitions to make the flow more compelling.

The formula for that event was very different from, for example, the Canyon Ranch/Living Healthy With Arthritis Active Program, a series of free public classes from the Arthritis Center leading participants in tai chi, stretching and other forms of exercise.

"I went back and forth on doing those classes as webinars or Zoom meetings," Shake said. A webinar would be simple: one instructor on screen, no interruptions, straightforward and smooth. But Shake knew that exercise was only part of the series' appeal. Equally or even more important was the group dynamic.

"We have a real community that's developed through our programs," Shake explained. "These people know each other, and there's such camaraderie among them." In the end, the Arthritis Center delivered the classes via Zoom. While that did mean someone occasionally piping up about tight hamstrings, the format made the classes more personal.

"It was so gratifying to witness people seeing one another and interacting," Shake said. "And even though it wasn't in person, you could feel that sense of connection."

Know Your Audience

Tip No. 2: Choose the right format for your audience. Using Zoom for the Active Program series rather than a more straightforward webinar was attendee-focused. If you want to make your content more lecture-style rather than conversational, your needs will be different. Ask yourself: Am I talking to my audience or with my audience?

"Make sure that you're giving people what they want and need," Shake said. For the Arthritis Center, that audience is a loyal following that turns out for programming month after month, year after year, and they've come to expect a certain kind of event.

"One of my biggest goals when we transitioned to virtual events was to make them feel, as much as I possibly could, like what our community had experienced in person," Shake said. For larger events, she chose to have speakers present live whenever possible, including from the Health Sciences Innovation Building that the Center has always used, with speakers at a podium on stage.

Of course, that meant additional production resources. As with any project, having the right people and tools can make the difference between moderate success and hitting it out of the park. For virtual events, those resources might be new digital tools, expert support or a mix of both.

Consider this

Line Up Tools & Talent

Tip No. 3: Find an application that has the tools you need rather than trying to just adapt your programming. When Dubois hit on the format for his Research Day event, he knew the usual e-meetings solutions didn't offer the functionality he needed. After vetting a number of products, he settled on Hopin, a virtual event and livestreaming platform that let him add production elements and run his event like a one-person broadcast studio.

"I was able to queue up all of the video files, make sure they all started and ended at the right time, and the back-end studio software made it seamless," Dubois said. "That's what I'm most proud of: that we were really able to take this virtual event to the next level."

Of course, not everyone has a Ross Dubois to tap for events. For the Arthritis Center, production expertise came via the Health Sciences Office of Communications’ BioCommunications team, which offers fee-for-service talent and tools for video conferencing, video production and other media needs.

"We had three different cameras running with presenters and our emcee, fading in and out of shots, all live," Shake recounted, describing BioCom support for an Arthritis Center community education and fundraising event. "We're so fortunate to be able to work with the BioCom team. They're just amazing people and so good at what they do."

Understand & Offset Cost

Tip No. 4: Be prepared to pay more for higher production value. Whichever route you take – new digital tools, outside support or a mix of both – additional resources do come at a cost. Licensing or purchasing new software can be expensive, but it's important to look at cost from all angles, Dubois noted.

Case in point: The cost for tools he used for Research Day would be spread across five events, each accommodating an audience of up to 200 in the base price. Viewing the investment from that longer-range perspective changed the value proposition.

Similarly, when weighing the cost of using outside talent, it's important to recognize that employee time also has a price tag. "Often we don't think about the FTE investment for events, but if a team works 120 hours on an event, those are resources that could have gone toward something else," Dubois said.

A last bit of advice on costs: Funding can come from unexpected places. Because Research Day facilitates science collaborations, some of its expenses could be covered by grant money to support innovation in biomedical research. "Turn over every rock when considering how to fund an event," Dubois advised, "whether it's getting sponsorships or even writing a grant." Need some guidance on grant writing? UArizona Research, Innovation & Impact has compiled some resources to get you started.

Support for Virtual Meetings and Events

Health Sciences Office of Communications:


IT services at each of the Health Sciences colleges:

College of Medicine – Phoenix

College of Medicine – Tucson

College of Nursing

College of Pharmacy

Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

The College of Nursing has also created a tutorial on Zoom Interface for Effective Hosting and offers archived videos from its Let's Talk Tech with LHTI ongoing training series.