March 16, 2021

Sharing what we learned when we virtualized INVT21

Turning a dynamic in-person creative conference into an online event required a whole new set of skills, tools, and “godsend” vendors. INVT’s Kat Sambor shares what we learned in the process.

In so many ways, 2020 was the Year of the Pivot. Change is good, we’re told. The need for change presents opportunities for learning and growth and sometimes even improvement.

Soon after our 3rd annual In/Visible Talks conference, when the arrival of COVID-19 required global shelter-in-place orders, we recognized we would need to go virtual for our 4th annual event in January of 2021. This would be our pivot—our “learning opportunity”—and we fully embraced the challenge.

Leading the effort was Kat Sambor, who for two years has been INVT’s Project Manager. Currently based in Los Angeles, Kat has been and continues to work as a freelance Event Producer, Project Manager, and Director of Client Relations on both the East and West Coasts. (Learn more about her on LinkedIn.) She brought all of her gifts, skills, and experiences into play as she researched what other conferences have done, presented our options, guided us in selecting vendors, worked with those vendors to build the conference’s platform, and managed our virtual event on January 14. It was a tremendous undertaking. Thank you, Kat!

In keeping with the tenets of Our Manifesto—specifically “Be passionate about making the invisible visible” and “Show up in generous ways”—we want to share with you what we learned in the process. You can read Kat’s virtual event platform comparison guide here.

Here are some highlights:

We wanted the virtual INVT to be as close to our in-person experience as possible.

“At our in-person events,” Kat said, “there is a strong sense of community and creative energy that we felt was important to capture digitally.” To achieve that, Kat reviewed a wide range of platforms and looked for ease of use, high-quality design and production, and the ability to live-stream in one continual stream—i.e., speaker after speaker, instead of separating them out by session. She also explored how we could best provide chat rooms, closed captioning, and workshops, which ran simultaneously and back-to-back in the evening.

Vito + SlidesLive + Zoom + DPEM made INVT21 work.

We found the clean, attractive, and user-friendly event platform Vito through the great Kim Crayton, who uses it for her “Being Antiracist” workshops. Then we learned how complicated the streaming aspect can be from the tech side, and Kat recommended we work with a professional production company. Fortunately, we already had the perfect partner in place. In past years, SlidesLive has packaged our videos for access after the conference. For 2021, they provided personalized services that included managing the speakers day-of, handling all audio and video, and seamlessly mixing live-streamed and pre-recorded content (like our Creative Bursts). “They also conducted dry-runs with each speaker, ran audio and video tests, and let us know what to expect on the day-of,” Kat said. “We were in constant contact with them and they were immensely helpful.”

For the evening workshops, we used Zoom. “No frills, but it worked well for attendees,” said Kat. We purchased multiple licenses (one per workshop), assigned an INVT host for each, recorded the sessions, and hired the event management company DPEM to conduct dry-runs with each workshop leader and help us with tech issues.

There are always unexpected challenges (aka learning opportunities).

Human closed captioning services are extremely expensive, so we went with a machine transcription service that was fairly easy to use, very basic in functionality, and ultimately not entirely accurate. “It picked up the audio and used AI to transcribe what was being said, which meant certain words and names were not always right, and it did not distinguish between speakers,” Kat explained. “That said, it was better to have it than have nothing! It was important to us that we increase our accessibility and this was certainly a step in the right direction.”

There was also some confusion about registrations for workshops. In the future, we’ll address the issues we experienced (and create fewer headaches for ourselves) by opening up workshop registrations earlier in the process, providing clearer confirmations, and making it easier for attendees to sign up for the conference + workshops all at one time. 

Vendors’ customer service was a key factor in the event’s success.

“SlidesLive was a godsend and Vito was great!” said Kat, and she elaborated by calling out their excellent communications and customer service. She added SlidesLive’s production was on-point and looked “professional and fantastic”, and Vito’s simple function and style worked for what we needed. “Attendees had no trouble using it, there were multiple chat channels, attendees were engaged, it was affordable, and they were a true pleasure to work with.”

Evening sessions on Zoom also went well. “It was a bit more work with multiple sessions happening at once, but all in all, it went pretty seamlessly without any issues,” she said. “And workshop attendees were happy, which is the most important thing.”