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How We Pivoted to an Online Conference, and Why We Can’t Wait to Do It Again

Like so many events worldwide, GOTO Chicago — due to take place at the Navy Pier April 27-May 1 — had to change course two months before showtime. As conference organizers, we were faced...

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GOTO Chicago 2020

Like so many events worldwide, GOTO Chicago — due to take place at the Navy Pier April 27-May 1 — had to change course two months before showtime. As conference organizers, we were faced with three choices: cancel, postpone or reformat to an online event. We weighed our options and decided to move the event online with the ambition of pulling off a conference as good as the in-person experience. 

The goal

We knew we had to do more than livestream our keynote talks, stamp a hashtag on it and call it a virtual conference, as that would be far from the sort of in-person conference experience GOTO has perfected over the last 20 years. Instead, we wanted to see if we could reinvent the online format and deliver all the hallmarks of our face-to-face conferences — networking, informal chats with speakers, a chance for attendees to extend their comfort zone — entirely online.

How we did it

With this in mind, we evaluated every aspect of our traditional setup to see what we could replicate or tweak (random discussions among attendees, catered lunches, happy hours, giveaways), what we could forgo (queues, the obvious travel and hotel needs), and what we could innovate through this new format (dozens of ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions with speakers, a guided tour of a quantum computing lab(!)).

We researched, we brainstormed and we worked in close collaboration with our speakers to shape the experience. We landed on a few key elements, like daily online ‘Meet the Speaker’ sessions leading up to the main event, pre-conference swag bags shipped to attendees by mail, short, intimate sessions repeated throughout the conference, extra perks and giveaways from our partners, various ways to reproduce the ‘hallway track’ onlineand masterclasses optimized for online learning. All of this supported by accessible, flexible tools to connect everyone and pull the whole thing off — in this case: Zoom, Slack and an exclusive attendee website.

All of this made for a truly engaging conference atmosphere. As one attendee put it, “I arrived feeling a stranger and left with that summer camp feeling of genuinely connecting with and learning from so many like-minded folks.”

Our team was fully distributed with team members across the US and Europe working together on back channels to make things run smoothly. While we of course ran into a few hiccups during the event, they all felt contained and manageable — and they taught us how to improve things for the next time. We also learned that attendees who put more into it got more out of it: showing up to sessions with cameras on and ready to ask questions, engaging on Slack, joining the extra social sessions — which makes it crucial as an organizer to clearly show your attendees how to best experience the event.

The results

75% of respondents said the event exceeded their expectations in our post-conference survey, our customer satisfaction and net promoter scores either matched or slightly surpassed our last few years of in-person conferences, and so many attendees and speakers approached us with incredibly kind words of thanks and support both during the event and after it was all over. 

We learned an extraordinary amount from this experience, and we really can’t wait to do it again. We’re also beyond grateful for our community’s trust in letting us prove we could make this happen.

Next up: we’re gathering all the highlights and lessons to make the next iteration happen later this month. Stay tuned for an exciting conference announcement for GOTOpia Europe 2020.

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Don’t just take it from us — here are some testimonials from the event: 

“This was my favorite online event I have attended since COVID started (since ever? :)), and the competition is stiff! Thank you so much GOTO for putting this one together!” - Francois 

“Incredible job by the team at #gotochgo for creating an immersive, educational and fun remote conference experience! I don't know how they pulled this much off, so well, in such a short period of time!” - Garrett

“Everything about it seemed well thought out and with the clear intent at making the event feel personal, connected and supportive. Thank you for putting the time and care into creating a compelling and friendly tech conference, the attention to detail is not unnoticed.” - Justin