Our 2020 Virtual Summit: The Planning, Production and Payoff

BY Chris DeBoer
2/4/2021 - HVAC Networking

Everyone at this point already is aware that planning any event in 2020 was like being dropped in the middle of no-man’s-land. There was practically no way of knowing what would happen with events and how to pull off something that could still meet your organizational needs. We quickly had to step back, reconceptualize planned events, learn new skills and remain agile throughout the entire planning and execution process. All the while, having very little information available on what KPI’s could gauge the success of a virtual event. In a nutshell, we basically scrapped what we had done for years and tried our best to build an event that added value to our various members and customers.

In this post we share some of the lessons we learned, and knowledge gained from our 2020 Virtual Summit planning and production as well as the payoff we experienced from holding this unprecedented event.


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How We Planned

Goal Development:

When we made the tough decision to transition our typical Annual Conference to a year end summit, we knew that we could not simply carry over the same KPI’s and goals we had implemented for our past events. Instead, we had to have some internal conversations about what success would look like for us with our new Virtual Summit.

Would it be total event participants? The number of our member companies registered? Overall program surplus? Other program leads generated? We needed to think this through. In the end, we landed on 2 main goals for our event: 1. Increase the number of member companies (especially distributors) in attendance since we had an opportunity to expose more members to our “year-end” event, since travel was not an obstacle and 2. Overall program surplus because our organization relies heavily on these funds to support many of our other programs and industry efforts, like our Market Intelligence programs and our lobbying efforts.

I would encourage you to start with this very early on in the planning process. Determine what you feel would be a success for your event. Number of dealers trained? New sales leads gained? What is the purpose and best-case scenario for your event? This will be crucial to understanding how your event performed.


Agenda Creation:

After determining goals for the event, we started thinking about the agenda. We did have the luxury and in some ways the curse of experiencing several virtual events over previous months. The luxury was we could learn from other events and what did and didn’t work. The curse was, with many virtual events having already occurred attendee expectations had heightened. We knew our agenda needed to be strong and take into account the times we were in and the audience we were targeting. As we started plotting out agenda, we decided to put our primary focus on event pacing and adding a wow-factor.

For pacing, we learned that long all-day events did not seem to fit into people’s schedules, especially our target audience or HVACR executives and key decision makers that need to be available throughout the day. Not only did their businesses require their regular attention but many of the possible attendees work environments were full of distractions that come with full time remote work.

For these reasons, we opted to spread our 12 hours of content into three half-days in order to build and contain momentum but not expect to dominate our attendee’s time. We also primarily used a 45:15 design, that offered 15-minute content breaks at the end of almost every hour. It is really important to think about how your target audience is able and would like to participate in the program you plan offer. Try to consider what their day might look like and plan your event to be additive to their schedules. Timing, length of presentation, format etc. can all be considered when you are building different types of event agendas.


Content Development:

With an agenda framework complete, albeit blank, the next step was to populate that agenda with content our members would: 1) pay for and 2) be happy they did.

As our traditional annual conferences always do, for our virtual event we planned to add some “wow” to the agenda by adding well-known keynote presenters to bookend the agenda. We typically look for presenters that bring some name or brand recognition to the lineup. Though these speakers are expensive (accounting for about 80% of the speaker budget) they should pique a potential attendee’s interest and get the event on their radar. This is a great technique to lead any marketing campaign with to help move people into your marketing or sales funnel. These mass outreaches appeal to a broad audience. We looked for names that would draw someone to pay attention to our marketing emails and register for this event.

When thinking about what “big-names” work for your event consider again the overall themes or message you hope attendees will take away from your event. For our virtual summit, we had our keynotes focus on the economic outlook and building customer relationships. What central themes can you create that resonate with your target audiences? Establishing content themes will help with your speaker and session selections.

For the remaining sessions, we sought to offer to our members what no other organization could: insights that are unique and proprietary to HARDI that directly relate to the HVACR channel and their businesses. We relied heavily on our Market Intelligence department to report out on a years’ worth of their research projects. We also used the current COVID landscape to explore nuances of the year including lessons learned, product-specific business growth opportunities and the impacts of the changing political landscape.

One thing that 2020 taught us is there is so much content available for people to consume. How can you bring something different and unique to the table that your attendees cannot get anywhere else?


Creating Vendor Opportunities:

Planning for any type of “booth program” or “vendor showcase” was not an easy task. We had talked to many groups that held virtual booths and attended virtual trade shows and almost all the feedback was not overwhelmingly positive. It has been tough to really engage and interact in a meaningful way virtually and we still have not heard any major success stories. Knowing that we didn’t want to fall victim to sparse attendance in networking rooms and virtual booths, the team tried to develop a new plan that allowed suppliers and vendors time to showcase any new products they had in quick hard-hitting presentations for new and current customers to attend.

From these discussions we decided to proceed with a “Vendor Showcase” for our summit. We planned to have a total of 30 10-minute spots for vendors to utilize however they preferred to allow for creativity (pre-recorded messages, product demos, Q&A, live presentations, etc.) These sessions would feature 2 concurrent live sessions of non-competing organizations on one afternoon of our virtual summit. After the 10 minutes concluded, attendees could move to a breakout room and continue the conversation in a separate space. This space had no time restriction and allow the hosts and participants the ability to stay however long they desired.

Upon the conclusion of the showcase, summit registrants could access the presentations on Demand via the event portal. Additionally, the hosts of each session received viewership and attendance stats to provide the overall ROI on participation. We received positive feedback from attendees and showcase participants on the general format and the follow up metrics that were able to be shared.

We knew that for our event we had two different constituents to build a program for: the distributors and the supplier/vendors. The vendor showcase took into account the short attention span of many that attend virtual sessions and the presenters need for an active and relevant audience. When you try to build events, it is important to understand all the possible participants needs and determine how you can best accommodate as many of those as you are able. 


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Our Production
Considerations and Needs:

Selecting a Platform:

With an agenda developed, speakers slated, and an idea created for a vendor showcase, it was time to select a platform. As you may know or can imagine, there are many options for virtual platforms that cater to a plethora of different needs. Knowing our needs, we built a checklist that we used when considering the multiple platforms available.

How would the platform assist with transitioning in-person registrants? Could the platform scale based on additional registrations? Did the provider seem like a good partner? Do we need to have virtual booths for our event? How much does this platform cost? These were all questions we needed to answer. 

In the end, two of our needs were clear, cost effective and selecting a trusted partner. There are many providers that offer platforms with loads of bells and whistles that we just didn’t need. We needed a simple, clean platform that had the ability for us to make our attendees experience as easy and visually appealing as possible. Knowing this, we were able to eliminate many of the more expensive options (Pathable, Cvent). We ended up selecting a cost-effective platform offered by a vendor that we work with on our own HARDI Hub platform (Workerbee TV). Their platform did what we needed it to do, but maybe even more importantly, we knew how strong their planning and management skills were which helped the team focus on what needed to be accomplished on a weekly basis.

There are many things you should consider when selecting a partner and platform for a virtual event. Based on our experience, selecting a partner that you are confident in is the most important. We had not done this before and did not know what all was needed, they had. Our partner kept things moving and helped us feel confident which was priceless.


Production Considerations:

We have always tried hard to make the experience of our event top notch. Though we had to go virtual in 2020, production quality was still a priority. There were so many varying degrees of quality that we had experienced ahead of our event. Those that spent some extra time and money to elevate the quality of the event really seemed to better engage their audiences.

We decided to spend the extra time and money to find a studio to utilize for filming many aspects of our event. In doing so, we were able to brand the space and ensure high-quality outputs for most the live portions of our event. The ability to brand the stage to fit nicely with the platform added cohesion to the virtual event. Additionally, filming and broadcasting with high-quality video equipment elevated the event.

When considering what the spend should be on your virtual events production quality, I would suggest thinking about a couple factors. How big is the audience? Is the event free or are you charging for it? How long do you anticipate the footage/sessions shelf life to be? If you have a paid event that you wish to utilize the content for many months to come, put some money into the production. If you have a small audience that you wish to share a quick presentation with, it might not be worth a big production expense.


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The Results We Saw
and Overall Payoff:

Registration Trends:

When we transitioned to a virtual event, we already had attendees signed up for our in-person Annual Conference. Those attendees we want to keep for the virtual event so it was important for us to make sure that we communicated with them the change and how they could adjust their current registration before making a big announcement. This group of registrants was the first spike that we saw sign up for the summit.

The second spike in registrations came after we announced our keynote speaker, Kevin O’Leary (big-name speaker mentioned previously). After our announcement of Kevin O’Leary, we gained 67 registrations for the event (about 10% of total registrations). What this also did was help us generate a lot of interest about the event. Our email announcement received an open rate of 43.6% and a click rate of 6.5% which outperformed many of the other communications. Consider making a big splash with these announcements and make sure they are hard-hitting messages!

Another bump in registrations occurred when we aligned our government affairs presentation announcement with the 2020 election results. The communication on this session helps us gain an additional 102 registrations and the email received a 41.9% open rate and a 3.3% click rate. We strategically aligned the timing of this sessions details to align with what was happening in the world to prove that what we would provide attendees would be timely and actionable. Try to think about what your event offers and see if you can align any messaging strategically with what is going on in the world or more specifically, your target audience’s world.

The final bump we saw was in the final week leading up to the event. We had a hypothesis that in the final week leading up to the event we would see a large spike in registrations because for a virtual event, there is much less planning needed to participate. Without booking flights, hotel rooms, shipping materials, etc. people could wait longer to decide on whether or not to participate. This was true in part to what we saw occur with our event. In the final week ahead of the event we had 124 registrations (18% of total attendees). Though this is a big number, we thought this might have been even higher. While attendance spiked at the end, try your best to build in incentives for your target audience to act sooner! 


Results and Conclusion:

In the end, we ended up with just shy of 700 registrants from 270 companies for our 2020 Virtual Summit. Our goal was to hit 800 registrants and to grow distributor company participation, both of which we did fall short. That said, as mentioned before this was our first time putting on a large-scale virtual event which made goal setting difficult.

Our summit attendee engagement metrics are outlined below:

  • Average Live Attendance: 530.5 (76% Paid attendees), about 20% higher than an in-person annual conference
  • Average OnDemand Attendance: 86.25 (12% Paid attendees)
  • Average Satisfaction: 4.13 out of 5, slightly higher than an in-person annual conference

As you can see the engagement metrics overall for the virtual event were good and were slightly higher than our Annual Conference.

For our goal on reaching an event surplus, we did end up getting close to that goal. Throughout the planning process we kept a close eye on the revenues and expenses to make sure that we did whatever possible to ensure we did achieve this goal. Some things had to be changed and adjusted in the planning process in order for us to achieve this event goal which further proves the need to plan but be to be agile as well. That surplus we experienced from our virtual summit allowed us to help make up for some of the obstacles that we dealt with throughout 2020.

In the end, this was a very complex and different exercise and event for us. We had to reimagine almost every aspect of our previous events for the new virtual format. We learned a lot along the way and are proud of the end results. We know that virtual meetings are not ideal, and we look forward to being able to put on some amazing in-person events hopefully in the near future. Until then, we hope that some of what we went through and learned in 2020 can be helpful for any virtual events you are considering! Happy planning everyone!

If you missed out on #HARDISummit, you can still catch all of the action by purchasing the OnDemand sessions, or if already registered, watch the playbacks.