How to stage a virtual conference

Virtual conference - woman distance learning
Distance learning

Covid-19 has put a stop to face-to-face events for now, and this has hit many companies hard financially. But over the last few months, we’ve been impressed by the innovation and agility of businesses that have transformed their events into virtual experiences, keeping them central to their communities.

One such business is Contentive, who have run the HRD Summit for the past fifteen years, taking the whole thing online this year. The event brings together senior HR and people leaders to discuss their challenges, with a particular focus on the future of work. We were invited to join to see how it all worked, and afterwards I interviewed Contentive CEO Sandeep Saujani.

He gave a fascinating insight into how the conference was conceived and run, and talked eloquently about the pros and cons. We thought it would be helpful to share these insights with you all. But we also had a wide-ranging discussion about the future of conferences, the workplace, media, and the HR community. You can hear the wider conversation in our Business People podcast.

Decide on your content format


There are a number of elements to the HRD Summit which are familiar to other conferences: high-level keynote speeches, roundtables, exhibitor stands, networking events and vendor/buyer one-to-ones. Contentive had to decide which of these would work in a virtual world, and realised they could replicate all effectively and quickly but the one-to-ones. These have been a critical part of the event in the past, so they are working on how this might work in future conferences, but the focus instead came on attracting the best content for keynotes and roundtables. There was a networking app, but, as Saujani admits, this was the least successful part of the experience as senior executives prefer pre-qualified meetings. 


Decide on your platform


Contentive has run three events in the last month – for HRDs, CFOs, and marketers – so have had the opportunity to trial three different platforms. They chose StreamGo for the HRDs because it was customisable, and offered a high level of interaction. “HRD’s are highly social and love innovation,” he says. For the CFO conference, they trialled Crowdcomms: CFOs enjoy “high quality content, and some discussion, but limited.” They used Hopin for the AI in marketing summit. Saujani’s advice is to really look at the functionality of the platform and choose that which best suits the experiences you are trying to replicate from previous live events based on what you know about the audience preferences. 


He also found that the more established platform, Hopin, was “inundated” with sales enquiries so couldn’t do any customisation “unless at a very high ticket price”, whereas StreamGo was “really helpful in helping us to customise the platform.” It is worth asking your potential provider about this upfront.


Contemplate failure.  


Sounds odd, I know; but every conference has technical glitches. Normally, as Saujani puts it, your attendees are very patient while you fix things “because they haven’t got anywhere to run to.” For virtual attendees, there are a great many things to distract them. If you do have a glitch, you need to be able to fix it double-quick.


Contentive decided to put an operations team of “four to six people in one room to ease communications.” This was only decided a week before the event, after trial runs. And, sure enough, there was a glitch: many of us were kicked off round tables in the afternoon session, but the problem was very quickly resolved and we were readmitted within seconds. 

Saujani says you should not just contemplate failure, but “embrace it” if it happens. “You win, or you learn.”


Celebrate the pros, but don’t forget the cons


Overall, Saujani was really pleased with the event and the feedback. They had an NPS of plus 25, more attendees than ever, and (importantly) more senior attendees than ever. Like most events businesses, they know that “the more senior the attendee, the harder it is to bring them along to a two or three day event.” Virtual conferences seem to overcome this: Saujani expects future events to offer a ‘blended’ experience: “a combination of workshops and conversations which happen online and much less expectation of travel.”


Virtual events also allow the possibility to “geo-clone at a much lower cost.” Whereas previous events, in the UK, Amsterdam and east coast US have attracted largely local attendees, the virtual event allowed them to “truly globalise”.


However, the event struggled to replicate their qualified one-to-ones, or the “corridor conversations” that make conferences so important. Contentive are not resting on their laurels: Saujani says that for future events they are looking at more “handheld” solutions, where facilitators might try to spark conversations by seeding content into different groups.


Community service


Ultimately, the great success of the HRD virtual conference is that it kept the annual ‘habit’ in place for the community of HRD professionals. This will make coming back next year – whether in a blended, live or purely digital format – much easier for Contentive. It’s hugely important in these unprecedented times that we all focus on making the short-term challenges into an advantage for our communities, and work together to navigate what lies ahead. 


NB: Most of the content from the HRD Summit, with some really great content about the future of work, is available at To hear the full interview, go to our podcast


Martin Tripp

[email protected]

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.