This is a story about how a small group of volunteers took a two-day, three-track conference from an in-person event to fully virtual in just 15 days.
I was the lead organizer for WordCamp San Antonio 2020. In late February, we started having discussions about what changes we might need to make due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We had decided to allow both speakers and attendees to attend virtually, but still hold the live event when around 8 p.m. on March 12th our venue, a university campus, shut down over the virus.
We had two choices: go fully virtual or cancel the conference. Our WordCamp was scheduled for March 28-29th, just 15 days away.
There was no hesitation on the part of the team–we were going virtual.
While our initial efforts focused on finding a tech-solution, it quickly became apparent that the software we used to broadcast the event was not the limiting factor in making this switch —numerous technologies are more than up to the job. Good tech is necessary for a successful virtual event, but it is not anywhere close to sufficient. You can think of the technology as being equivalent to a venue: vitally important, but hardly the only piece that matters.
So, what are the necessary elements to ensure a quality virtual event? These are some of the lessons learned from pivoting WordCamp San Antonio 2020:
- Overpreparation will save you
- The team is everything
- Shared Vision matters
- Soft skills are as necessary as tech skills
- Don’t forget about accessibility
- Community matters
Describing the different software/tech options is beyond the scope of this post. There are many articles out there that do that, however, most of them do not consider accessibility needs in their evaluations. This article does a good job of describing the things you should be evaluating and includes links to some of the most popular platforms’ accessibility pages.
Overpreparation Will Save You
I felt confident moving to a virtual platform because we had already contracted for NOWCast SA to record the event. NOWCastSA has 10+ years experience livestreaming. Their director, Charlotte-Anne Lucas (CA), was confident we could do this. Her assistance and knowledge were invaluable. CA convinced me we needed to do AV checks with all 31 of our speakers. We spent between 10 minutes to over an hour in virtual visits with each speaker (with most taking about 30 minutes.) During these sessions that took place in the platform Green Room, we assisted their connecting through a hard-wired internet connection, helped them test their mic and webcam, gave suggestions on lighting and background, made sure they could call up their slides in the software we were using, and talked them through how the event would run.
When I describe these checks to people who ask about the event, I can tell that many think it was overkill. It was not. This preparation (or overpreparation as some view it) was probably the MOST critical element associated with the success of the online event. There are many (many, many) things that can go wrong the day of the event. You don’t want to add perfectly preventable items to that list, such as someone’s microphone not working, or someone needing to change a setting on their computer before they can share their slides. Those are two examples of things we ran into repeatedly during our AV checks.
I have since assisted CA with four online events and am even more convinced that AV checks are the key to a successful event. You will be tempted to skip this step. Trust me, you will regret not doing them.
In addition, we had three levels of backup for the event. Each session had an assigned moderator. Each track had a Track Manager who moderators and speakers could reach out to if there were problems. The Track Managers could track down missing people, help solve tech issues, or step in to moderate if needed. Finally, as the Lead Organizer, I was the backup to the Track Managers. Having this system in place ahead of time ensured everyone knew who to turn to when they ran into problems. And problems did happen. Most were not apparent to our audience, because our overall system ensured they were quickly solved.
The Team is Everything
Truly. I cannot say enough good things about the team of people who helped make WordCamp San Antonio a success. Our core team had been working together for months and had developed a good relationship. We were already primarily meeting through Zoom, so the pandemic didn’t change that. As critical as CA’s streaming knowledge was in the decision to pivot, we wouldn’t have been able to do it if the entire team was not 100% in. It was not my decision as lead organizer — the entire team was onboard and ready to do what was needed for us to be successful.
It was incredible working with such a dedicated group of smart team-players, most of whom are self-employed and were donating time they could have devoted to their businesses or families to make sure WordCamp San Antonio 2020 happened. Huge thanks to core team members Lindsey Miller, Adam Moehring, Rebekah Nagel, Peter Wollfgram, and Terri Bedore and WordCamp Central volunteers Birgit Pauli-Haack and Michelle Schulp.
In addition to the people mentioned above, we had many other volunteers who gave a few hours of time, but without whom everything would have been much harder. For example: we needed moderators in each session to make sure speakers were in the right place, do introductions, announce sponsor info, and make sure the software ran correctly. And, we had to alternate moderators in each track, as there was overlap with one session running into the Green Room time for the next session. So, for three tracks over two days, we needed a MINIMUM of six moderators. In reality, we needed more, because not everyone could volunteer the entire time. And, they had to be people we knew we could count on, as they would have access to the streaming platform back-end and would absolutely have to be in the right place at the right time. Several lead organizers for other WordCamps and people who volunteer for WordCamp Central got recruited to fill these positions in our time crunch. The bonus for them was a chance to see and learn about an online WordCamp up-close.
People think an online conference will not need the volunteers an in-person conference needs, and that might be true for a single-track, half-day event. But, for a multi-track, multi-day conference, you might need MORE volunteers than you need for an in-person event.
Sitting here more than two months post-conference writing about this, I am again feeling the warmth and appreciation I felt the weekend of the conference. The team is everything. I didn’t know any of these people prior to becoming lead organizer. I now wish I could work with them all the time. And, am looking forward to the day we can hold an in-person celebration of all we achieved.
Shared Vision Matters
I mentioned above that our team was fully committed to moving WordCamp San Antonio 2020 online once we realized that our only other option was cancelling. Having a shared vision for the San Antonio WordPress community made this decision easy. It had been three years since the last WordCamp San Antonio. Planning had begun for a 2018 and 2019 event, but both got cancelled. In addition, our local Meetup group had minimal participation both from presenters/organizers and attendees.
The team’s vision from the start had been to build a stronger local WordPress community. We all agreed that canceling this WordCamp would cause damage that would be hard to recover from. This commitment to WordCamp San Antonio 2020 sustained us as we worked overtime to make the switch to an online event. We are now planning a new series of Meetups for our local community, following our Vision to build our local community.
Soft Skills are as Necessary as Tech Skills
Most people recognize that some level of comfort with tech is needed to hold an online conference. What became apparent during our event is that “soft skills” are at least as important.
Working with a remote team of volunteers to successfully plan and execute any large event requires top-notch communication and the ability to work with others in a collaborative way. In the case of our event, things were changing on a daily basis. Many of the emails I sent said “I don’t have all the information yet, but here’s what I know so far.” Several speakers told me they appreciated being kept in the loop, even if the loop was a mess at times.
The importance of soft skills was especially evident the day of the event. Although we all felt we had planned well and were prepared, many things started going wrong behind the scenes once the event started. At one point at the beginning of the conference, three things were going wrong at the same time. I was getting messages from multiple team members. I briefly thought it was going to be a disaster, but then everyone jumped in and took responsibility for different areas and within a short time, everything was solved.
It was thrilling to watch the team work together to take care of everything. This attitude of cooperation and quality communication continued throughout the weekend.
Don’t Forget About Accessibility
This is an area whereI believe we could have done a better job. WordCamps have accessibility questions built in to the ticketing/registration process and the types of questions asked were even customized for our event (and future online WordCamps.) The only accommodation request we got was for captioning, which was already included. But, I learned part way through the event that the platform we had chosen could not be used by anyone who was not able to physically click a mouse and that it had other issues (I have been told the vendor is working on correcting these deficiencies).
There is good information available about what your streaming platform should provide to make sure your online event is accessible, but not a lot of good information about which platforms meet those requirements. Hopefully someone who is an accessibility expert will do this analysis and make it available, as it is critically important and should not be overlooked. See the sidebar for more information on this topic. Every event should ask about accommodations when registering people and then work to meet those needs during the event.
Ultimately, the most important part of this WordCamp was not the information people learned from the sessions, but rather the gathering of a community together during uncertain times. The feedback we got was 100% positive in that regard. Moving WordCamp San Antonio 2020 online allowed us to see that in spite of the concerns over the pandemic, we could still be a community and laugh and learn together. That to me was overall the most rewarding part of ensuring this event happened. I never set out to be a trailblazer–I didn’t even know the event was going to be viewed that way. What I wanted, what I work towards in almost everything I do, was to build community. And, from that standpoint, WordCamp San Antonio 2020 was perfect.
Thank you to all the volunteers, speakers, and attendees who participated and collectively created something special. We are all looking forward to the day we can meet in-person again, but until then, it is great to know that connection and community is still possible in the online world.
And, if you are in the San Antonio area, please be sure to join our Meetup group and become a part of our community (new topics coming soon!)