Emerge 2020: A Peek Behind The Scenes – Planning a Virtual Conference

AAM High Webinar Graphic on Planning A Virtual Conference|AAM High Webinar Graphic on Planning A Virtual Conference

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t get comfortable. One person who felt this firsthand was Samantha Bowerman, Founder of the Strategic Meetings Group. Samantha, who has an extensive 25-year background in conference planning, began working with AAM in 2013, planning the in-person Summit event, and has continued every year after that. When Summit was canceled this year, the first question was, “Now what?”

Although Samantha’s experience specifically revolved around in-person events, it didn’t stop her from taking on the challenge of creating and planning a new virtual conference in just three short months. This new conference needed its own identity and a format designed to optimize virtual learning and connections.

In a recent AAM! High Webinar, Samantha shared a peek at her strategy for planning a virtual conference in hopes that it can also help others. Her process contained the following components:

Planning a Virtual Conference

While there are specifics to consider for a virtual event, Samantha realized there is a lot of crossover between planning an in-person event and a virtual event. Her first step was assembling a well-rounded team with people of different backgrounds to execute.

Additionally, there was a significant focus on the message and identity of the conference. The committee focused on a detailed message and essentially developed a mission statement for the event that guided the development.

A common question Samantha gets is, “What platform did you choose?” but she recommends designing the event first and choosing a platform once you know what you want your event to look like, and once you know your requirements.

Content & Marketing

The goal for this event was to create a story arc where all of the content flowed to build on each session and paint one big picture. Once they had the overarching storyline, presenters were solicited to ensure a fresh perspective was brought to the conference.  Each session was prerecorded and shortened to around 20 minutes to accommodate the virtual learner’s shorter attention span.

Once the content was in place, there was a huge marketing push to drive attendance. Beyond traditional marketing, the committee also conducted direct outreach, which significantly increased attendance.


The final piece to the puzzle was execution. With a virtual event, technology becomes critical to the overall experience of the attendee. Samantha top recommendations are:

  • Find a strong production company to ensure the content delivered is professional and valuable.
  • Choose the right platform. There are over 100 platforms available, so make a list of your needs and potentially vet your choice on a smaller scale event like a webinar for a test run.
  • Identify a strong emcee to tie your event together.

Once you have your framework in place, the last step is to practice, practice, practice, and ensure you have a plan b for every possibility.  Lastly, it is crucial to review a contingency plan with your platform and production company to think about any possible problems that might occur and how they will be handled.

The bottom line is that a virtual event is not very different from the overall process of planning an in-person event, but success is a result of thinking about your end-user’s experience.  When you take a step back and think about what experience you want to achieve with your virtual event instead of merely transitioning an in-person event online, you will build a solid event and see greater success.

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About Ty Hendrickson

Ty Hendrickson is a consultant with Inovautus Consulting. A sales evangelist, she helps accounting firms grow by integrating sales principles that distinguish accountants as trusted advisors. She has more than 10 years of experience leading sales teams and delivering training programs that she uses to empower firms to think outside the box when it comes to growth. She can be reached at [email protected].

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