How Four Major Global Events Pivoted from In-Person to Virtual


September 28, 2020


How Four Major Global Events Pivoted from In-Person to Virtual

The novel coronavirus outbreak has had a significant impact on the events industry, from venues and vendors to speakers and sponsors. 

As Roland Swenson, SXSW CEO & Co-Founder put it, “Today we find ourselves contending with what it’s like to adjust to a new normal that is anything but. We feel great sympathy for all affected by COVID-19 and the ripple effects this global pandemic has caused.”


Highly anticipated in-person events like South By Southwest and Dreamforce have been canceled for 2020, leaving event planners scrambling to come up with online alternatives that can entertain and educate thousands of attendees, and grappling with questions like: 

  • How do you replicate the serendipity of networking online? 
  • How do you get people on different continents to participate in discussions? 
  • How do you turn a speaker’s spare room into a stage?


As abrupt as it was, the shift to virtual programming hasn’t been all bad news for event managers; as HubSpot has shared, “Being online allows us to invite more people to be part of the INBOUND community. With travel costs eliminated we can reach attendees all around the globe. We can offer translated content in multiple languages and schedule sessions and experiences across time zones.”  


Jessica Lessin, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Information, agrees: “For comparison, last year’s WTF conference took place in New York with fewer than 200 people squeezed into a venue in Times Square. This year, over two days, we drew more than twice as many speakers and more than twice the number of attendees. From a business point of view, we made more money as well—greater revenue and far lower costs.”


Want to learn how event planners are adjusting — and even thriving — in this “new normal”?  Here is an overview of how several companies are rising to the challenge.


SXSW Sessions on Demand BannerSXSW (Austin, Texas – March 13-22)

Typical attendance number: 400,000 


SXSW is a major film, music and tech event held every year in downtown Austin, Texas for the last 34 years. The festival is known for its interactive programming, after parties and brand activations. This year, the city of Austin canceled SXSW the week before it was supposed to begin.

What SXSW did to adjust 


Rather than let all their hard work go to waste, the event planners behind SXSW launched a weekly series called SXSW Sessions Online, where the speakers who would have appeared at the festival in March can still deliver their presentations, and attendees can participate through a live Q&A. 


SXSW typically has a strict no-refunds policy, but due to the unprecedented situation, they offered 2020 registrants badge deferral to the next three years of the festival, or 50% off a future walk-up rate ticket until 2023.


Offering brand new speaker content to anyone who might want to watch, and showing leniency to 2020 badge holders is a great way for the event organizers to build goodwill while they rebuild the event for next year.


Collision from Home

Collision (Toronto, Canada – June 23-25)

Typical attendance number: 32,000


Collision is a three-day tech conference that has been running for the past five years, attracting top tier speakers and well-known vendors to its stages and exhibit hall. Collision announced in March that it would be transitioning the conference at the Enercare Centre in Toronto into an at-home experience. 

What Collision did to adjust 


Since innovation is at the core of Collision, it makes sense that the event organizers would lean on technology to transition the in-person summit into an interactive virtual gathering. In June, they launched “Collision from Home” a two-screen experience combining a desktop web app and a mobile app.


With the mobile app, attendees could build a profile, schedule workshops, talks and meetings, connect ahead of the conference with entrepreneurs, startups and investors, and stream five channels while on the go. With the web app, attendees could watch 100+ hours of talks, interviews and keynotes from more than 450 speakers. They could also participate in 3-minute networking sessions and small group discussions. 


With this two-step approach, Collision created a rich conference experience with plenty of room for attendees to form new connections with each other.   

Burning Man (Black Rock City, NV – August 30 – September 6)

Typical attendance number: 78,000


Burning Man is not your typical corporate gathering. Since 1986, this “experiment in community” has been drawing increasingly large crowds to the Nevada desert every year, where attendees build their own tent cities and wander the grounds until sunrise admiring temporary, large-scale art installations. 


Personal connections, DJ sets, spontaneity and radical giving are at the heart of what Burning Man stands for, so when the festival was forced to go fully digital this year, all eyes were on the event organizers. 

What Burning Man did to adjust 


At first, Burning Man’s CTO Steven Blumenfeld wanted to turn the experience of the physical event into a 3D VR world, but he quickly realized he didn’t have the time or resources to do so, and that he wanted the fully interactive Burning Man experience to be accessible via smartphone and computer. 


Instead, he found independent groups of volunteer developers who wanted to build their own online versions of Burning Man. These became eight official “recognized universes” – blending virtual reality, social layers, video chat, and 3D environments using Second Life technology.


Similar to the real world, attendees were invited to add their own digital camp or art installation to the online version of Burning Man, or leave a viewable offering in a virtual temple (the “Ethereal Empyrean Experience”).


Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Burning Man’s transition to digital is that it’s impossible to completely replicate an in-person event by hosting it online. As a TechCrunch reporter Lucas Matney explains it, “While the apps hope to bring elements of the physical event into their virtual spaces, the creators also seem to realize that aiming to compete with attendees’ past memories is unwise.”

Instead, event planners should take advantage of the flexibility of virtual platforms and focus on creating all-new experiences for attendees. 



INBOUND Advertising banner 2

INBOUND (Boston, MA – September 22-23)

Typical attendance number: 25,000


For the past nine years, HubSpot’s INBOUND event has been an in-person, three-day conference for sales and marketing professionals, bringing individuals and teams from across the globe together to attend keynotes, breakout sessions, networking lunches, creative activations, after parties and musical performances from major acts. In May, HubSpot announced that it would be transforming INBOUND into a two-day, virtual experience. 


What INBOUND is doing to adjust 

The event planners at HubSpot worked to combine the Spotlight, Breakout, and Deep Dive speaker sessions that attendees have enjoyed in the past with new virtual programming, including:

  • Debates, where two speakers select a topic and pick sides on it
  • Audio-Only sessions, so people can take a visual break from the screen
  • Speaker Office Hours, for 1:1 mentorship 
  • Mindfulness sessions, so people can take a mental break during the day
  • International-friendly Time Zone-based speaker sessions

They also welcomed input and feedback from registrants via a Facebook group and an Advisory Committee. 

INBOUND has long been known as a conference where attendees and speakers can connect and share experiences together, and we look forward to seeing how else they encourage these interactions to take place online.



As you can see, pivoting to virtual can be more than simply having your speakers available on a live streaming session. Think about ways to make the virtual experience just as exciting as the in-person one for all the right reasons: great user experience, different types of session formats, ability to network, attendee interaction, on-demand availability — are just some of the things you can consider for your next online event.

Having the right technology to power your virtual event is also something to consider. If you are in the hunt for event tech to support your new demands, talk to our team to see how Attendease can help you bring your virtual events to life!


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