How many virtual events have you attended in the last few years? 100? 500?
In this post-COVID world we’re living in, we’ve all attended our fair share of events from behind the glow of our computer screens. And boy, can they get old after a while. Keynotes with no audience participation, panel discussions that all feel the same, and less-than-pretty Powerpoints make us never want to attend a virtual event again.
But the truth is, there’s no escaping them. Even though we’ve returned to in-person events in many ways, virtual events are here to stay. They help us bring together coworkers who live all across the world, expand our audiences to those who can’t make it in person, and increase accessibility with closed captioning, ASL translators and more.
So rather than writing them off completely, let’s talk about how we can take virtual events to the next level. How can we turn a new corner, leveraging virtual events to drive just as much excitement, engagement, and connection as we would in-person?
Here are nine unexpected virtual event ideas, from event experts and Mainstream customers around the country.
1. A battle of the chefs
During a recent discussion, Mainstream customer Hannah Grisham shared one of her favorite virtual team events from her time at Marriott. She collaborated with Mainstream to take Marriott’s annual chef and mixologist competition to the next level. Their goals:
- Engage thousands of Marriott employees around the world who couldn’t be there in person, giving them a chance to cheer on competitors from their own Marriott locations
- Appeal to external talent, attracting top chefs and mixologists to become Marriott employees
They wanted people to leave feeling engaged and inspired. But they also knew that attention span was a factor, and they only had a short window to grab audience members’ attention. So they created captivating video clips that were short, to-the-point, and unusual:
“We pre-recorded clips of our competitors. Instead of introducing them with their name and where they were from, we visually represented that on the screen so that we could spend more time telling their stories on-screen. We had them do interesting tricks with their knives or cocktail shakers, so it was a more visual and compelling way to represent the event content.”
— Hannah Grisham, Marketing Manager, Employer Brand at Amazon
The Marriott team could’ve simply live streamed their event, or asked a speaker to give virtual attendees a recap. But by offering snappy, personality-filled content that was specifically created with a virtual audience in mind, they were able to set their event apart from the rest.
2. A contest for a cause
Similarly, Mainstream friend Patrick Clore shared how he took virtual bartending a step further—by turning it into a fundraiser.
At an event he planned recently in partnership with a non-profit organization, participants could create their own cocktail recipe and share it with their own communities. Then, attendees could vote for their favorite cocktails by making a donation. Each dollar counted as a vote, and the non-profit organization raised over $20,000.
By turning event attendees into content creators themselves, Patrick’s strategy drove higher engagement and participation. Because they had a stake in the game, audience members were more likely to stay tuned in and offer a donation.
3. A low-budget dance party
Mainstream Managing Director Nick Bacon shared an early-pandemic virtual event idea from Creative Mornings, a professional organization that offers speaker series and community building for local creatives.
When the pandemic hit, the organization’s meet-ups went virtual. Because community was such an important component of the group, they didn’t want to host an event where audiences watched a speaker the whole time without any interaction. So every 15 minutes, they’d turn on a Spotify playlist and ask everyone to keep their cameras on and dance with each other.
It was a great moment of levity during a time when everyone was uncertain about the future and worried about their health, and a good reminder that strong connections can be low-production and low-budget.
4. A window for wellness
Dancing not your thing? Think about blocking off a 10-15 minute window during your virtual event for yoga or meditation instead. Long networking events can be tiring and stressful, and a moment of relaxation can make all the difference. It can also help attendees get into the right headspace to fully pay attention and soak in all of the important messages you share with them during your event.
“Breathing is a great start when you’re stressed. Anchoring your attention to watching your breath gives your mind a job to do as it calms your nervous system.”
— Ariadne Ducas, Founder and Chief Mindfulness Officer, Kairos
There are lots of great yoga and mindfulness coaches out there (like Ariadne or Let’s Roam) who can help you lead these moments of wellness. Or, for a more budget-friendly option, check out Calm or Headspace for virtual guided meditation.
5. A scream stream
Here at our own event production studio, Mainstage Chicago, we recently hosted an in-person and virtual event to get in the Halloween spirit. Our “Scream Stream” featured spooky stories as told by local Chicagoans, hosted by Count Dracula himself!
From chilling accounts of the most haunted cemetery in Illinois to stories of seeing ghosts in the flesh, the event was a great way to bring together both our Chicago community and viewers around the country for a bit of unexpectedly spooky fun.
6. A kid-friendly competition
During a recent conversation, Michael Tiu reflected on his experiences with a local museum that hosted a “Dopest Dad” contest, where kids sent in recorded videos about why their dad is the best. Like Patrick Clore’s bartending example, donors voted on their favorite videos through their donations.
Michael’s example goes to show that your concept doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. For smaller organizations without much budget to execute an event, a virtual fundraiser with a fun, interactive element can be the perfect solution. And as Michael shared, you can even lean on event attendees to produce most of the event content for you.
7. An above-and-beyond virtual reality experience
Hosting an industry conference? SBC Digital Summit blew it out of the water this year, by designing a virtual event platform that looked like a physical conference center. For example, the Networking Lounge looked like an actual lounge, with chairs, couches and chat windows that attendees could interact with.
This platform allowed attendees to feel like they were back at an in-person event, instead of just clicking through screens and videos that all look the same. Prioritizing your visual communication and branding will give your event a unique feel and offer an added level of hospitality to your guests at home, setting a new bar for what a virtual event can be.
8. A game show from home
One of the best ways to drive engagement during your event? Gamify it.
If your event includes keynote speakers or panel discussions, think about using a tool like Slido to quiz or poll audience members during the session. Slido also offers the option for attendees to submit questions and upvote the ones they like the most, creating a game out of your Q&A sessions.
9. A Minecraft moment
Another Mainstream friend, Eric Boyer, shared a favorite memory from a virtual Minecraft event his friend hosts on Twitch. The game includes virtual currency, so audience members can spend bits to influence what’s happening in the game and have a say in the outcome. Even from afar, Twitch users can build community with each other when everyone is working together virtually towards a common goal.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again—virtual events aren’t going anywhere. But they don’t have to be the same ole, same ole, either. Let’s set the bar higher, and finally host virtual events that are unusual, unexpected, and memorable. Then, maybe (just maybe!) we’ll be able to reach more people, get our message across in more effective ways, and surprise and delight our guests along the way.