Going Virtual

Lessons learned as sessions are moved from live events to virtual formats.

At the beginning of March, we were hard at work developing several live workshop programs, each scheduled for spring 2020. While we were aware of the growing threat posed by the Coronavirus, we had no idea that in a few short weeks, COVID-19 would change everything.

When it became clear that large gatherings would be impossible for at least the short term, we quickly connected with our clients to determine the best paths forward.

Here are a few of the ways we rapidly adapted to serve and support our clients during this challenging time.

Project #1: An Area Meeting/Plan of Action (POA)

We had been working on training curriculum for a client’s area/POA meeting. This meeting initially was scheduled for mid-April and included three workshops set to occur simultaneously, with learners rotating between three separate rooms.

Within a short timeline, the meeting was reconceived as a virtual event featuring an opening presentation with all 60-plus participants, “regional breakouts” designed for 15 learners at a time, and smaller sessions of three to five individuals to support more focused attention. We partnered with a virtual production team to ensure a smooth technical process.

Project #2: A New Product Launch for a New Client

We were developing general sessions presentations, as well as five paired regional workshops in breakout rooms for a live product launch event scheduled for May. Initially, our client chose to maintain the live presentation format in the hopes it could be held within a reasonable amount of time. When it became clear that any postponement would be lengthy, a decision was made to go virtual.

We were able to convene the virtual meeting on the initial early May timeline, with programming scheduled over the course of five eight-hour days. Timing proved to be a key consideration: While the live meeting would have been conducted in one location, the virtual meeting brought together participants in the Eastern, Central, and Pacific time zones. This required staggered schedules for both general sessions and workshops, which were conducted in 10 breakout rooms. We once again leveraged a virtual production team to help us achieve this.

Moving Forward

As the impacts of the pandemic continue, we now are building upon our early experiences and developing programming that is intended to be virtual from the start.

For one recent project, we created application-based activities that were specifically chosen because they allowed participants to fully leverage meeting tools and were scheduled to accommodate learners across time zones. We assigned leadership from the client team to facilitate workshops and developed participant, facilitator, and producer guides ahead of the meeting to ensure all roles were clearly defined.

Workshop topics included verbalizing the core visual aid (CVA), developing effective openings, asking insightful questions, commitment to action for more productive calls, and, finally, putting all of the knowledge and insights the participants learned into a full sales presentation tailored to specific types of providers. Our client felt the meeting was highly engaging, successful, and ran smoothly.

Lessons Learned

What did we have to give up as we moved these sessions from live events to virtual formats? For one, physical movement: Our live meeting plans employed multiple stations. But we were pleased to still provide vigorous and engaging team collaboration and interactivity using virtual breakout rooms for small groups, triads, and pairs. As we designed our virtual events, we made sure to employ standard live activity resources, including visual aids, marketing materials, and participant guides.

We also worked with our virtual production colleagues to use the full capabilities of chat, document sharing, Webcam, and whiteboard technologies. For larger meetings, we suggest mixing platforms to expand and enrich your programming opportunities.

As you prepare your own virtual meetings and product launches, we recommend the following considerations:


  • Determine whether your users will be using iPads, PCs, or other platforms. We’ve discovered that some platforms limit activity capabilities when using only iPads (including Adobe and WebEx).
  • Decide whether you will be using voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) or telephone call-in audio. Some technologies will have less feedback and fewer echoing issues when calling-in; others require VOIP for breakout room capability.
  • Speakerphones, headsets, or ear buds (which will greatly diminish feedback and echoing) are recommended, and in each case, should be tested prior to the session. Discuss with your client: Can professional quality headsets and/or USB microphones be provided to attendees?
  • If your organization already uses a particular technical platform that meets your needs, use what is familiar.


  • Learning objectives should inform both content and activities in the virtual setting, just as they do in live sessions.
  • Structure workshop activities based on technological capabilities.
  • For team collaboration activities, smaller teams are best.
  • Distribute materials several days prior to the session.
  • Provide a demo to participants of what to expect during breakout rooms prior to the meeting. (Consider doing an icebreaker exercise or simple game to demonstrate how everything will work.)
  • Finally, scheduling a dry run with all presenters ahead of the session is essential. This will build fluency with the technology, including muting and unmuting participants as needed, switching between breakout rooms, and monitoring activities. A rehearsal session also will help with the timing of activities and provide a chance to hone presentation skills.

While nothing can ever take the place of a crowded event hall buzzing with the excitement of a new product launch, we have been inspired by the many opportunities presented by today’s virtual gathering technologies and pleased by the positive response and promising results of this “new normal.”

Shaun McMahon (shaunmcmahon@illuminate.net) is the president and founder of Illuminate (www.illuminate.net). He oversees operations at Illuminate and ensures that the goals and expectations of its clients are understood, realized, and exceeded. He has more than 20 years of experience in training and development in the pharmaceutical, computer, and automobile industries. McMahon holds a BS in marketing and entrepreneurial studies from Babson College.

Brian Kane (bkane@illuminate.net) is vice president of Sales at Illuminate (www.illuminate.net). He identifies and implements solutions that achieve business objectives and provide sustained results. His experience in physician, hospital, and senior living network development gives him valuable insight into the practical and systemic issues pharmaceutical and device representatives must navigate. Kane received a BS in business administration and entrepreneurial studies from the University of Hartford.