It’s nearing the end of conference season, and it’s been a little bit slower than previous years. At the federal level, IRS and General Services Administration conference scandals have led to a culture of fear around attending in-person conferences. State and local governments are also limiting conference travel and classroom-based training.

While some of this is an overreaction, it’s a great time to look into virtual conferences and trainings. For many who may have explored these technologies in the last five years or so, a lot has evolved. (No, it’s not all Second Life avatars.) The technology is better, the user is more experienced (how many of us have taken an online course in the last year?), and the skills of virtual event planners have matured.

GovLoop has held several virtual events, including a career fair, a hybrid mentoring program, a virtual technology conference and a six-week social learning course. Like anything, we’ve learned that there’s a big difference between just doing something and doing it well.

Based on these experiences, here are my tips for hosting great virtual events:

1. Content Wins: It’s not a huge shocker, but great content wins in every medium. Just as at in-person conferences, if there is a dull speaker, the attendees get bored. In virtual events, it’s just as important to be energetic, passionate and provide great content and conversations.

Virtual technology conference attendees benefit more if there are great speakers on topics that are relevant to their job.

2. Different Medium = Different Skills: While some skills overlap between in-person conferences and trainings, the best virtual trainers know it’s a different medium and adjust accordingly. For example, in a recent social learning course, the trainer launched with a great virtual icebreaker that involved standing up and clapping to get attention. At an in-person career fair, the required skill is being a good one-on-one conversationalist with attendees. In contrast, during a virtual career fair the key is being a fast typist, as you have to quickly answer multiple questions in a group chat.

3. Reserve and Remind: It’s easy for people to get distracted during virtual events or forget about them entirely, so it’s important to reserve their time. Outlook reminders are an effective way of blocking time on participants’ schedules for virtual learning courses, webinars and discussions. And simply sending a 15-minute reminder before an event begins can increase participation rates at virtual career fairs and conferences.

4. Transition the Traditional to Virtual: It’s easy to start playing with virtual training and events as a side project or for a course that isn’t really popular. I encourage taking an in-person program, such as supervisory training or employee orientation, and converting it for virtual delivery. Take something that’s proven and demanded (or is required) for employees and inject it with a new approach. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration transitioned its annual Every Day Counts Summits, where it connects with state government leaders, into a virtual conference in 2013, which cut costs by 90 percent and doubled the number of attendees.

5. Mix Your Format: People often dump virtual learning in one bucket, but there are different formats within it. Our virtual conference, for example, had one-hour webinars that featured PowerPoint presentations from speakers, 30-minute live chat sessions where attendees talked with resume experts, as well as immersive learning experiences where individuals could download brochures. Also, in our social learning course, we combined webinars, live chat discussions with recorded video scenarios, required blog reading and peer-to-peer interaction.

Now is the time to look into virtual training and events. The technology has significantly improved, and the audience members are used to virtual learning based on their own experiences. Plus, with budget cuts and travel restrictions, it is both cost-effective and environmentally smart.

Steve Ressler  |  Contributing Writer