Photo by Mandi Roach Photography

Creatives are learning how not just to survive quarantine, but thrive. Speakers at Thrive, a Texas-based blogging conference, took a much different stage on April 18. Founder Bree Pair knew she had to adjust her conference format during COVID-19. Little did she know, switching to an all-virtual conference would increase her attendees by 1,233 percent! 

Conferences around the world are making shifts to stay relevant and accessible during the coronavirus. There is no shortage of information available online to add inspiration and creativity into our new socially-distant lives. Rather than speak from an Instagram-worthy stage, speakers are broadcasting from the comfort of their living rooms. Instead of trading business cards and social media handles in person, conference attendees are connecting in chat boxes and Slack groups. And for the first time, loungewear and yoga pants are approved dress-code. 

At the end of February, Pair received an email from a booked speaker asking if Thrive would be canceled due to COVID-19. She was putting out a fire that required her to hop on a plane to Houston, and news of the coronavirus in the United States still felt rather distant. “I was dealing with such a big problem that it wasn’t even a concern at that point because I had ‘bigger issues’ to deal with,” she says. “It is crazy how quickly things changed because it was less than a week after I got back from that emergency trip that we realized, we’re going to have to postpone the entire conference,” she continues. 

Rather than postpone, Pair used her experience to pivot into a fully digital conference format. From the celebrity-studded Create & Cultivate to the socially-conscious Yellow Conference, conference leaders have made the shift to virtual sessions that can be watched from around the world.

Struggling to transition your conference to the virtual realm? We had a chance to talk to Pair about her experience and lessons learned along the way. 

Lessons from Our Interview with Bree Pair

Bree Pair, Founder of Thrive, speaks about hosting a virtual conference

What made you choose to pivot to a virtual conference rather than canceling or rescheduling? 

We have done a virtual conference before, and we already had our speakers and sponsors lined up. To cancel would have been heartbreaking for all parties involved and for all the work my team had put into everything already. So we decided to pivot, with the hope that this would help us reach even more bloggers than we would have with our in-person conference. 

What were some of the successful tactics you used to relay the information to your sponsors, speakers, and attendees?

When it came time for talking to our sponsors and speakers, I spent an entire day on the phone with every single one of them. It was so important to me that we were all on the same page, and in agreement for what needed to happen. Thrive is a collaborative event; we couldn’t do it without our speakers and sponsors. While that was a very long day, I was encouraged at the end of it because they all had our back and wanted to support us in our decision. When it came to the attendees, we were very transparent with them and offered them a 100% refund or the option to hold on to their ticket for the next conference. We also gave them a bonus at the virtual conference, whether they took the refund or not, because we knew they were disappointed (as we all were) with the pivoting of our event.

What technology did you use to stream the conference? 

All of our sessions were pre-recorded, so we simply uploaded them to YouTube. From there we created a separate conference page on our website to host the videos, schedule them to go live at a certain date, and then had a chat room under the video. We were able to have conversations with the attendees throughout the entire day of the conference; it was such a great morale booster for our team to be able to connect with them. Our in-person conference fuels our team because we get to interact with our bloggers in person, to lose that completely would’ve made it even more difficult. 

Photo by Mandi Roach Photography

What inspired you to make the virtual conference free during the COVID-19 crisis? How was the response? 

COVID-19 has affected everyone, and it’s been very challenging. We had done a virtual conference last year but charged for attending. With everything being so unstable during this time, we wanted to be able to give back to our community. I was also very hopeful that we would be able to really grow our numbers and be able to give back to our speakers and sponsors by providing them with a larger audience to speak to. 

Your conference actually grew significantly! What were the biggest benefits of making the conference virtual? 

Yes, our in-person conference is boutique-sized, with a maximum capacity of 150. We had over 2,000 attendees for the virtual conference! It was mind-blowing. The goal that we told speakers and sponsors on the day I called all of them was 500 attendees.  Growing our audience and our email list by over 1,500 was a huge benefit for us! 

What did you learn from this experience? 

That having the right people that are as passionate about your audience as you are can really help your numbers grow for an online event. It’s a mindset of collaboration that helped us far surpass our attendee goal. While we’re always hopeful that our speakers and sponsors will share about our conferences, it’s rooted within our team even more now that we need to be selective with who we partner with so that we are all focused on a goal together. We’re still a small growing company, and on our own aren’t able to pull in thousands of viewers. We know there is such power in community. 

How were you able to still highlight sponsors during a virtual conference? 

We pivoted what we were able to offer our sponsors and gave them the opportunity to lead their own sessions during the conference. If they didn’t choose that route, we attached a promotional video for them to the end of one of our speaker’s sessions. We also had their logos placed directly below the chatbox with links to them, and are currently working to do commercials for them to be played over the next few months on our podcast.

Photo by Mandi Roach Photography

What advice would you give to conference leaders making the leap to digital?

It was “easier” for us to make the switch because we’d done digitally before. So make sure you do all your research before jumping in. User interaction is so important, in my opinion. I have since signed up for several conferences gone virtual to watch how theirs is run. When you can have audience interaction in some way, and have your speakers show up to chat with them, it makes the experience that much better. Just as you think about the experience for an in-person event, you want to do everything you can to bring pieces of that experience to them digitally. 

What other ways are you using digital communication to stay connected to the bloggers and creatives in your network?

We are online chatting with our bloggers every single day in our Facebook group, Thrive Blogging Community. We just launched a monthly book club that started in May, and we had the group vote on which book we would read first. The other ways we connect with them is through our weekly podcast, Thrive Blogger Podcast, as well as blog posts, YouTube tutorials, and IGTV chats [launching in June]!