How (not) to organise an online conference

Our yearly North Sea Conference, like so many other events these days, had to be held online. We missed the opportunity to connect face-to-face with all of you, but we are grateful for the valuable input you provided during the conference, which will help us develop our next 7-year programme.

As we work on embedding your contributions, we can also look back and reflect on what it took to plan an online conference of this size and what we should keep in mind when planning future events.

Full agenda

This year’s conference was organised as a final opportunity for stakeholders to provide input and ideas on the next North Sea Region Programme and to learn about the newly launched North Sea Region 2030 Strategy. Interviews were held with project representatives, stakeholders answered questions on the development of the new programme, and awards were presented to the winners of the programme’s photo and video contests. To lighten up the event we provided a stadium backdrop and sprinkled the agenda with fun facts and a word cloud. Last but not least, eight breakout sessions ran simultaneously to help the Joint Secretariat get input on the new programme. 

Participants were asked to add their city to a live word cloud.

Breakout sessions

Although the conference ran smoothly overall, we know that a significant number of participants were not able to access the breakout sessions they signed up for in a timely fashion. Due to technical issues we missed their valuable contributions. Were our ambitions to make the event engaging and interactive too high? We will be looking into this when we plan our next event.

Lessens learned

Many of us are used to meeting colleagues and clients online by now, but some of you probably have yet to experience organising online interactive events with 100+ participants. Therefore, we would like to share with you the eight top tips from our – now experienced – online conference team:

1. Vegetarian for me, please

As expected, you save money when shifting a conference from ‘in person’ to ‘online’. Travel and travel time are eliminated, and coffee and snacks have to come from your own kitchens. But other costs can’t be underestimated. A full technical team is needed, with a producer on both the technical team and one’s own team to guide who needs to be on screen when. Our advice: spend more to get more.

2. Corona-proof your team

An online conference cannot provide the same opportunities to interact and network as an in person event. Due to Corona restrictions and social distancing rules, the organising team is also limited in their ability to meet in person in the run up to the event. This reduces their chances to practice and rehearse what is, in effect, a ‘TV production.’

3. Fun Features

Keep it simple and un-complicated. It is possible that you will have to put a brake on last minute creative urges. 

4. Hire those interns

Keep in mind that you will need staff to follow and answer the messages in the chat function. If you host several simultaneous breakout sessions, you will need a host (preferably two), technical support and a chat or polls manager for each.

Rehearsal in action

5. Take 2, lights, camera, action!

On site rehearsals are very much recommended, with a full set up of the platforms to be used, cameras and microphones. Include all staff and find some dummy participants to join online.

6. Appoint a spy

To flag any issues that are not picked up by the technical team, have one of the staff join as a participant in order to find out how participants attending the conference from their homes are experiencing the event.

7. Take it easy

Breaks are not only for participants but also for the organisers. They should be sufficiently long for conference staff to change rooms, start new presentations, access systems, and maybe even have a cup of coffee.    

8. Who is inn (and who is not)

As with any event there are no-shows. As a reference point for future conferences we noted that we had 75% attendance in the plenary session and about 66% in the breakout sessions. A lot of running, stress and frustration could have been saved with fewer breakouts.

North Sea Conference 2020
Moments before going live, North Sea Conference 2020

Next year

As with all event planning, there will always be unexpected glitches and hiccups, but we learned a lot before the conference, at the rehearsal and during the event. We would like to thank everyone who participated for their contributions and their patience during the event. We hope we will be back together again next year but, if we cannot, we will make sure to use our lessons learned to produce an even better online conference in 2021.

If you would like to find out more about the conference, you can find the recordings, the presentations of the plenary, and the slides used in the breakout sessions here.


If we have missed something in our list of learnings or you have any tips for online events please feel free to leave a reply below. We very much appreciate your input!

About the author
Femke Boersma is our new Project and Communication Advisor at the Joint Secretariat. Femke has a background in sustainability and innovation and has lived in 8 countries on 3 continents but feels most at home close to the North Sea.

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