Just one of the six pages of participants at the Million Dollar Women *Virtual* Summit, April 2020

Four tips to pulling off a virtual event…when cancelling is not an option

All in-person events have been cancelled, but that doesn’t mean your event can’t still take place. Here are four tips you can implement to bring your in-person event online — in just a few weeks.

Two months (or eight hundred years?) ago, COVID-19 spread across the planet, shut down businesses, locked us down in our homes, and changed our lives significantly. Our New York City-based social venture, Million Dollar Women, was in its last months of planning for our annual 300-person summit at the Microsoft Conference Center in Times Square, and overnight, the Summit could not take place as planned. I am proud to say that we did not fold, we did not cancel; we pivoted and began planning our first ever virtual Million Dollar Women Summit.

How to move forward, stay safe, and provide a much-needed “yes” amidst so many “no’s”

The annual Million Dollar Women Summit is a two-day, jam-packed event meant to bring female entrepreneurs together to learn from industry leaders, receive mentorship from women who have built multi-million dollar companies and network with each other. The mission of Million Dollar Women is to help one million women get to $1M in revenues, and our annual Summit is a big way we take strides towards that goal.

But how could all this learning and value remain if the Summit went virtual? That was the question I kept asking myself when I realized that no event could compete with a global pandemic.

I did know, however, that we didn’t want to be one more disappointment in everyone’s inbox. Mine just seemed to be filled with CANCELLED, CANCELLED, CANCELLED. Small business owners were being deeply impacted by the coronavirus and the quarantine, and we wanted to give them something to look forward to, business tips for getting through this time and a place to gather so people would know they were not alone.

Providing the mentorship, coaching and camaraderie that are cornerstones of the Summit were my top priorities. The women responded in droves and the Summit sold out. Over 250 women from Seattle to Switzerland and from over 20 states in the US, signed onto their computers on April 23rd and 24th and got what they came for: business ideas, mentorship and coaching, some good laughs and a rockin’ finale Zoom dance party.

How can you do the same?

1. Everyone has a well-defined role

Our MDW Summit team was lean. It consisted of six people, mostly of one dedicated event planner (who historically had only done live events, but was a quick study), part-time social media help, freelance designers, a chief of staff, volunteers, and myself. We each knew what our roles would be at an in-person event. But what were we going to do now that we would all be on our computers, spread across various states, all hosted on my newly-upgraded Zoom account?

Instead of making small tweaks to a model that we knew worked, we considered this an entirely new undertaking. I assigned very specific roles to each person on the team and made sure everyone knew I was counting on them to own it and see it through. My role as CEO and ringleader consisted of managing everyone via regular Zoom meetings and shared planning docs, learning how to be a virtual event host, mastering my own tech set-up from computers to lights to mics to teleprompters, and, on the day of the Summit, standing in for my stylist and makeup artist! I was so fortunate to have a team of dedicated, stop at nothing women who all delivered 180% on everything they took on.

Some members of our team becoming Zoom experts, some managed social media, some learned to make design changes to the website, and some came up with creative new ways to keep participants engaged for an entire day at their computer screens. Everyone learned new things. Everyone also knew they had to deliver, as there were no “experts” to ask. This was both a challenge and a fun dare.

2. Have a backup plan, then have a backup plan for your backup plan

At a live event, all you have to do (sort of) is make sure it looks pretty and that your speakers show up on time. Once they are in the house, you know they will deliver great presentations. Not the case when you are running a virtual event! What if their internet goes out all of a sudden? What if their mic breaks? What if they come down with COVID-19 or have a family emergency the morning of the Summit?

With so many things that could go wrong, the only way I was able to have any sense of peace leading up to the Summit was to have Plans A, B and C of what to do (and who would do it!) in every single possible nightmare-ish scenario. This was all documented and shared in Google Drive and each person knew what their role would be in each of the scenarios.

The team never got to the point of pulling out the backup plan, but worrying about internet quality forced me to upgrade my router and buy a new computer, which made the Summit look beautiful and run smoothly. Getting each speaker to pre-record their presentation just in case their internet went down made it so that, when one of the keynotes could not be present, the team had her video cued up and ready to go. It also inspired me to partner with an interactive game producer, who added a cool interactive aspect so that the Summit attendees could play on their phones while participating.

I also did something that felt hard to do but the right decision: I hired. I brought on a full Zoom tech team in order to place participants into breakout rooms, record presentations, and troubleshoot via the Zoom chat. They helped us create a dedicated support email and a unique phone number people could call if they needed immediate assistance. Our team also wrote up a comprehensive Zoom tech info sheet for anyone who needed help setting up or troubleshooting on the day. I was so glad I had pros working with me who were able to assure the summit from a tech standpoint — it was definitely money well spent!

We did take one tool from the live-event toolkit: we did a several hour dress rehearsal a week before the event. Nothing gave us more peace of mind than running through the whole Summit, testing our tech, and working with speakers and pitch competition judges, many days before the event so we could work out any final hiccups and getting all our speakers more comfortable with the format.

3. Exploit the strengths of “virtual”

There are a lot of pros to being at a live, in-person event. There is an energy in the room, you can easily connect with new people, and you can share a celebratory toast with them at the end of a long, successful day.

But there are cons to live events as well. It is incredibly expensive to document, let alone record entirely for posterity, people who can’t afford to come to NYC cannot participate, and, currently, fears of exposure to COVID would create a sanitation precautions nightmare.

We had to look for the new strengths that a virtual event would afford and take full advantage of them.

One such strength was that the whole Summit would be, for the first time ever, fully recorded. No one would be disappointed at the end of the day for having missed a presentation they wanted to hear, and anyone who could not participate on the day of (think of parents taking care of young children) would be able to access the teachings at a later date.

We also upped our spend on social media, and we engaged our attendees and speakers in helping us to promote the Summit via their own social media channels by posting and making videos. Everyone received a wine tumbler branded with our logo and a beautiful image of a powerful woman to go with our hashtag #BigBoldBrave, make for great photo-ops, and give us a chance to toast each other at key times during the Summit.

It was much easier to get attendees to post to Instagram and Twitter the day of the event, as they were on their phones and computers all day already! It’s much harder to get that kind of steady engagement at an in-person event when the focus is on meeting new folks and not getting sucked into your phone.

4. Push hard, plan hard — then enjoy it

All year I look forward to the incredible energy I feel when I walk into the conference room at Microsoft and see my entire community there. I knew I would miss that dearly. But I also knew we could still teach hundreds of women in just a few hours how to have the right mindset, skillset, and network to be #BigBoldBrave (our Summit hash tag) and celebrate the power and magic of our community together.

And, I’m happy to say, that after nine months of planning, six week of pivoting, and three weeks of setting a new plan in motion, I signed into Zoom — and I had a blast. The energy was palpable as six screens of attendees filled up and dance music played all day in between speakers.

At the end of the Summit Opening Night, my mother (who is part of my sheltering in place posse) even came on the screen with me for a spontaneous, impromptu dance party. It was a joyful reminder these are not usual times and that we have to take any occasion we can to dance, let loose and celebrate with those we love.

The Summit received a 96.8% approval rating from our attendees and the event was just as value-filled and high energy as it ever had been in person. Attendees continued to network with each other after the Summit via an online roster we provided.

While putting on this event was a really big sprint, it was also a great opportunity to explore new things we had been wanting to try for a while (such as sharing recordings and adding in an interactive game). I said in my opening remarks, “We are fighters in this community, and we are going [to] pivot, plan, and problem-solve our way through this time. Where there are challenges, there are also always opportunities — we just have to know how to find them.” This was true for us planning the Summit, as well.

If you’d like to learn more about Million Dollar Women, including future virtual events, visit the event website or connect on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. The MDW Summit could not have taken place without the #BigBoldBrave sponsors Microsoft, TriNet, KPMG, Morgan Stanley, SocialFly and ContentBacon. We are so grateful for your support.

If you’re planning an event and have questions about how we did it or want access to some of our resources (online event planners, Zoom technicians, etc.) reach out here.