Don’t Let COVID-19 Cancel Your Conference, Go Virtual with These 3 Tips

When my team and I began planning the 5th Annual She-Suite Summit more than six months ago, we set our sights on a day of inspiration, transformation, and purpose. This year, our women’s leadership conference was centered on the theme, “We Are What’s Next.” With 17 speakers, 300 attendees, numerous vendors, and more than a dozen national partners and corporate sponsors, we looked forward to a unique event focused on turning unexpected challenges into brand and legacy-building opportunities.

In retrospect, we could have never known just how prophetic those words would be.

As the weeks, days, and hours ticked off before the March 13th Summit, set for the greater D.C. area, the threat of COVID-19 became increasingly alarming and very real. It began with a ten to fifteen percent drop in attendance and a few speaker cancellations as more and more companies restricted travel. But on Wednesday, March 11th, the trickle of bad news became a deluge. First, the mayor of D.C. banned large gatherings.  By noon, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. Within an hour, we decided to take the Summit virtual.

The next day we condensed and transformed months of meticulous planning into an intense real-time exercise in organizational flexibility, agility, innovation, and adaptation – all without compromising our core values. As a result, our team turned what initially seemed like the perfect storm into a golden opportunity to showcase our mission, vision, and purpose.

Here are 3 tips we used to lead at the speed of change in the face of the unknown:

1. Put People First – The future of profit resides in people. That is precisely why we needed to put our health, safety, and well-being first. When the crisis initially began to unfold, our first instinct was to ride it out. But very quickly it became clear that we needed to shift gears. We had a responsibility to do the right thing, and that included not only protecting each other, but also upholding the integrity and the spirit of what we promised – an event that was insightful, impactful, and interpersonal. The 2020 She-Suite Summit still had to be a place where everyone could shine; we just needed to do it online.

2. Pivot to Your Strengths – Knowing who you are and your unique value is the first step on any path to success. Not only is my background in brand strategy and crisis communications, but fortunately, our company, Velvet Suite, excels at online learning and development. We’ve done more than 500 on-demand webinars and podcasts. We’ve executed more than 1,200 virtual courses, and we’ve built a community of leaders across the country. That’s our wheelhouse. So this was a chance to play to our strengths in the digital realm. We all have skill sets and talents; identify them and build on that foundation first.

3. Communicate Seamlessly – Rapid change requires swift, clear communication across your full spectrum of contacts and communities. Overnight, I articulated a vivid vision for every aspect of the virtual Summit. Then our team rallied together to identify and fill potential gaps. From developing segment communications, digital assets, and FAQs to handing call, text, and e-mail traffic to testing our tech tools for high production value, we had one day and one chance to execute with excellence. And most importantly, we did it all in a way that inspired confidence and competence under uncertain and potentially confusing circumstances. Use every advantage at your disposal to deliver your message effectively, efficiently, and harmoniously.

When we took the 2020 She-Suite Summit virtual, we raised the bar. More than 200 people participated, with 430 logging on throughout the day via Facebook Live, LinkedIn, and other social communities. By shifting online, we not only brought people back, but we also succeeded in reaching an even wider audience. The same goes for our 17 speakers. Even those who were forced to cancel in-person joined virtually with incredible energy and enthusiasm. Most importantly, the Summit is still making an impact. We are coaching companies to navigate this new virtual norm. Every day, we’re seeing attendees use the 90-day Personal Brand Partnership and action plan they formed at She-Suite to elevate their recognition online.

Not only was this year’s She-Suite Summit called the best ever virtual summit by some attendees, it continues to serve as a testament to Velvet Suite’s values in action. As the events played out in real-time, we lived by example. Instead of a nightmare scenario, our Friday the 13th became a case study in how we succeed by putting people first, pivoting to our strengths, and communicating seamlessly.   

No, we may not know what tomorrow holds. In the new and unprecedented landscape of a sudden global pandemic, it’s challenging, if not impossible, to predict the future.

But one thing is clear: we are what’s next. We will rise to the occasion. And nothing will stop us from building community, enhancing brands, and leading with purpose to help others do the same.

How Our Team Survived and Thrived in the Face of COVID-19

COVID-19 presents unique and unprecedented challenges to businesses and employers of all sizes across the HR community. But these obstacles, though significant, also offer opportunities for HR leaders and managers to take their teams to the next level. Here’s how our company, Velvet Suite, rose to the occasion when the growing pandemic threatened to cancel our annual summit.

For more than six months, my team and I worked extensively and tirelessly to plan every detail of our 5th Annual She-Suite Summit. With 17 speakers, 300 attendees, numerous vendors, and more than a dozen national partners and corporate sponsors, we prepared for a women’s leadership conference focused on turning unexpected challenges into brand and legacy-building opportunities.

Little did we know it would be a case study in doing just that.

A modest drop in attendance and a few speaker cancellations related to COVID-19 travel restrictions one week out snowballed into a full-blown crisis within 48 hours of the March 13th Summit. First, the mayor of D.C. banned large gatherings (the Summit was set for the Greater D.C. metro area).  By noon, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. Within an hour, we decided to take the Summit virtual.

 

In the day before the Summit, our team condensed and transformed months of meticulous planning into an intense real-time exercise in organizational flexibility, agility, innovation, and adaptation. Most importantly, we refused to compromise our core values. Instead, we leaned into them and relied on them, as well as HR best practices, to help ensure and drive a successful event.

Here are 3 tips we used (and HR professionals can follow) to lead at the speed of change in the face of the unknown:

 

Count on Human Capital – At Velvet Suite, we often say, “The future of profit resides in people.” That is precisely why we needed to put our health, safety, and well being first. When the crisis initially began to unfold, our first instinct was to ride it out. But very quickly it became clear that we needed to shift gears. We have a responsibility to protect our clients, our vendors, our partners, and our team. Putting people first reinforces their value to the company and their pivotal role in your overall success. It also boosts morale and puts HR leaders in an ideal position to take stock of individual skills, talents, and strengths. Since I know my team and they know I value them, we were already a collaborative and cohesive unit. We were already on the same page when we had to go back to the drawing board. And we were all invested in going the extra mile (or ten) when it came to crunch time.

 

Start with Your Strengths – Knowing your team’s unique value is the first step to success, especially when venturing into uncharted waters. In facing an unknown, unexpected, or potentially unstable situation, start with your strong points. For example, my background is in brand strategy and crisis communications. Plus, Velvet Suite excels at online learning and development. We’ve done more than 500 on-demand webinars and podcasts. We’ve executed more than 1,200 virtual courses, and we’ve built a community of leaders across the nation. That’s our forte. So this was a chance to pivot to our strengths in the digital world and advance our brand all while helping others do the same. We all have skills and talents; identify them, leverage them, and build on that foundation first.

 

Accentuate Engagement – Rapid change requires swift, clear, and seamless communication across your full spectrum of contacts and communities. Nowhere is this truer or more important than in HR. When we decided to take the Summit virtual, I spent all night articulating a vivid vision and action plan. The next day, our team rallied together to identify and fill potential gaps. But it wasn’t enough just to execute. We had to do so with excellence and an eye for engagement. The She-Suite Summit didn’t simply go online because of an unprecedented health crisis. COVID-19 raised the stakes. We had to stay relevant in the face of a growing emergency. That meant updating our messaging and content to ensure an insightful, impactful, and interpersonal experience. Yes, technology can be utilized cost-effectively, but you can’t sacrifice expertise and strategy in forging meaningful connections. 

Not only was this year’s She-Suite Summit called the best ever virtual summit by some attendees, it continues to serve as a tribute to the Velve Suite team and a textbook example of how HR leaders can meet and exceed expectations in an increasingly unpredictable world.

More than 200 people participated in the Summit, with 430 logging on throughout the day via Facebook Live, LinkedIn, and other social communities. By shifting online, we not only brought people back, but we also succeeded in reaching an even wider audience. The same goes for our 17 speakers. Even those who were forced to cancel in-person joined virtually with incredible energy and enthusiasm. Most importantly, the Summit is still making an impact. We are coaching companies to navigate this new virtual norm. Every day, we’re seeing attendees use the 90-day Personal Brand Partnership and action plan they formed at She-Suite to elevate their recognition online.

We could have never anticipated COVID-19 nor just how rapidly its impacts changed our event and continue to change our economy and our world. But as the events played out in real-time on Friday the 13th, we lived our example. As a result, we turned a nightmare scenario into a golden opportunity for both our company and the entire HR community.  We did the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, and we learned – and shared – valuable lessons.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated event or a one-off. COVID-19 is now a household name. It’s a game-changer. But HR leaders can succeed, and our teams must succeed. Let’s continue to empower our human capital, build on our strengths, and focus on engagement as we work together to overcome both the impacts of this virus and the uncertainty we all face on a daily basis.