Create a Virtual Event Your Audience Will Love

Virtual Lunch

In spite of what some may think, virtual events are not a fad that’s run their course. While they may not continue to look like they have over the past two years (or be as ubiquitous), they are a tool that’s worth learning how to master.

In this rebroadcast of Virtual Lunch, HeySummit CEO Rob Gelb shares tips to design virtual events that inspire more interest and impact, including how to:

  • Incorporate creative event formats and tools
  • Understand the definition of events (it may not be what you think)
  • Get speakers more involved before the event
  • Create more value for sponsors
  • Encourage participation in networking

Here are the links mentioned during the interview:

About Robert Gelb

Rob Gelb
Robert Gelb

Robert Gelb is the CEO of HeySummit, the event platform that creators and thought-leaders use to run summits, talk-series, and event-powered communities. Before HeySummit, Rob started Kindaba, a privacy-conscious social startup for families, and ran Bus 52, a nonprofit project (run from a school bus) that featured the production of 100 documentary-style video pieces highlighting people and organizations who were doing inspiring things across America but lacked recognition. He loves to talk impact, summits, startups, converted school buses, or anything Star Trek related.


[00:00:00.550] - Marlys Arnold

You're listening to the Trade Show Insights podcast season 16 Episode 16. I'm your host and exhibit marketing strategist Marlys Arnold bringing you tools to improve your exhibit results onto today's episode brought to you by the Exhibit Marketers Cafe. We've got a rebroadcast of our virtual lunch where we're talking about virtual events because they're not going away, but you can learn how to make them more engaging and rewarding for everybody involved.

[00:01:02.710] - Marlys Arnold

Robert Gelb is the CEO of HeySummit, an event platform that creators and thought leaders used to run Summits, talk series and event powered communities. This also, by the way, is the platform that we used last year for the Trailblazer Summit, if you joined us for that. Before HeySummit, Rob started Kindaba, a Privacy conscious social startup for families, and ran Bus 52, a nonprofit project run from a school bus that featured the production of 100 documentary style video pieces highlighting people and organizations who are doing inspiring things across America but lack recognition. He loves to talk impact Summit startups converted school buses or anything Star Trek related. Rob welcome so much to virtual lunch.

[00:01:51.430] - Robert Gelb

Hi, Marlys, thanks very much for having me.

[00:01:54.190] - Marlys Arnold

Well, let's start out. I know a lot of people tend to think that virtual events were something virtual summits were something new last year. You and I know these have been going on for a long time, and HeySummit was on the leading edge. I mean, you're not a company that just came out in the last twelve months. You've been around a while. So tell us a little bit about why you started HeySummit and how you've seen the virtual events, maybe change over the last 24 months or so.

[00:02:22.390] - Robert Gelb

Yeah, well, you're absolutely right. Virtual events have been around for a while, and virtual summits have kind of been a thing since about 2015, at least in terms of just the naming convention of those. But they've certainly changed and evolved over the last 18 months or so. Certainly, HeySummit was started as a product to solve a specific need. So Ben the founder, he wanted to build a virtual summit. He didn't like anything out there. And so he wanted to create something to showcase his brand, to showcase his other business at the time, it went very well. But what would become HeySummit? It started off pretty early on is just trying to figure out a way of connecting a whole bunch of Zoom rooms in a way that wouldn't be too complex and easy enough for anyone to be able to do so. From the beginning, we kind of started off trying to make something complex, like a multi day, 30 plus talk, 4000 attendee Summit something that you would need to know how to code or how to do any advanced technical abilities in order to run.

[00:03:47.770] - Robert Gelb

And that's how it started. And we've kind of just been growing since then in 2019, as in before BC, before Covid a lot of our customers were mostly using summits with small teams or individually. So our heart has always been with creators and those who don't necessarily have a big, massive budget or a big, massive team to run their event. And through the pandemic, we were fortunate enough to have much larger customers start to use us. But we've always kind of been designed for those small scale creators or independent entrepreneurs, if you will.

[00:04:35.150] - Robert Gelb

And I think that the interesting thing about virtual events and how they've changed is what you've seen in terms of the diversity of how someone might want to put these on. We'll probably chat about it later, but every virtual event can be completely different. There's so many wonderful platforms that are out there. There are so many wonderful experiences. There's a lot of rabbit holes. There's a lot of temptation that you get sucked into. But whether it's online only hybrid, some sort of companion event to an in person event, there's a lot of creativity going on, which is pretty fun to see.

[00:05:09.830] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And I know that I've definitely seen just about every kind of style and platform and concept. I think that's out there over the last year, I've attended so many events, but it is true that what's nice about what virtual events provide is that it can be on whatever scale you want. Like you said, it can be from a small like me putting on a small event all by myself all the way up to a major conference. And I think sometimes people tend to get kind of blinders on, I think, to where they think of a virtual event has to be this big conference, and it can actually be like you said, a smaller event.

[00:05:48.830] - Marlys Arnold

So I'm thinking that, like an exhibitor can put on their own little mini conference, mini summit of different types of different people within, maybe having different customers doing case studies or testimonials and have these different sessions. So it's not something that has to be this big, massive conference. So talk just a little bit about some of the different I know you've shared with me some of the different creative summit formats that you've seen. What are some of your customers doing with their events?

[00:06:24.590] - Robert Gelb

I think so. Just first off, I wanted to kind of absolutely agree with you 100%. An event. Let's get really down to basics. An event is an excuse for you to engage with someone external what you're doing right now today. This is an event. This is an opportunity for you to engage, and it's an opportunity for someone else to get value by engaging for a specific amount of time. So if you expand that up, I think that a lot of times people do exactly as you say, they assume, virtual summit.

[00:07:00.230] - Robert Gelb

That's a big thing. That means it's going to be very intimidating. It's going to be very complex. It needs to be complex. Otherwise, people won't come. And that's not the case, especially if you're an exhibitor or if you're an event organizer for in person events. You know that one stop shopper or one size fits all doesn't really exist when it comes to the world of events. So some of the cool things that we've seen have been both in terms of the overall format of like the groups of talks.

[00:07:31.430] - Robert Gelb

If you want to think of it that way, a conference or a summit or a talk series, things like that. But then also the specific talks themselves. So a couple of examples, one that I really like is a lightning summit. So a lightning summit is only 90 minutes long. That's the length of the whole event, and it would involve, let's say, five 10 minutes talks or three to five 10 minutes talks, and then between three and four 15 minutes networking sessions, and they just write one after the other. So you're all over in 90 minutes. A ten minute talk doesn't sound like a very long time, but it's actually a pretty long time. If you're wanting to teach one thing, it's quite exciting. There's a lot of energy involved. You're running against the clock. You're making the clock kind of the enemy of the day, so everyone has to run around and try and get into one session and out of one session, you can have some fun with the networking as well. So Lightning Summits we've seen quite a few people do.

[00:08:29.870] - Robert Gelb

That are good fun and good ways to test out hypotheses. If you're thinking of running like a much larger event around a particular, let's say subject matter. Not really sure though how people will react will they attend? Running something like our Lightning Summit is a really good way to do it. Talk series. Obviously, whether you want to think of them as more like video podcasts, or if you already have a community talk series are a great way to engage with that community. It kind of depends on what you're wanting to do.

[00:09:01.670] - Robert Gelb

Are you looking to grow your audience? Are you looking to serve your existing audience? Are you looking to monetize an existing audience? You get into the Venn diagram of different formats that maybe eke into courses or maybe close to podcast kind of depends on what it is that you want to do in terms of the talks themselves. We've seen a lot of really innovative stuff, though. So, for example, especially when thinking about from an exhibitor perspective, what we've seen is obviously an exhibitor may be invited to speak. That's the typical one way that they might be engaged. The other way is offering office hours for exhibitors, for anybody, for guests, for speakers, as an add on or an additional opportunity to take part. Office hours, basically, is just a Zoom link or whatever platform of choice that you have scheduled out. So if you're running a summit and you wanted to ask me to be available for office hours, you just ask me when I have an hour free. I'll tell you when I have an hour free.

[00:10:07.970] - Robert Gelb

You put that on the schedule. And literally all I have to do is hang out in the Zoom room. If nobody shows up, nobody shows up. Doesn't really matter. But if somebody shows up and they want to just ask a few questions, more relaxed in a more relaxed atmosphere, they're able to do that. That's a great example of something that takes advantage of people's availability. It's a nice added extra, and it allows your attendees to feel special. I've also seen some interesting uses of different tool sets, like Upstream.

[00:10:36.170] - Robert Gelb

That's a really fun little platform. There's another platform called Stream, and it allows you to create, like, Clubhouse style sessions, audio only one person is on the stage. They can invite other people up, so you can use that. But for a short amount of time and then obviously all the really cool networking platforms out there, like Remo, Cosmos or Gather Town folks like that. We've also seen like we've used Team Flow as well. That's a really cool one. It's kind of designed for companies, but you're able to create these weird maps, and people can then go around and have a little scavenger Hunt. So we've seen people do that as well. There are a whole bunch of different ways that people are being innovative, and you don't have to have the fanciest new platforms in order to do that. Using Zoom, the creativity that is available using something even like Zoom is pretty impressive and happy to kind of talk about that if it's useful.

[00:11:37.970] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah, well, like you said, there's so many probably half the platform she named I hadn't heard of yet. I thought I'd been exposed to most of them, but yeah, it's unlimited. The options that are out there right now and the creativity that people can do. Talk a little bit about. I love how you've shared some ideas about getting your speakers involved in the whole process that it's more than just having them speak. That it's having them as promotional partners and same thing for your exhibitors, too. But talk a little bit about some of the creative ways to develop that.

[00:12:13.130] - Robert Gelb

So engagement in general, for all events. You want this to happen, but especially for online events, speakers, partners. What have you they often are not only serving your audience, they're also a really effective way of gaining the audience in the first place. I think that one of the things that event organizers sometimes forget, or maybe they feel a little bit awkward about is having that conversation with speakers or potential sponsors or exhibitors about what their responsibilities might be as part of the kind of understanding of joining this event.

[00:12:51.290] - Robert Gelb

Yes, we want your expertise, but we also want you to commit to share information about this event in a very specific way. And the best way to do that is to allow it to be speaker or partner driven and engaging them and allowing them to tell you exactly what it is that they're willing to do at the very beginning. And then your job is to facilitate them and help them be successful at doing that thing, right? Maybe you've gotten them to say, oh, yeah, I'm happy to send out emails, maybe three or four emails. Okay, great. You can then help them by writing those emails or writing examples of those emails for them to review beforehand and then checking in with them to see if they're running into any problems. If you're dealing with a speaker that doesn't have a lot of bandwidth, maybe you want to schedule time and just record their video so that their video is actually recorded, but have them live on the chat so that they're able to be engaged with their audience. But they don't necessarily need to be worrying about their Zoom or their connectivity at the time.

[00:13:55.490] - Robert Gelb

That's a common thing. The other thing that I suggest, especially when thinking about maybe we'll talk about this a bit more in person events, trying to look at your value return from an exhibitor standpoint for an in person event versus an online event. They're very different things. And I don't think people should necessarily be thinking like, we're going to have a virtual booth, and that's going to be the end. I don't know if anybody has experienced virtual booth platforms. Personally, I'm not a fan. I don't think they work particularly well.

[00:14:26.090] - Robert Gelb

And most of the reason why I don't think they work particularly well is that the attendee persona and the attendee mechanic is just completely different for an online event versus an in person event. You're dealing with a device in front of you in your computer. That is the ultimate distraction machine. And unlike an in person event, an in person event, you're talking about going to a live trade show. You are mentally committing yourself to, like, a week or three days where you're probably not going to get any other work done.

[00:15:00.590] - Robert Gelb

And the mission is to find people and talk to people and try things out as much as possible. But you've basically written off that week, right? That's not the case when it's an online event. You might be thinking about that, but it's also the same device that you have your emails coming in to. It's also the same device that is going to tell you about those recurring meetings. And it doesn't give you as much of an excuse to say, oh, I'm not going to be making those meetings today because I have an online event to go to. So when thinking about engagement for online events, especially if you're an exhibitor, I would encourage people to think about it from a digital marketing standpoint rather than an event standpoint. And what I mean by that is just if you were to create an Advertisement or an Advertisement, what are you looking for yeah, you're looking for impressions. You're looking for conversion, you're looking for total size of audience, but you're looking for opportunities to get in front of an audience. It's not necessarily the same thing, though, as exhibitors.

[00:15:58.070] - Robert Gelb

Maybe we'll go into that. But there are a few tricks to how you might position that and how you might be engaging with them with your exhibitors and working with them to see what their value is.

[00:16:08.990] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And you said so many things we could do a whole series of talks on all of these things. But a couple of things I want to point out is you were talking about giving your speakers and your exhibitors promotional tools. That's one of the things that I like about HeySummit is you guys have that capability of having the speaker graphics, promo graphics and things that they have this whole speaker kit that they can get access to and use that to promote. The other thing you talked about was exhibitors can't just expect their booth is going to do the work for them.

[00:16:43.790] - Marlys Arnold

And that's one of the things I have been trying to scream from the rooftops over the last year and a half is that there's nobody wandering the aisles in virtual. I mean, you're not going to have people just stumble onto your booth. You've got to promote it. And I think that what you talked about, having the exhibitors do sessions and interacting and having different types of engagement ideas that's so important. Well, just like Mel was talking about what classic is going to do with their virtual walk around next week or their scavenger Hunt, having different kinds of things that you can invite people into that's not just, hey, stop by and look at my virtual booth page, because that's not exciting.

[00:17:29.510] - Robert Gelb

Well, you also just need to think, what are the mechanics at play here? And it's not to say that you can't have a series of booths, but there needs to be a mini. There needs to be a reason why. So, for example, for instance, when people ask us, how do I do networking really effectively online? I have a networking call and nobody uses it or I have a community and nobody uses it. What's going on? The challenge is if I don't know you from Adam and I go into your networking hub at some random time, and I don't see constant communication. I'm going to think it's dead or I'm going to think, oh, it's not ready yet or whatever. It's so much more challenging to make those hap-in-stance interactions happen without you just articulating or organizing around that. So what I would encourage people to do is manage that experience a little bit tighter when you're thinking of online events. So, like, don't have the networking session open all the time. Have networking only scheduled for a half hour? Exactly. I guarantee leave it open afterwards, right. You don't need to end it after half hour, but demand that people actually show up at a particular time so you can provide them the experience that you want rather than the experience that they might receive if they're accessing it at a time or a place that doesn't necessarily work for everybody else. Does that make sense?

[00:19:04.010] - Marlys Arnold

That makes total sense? Yeah. Have it an actual scheduled activity so that people are headed there just like you would in a face to face environment where people are going to actually head to the after hours reception, guide them towards. And actually, I just want to throw out if anybody didn't see our presentation or didn't check out our presentation we did earlier this fall with Amanda about creative networking ideas. I encourage you to go check that out. Look for that in the archives. If you're listening to this on the trade show Insights podcast, you can just do a quick search for networking and it'll pop up for you before we have some final thoughts from Rob.

[00:19:42.350] - Marlys Arnold

I do want to just share, first of all, a little bit of a Disclaimer that I am not only a happy customer of HeySummit, I'm also an affiliate. So Alan is going to put up the link for my affiliate link so you can go check HeySummit out. But I do want to tell you that if anybody does go use my link and decides to sign up as a client for HeySummit, I have a special I will give you a copy of my virtual Event Strategic planner so that you can have that to walk through and plan your event.

[00:20:12.470] - Marlys Arnold

So it walks you through everything from setting your goals to speaker management to exhibitor management promotions, all those things. So anyway, that's just my little perk that I throw in if you decide to use my link to sign up. So just wanted to put that out there. Thanks, Rob. Share with us. Just what are some final thoughts? Like I said, I know we could do probably two or three sessions with you, but what are some final thoughts? Something maybe that we haven't talked about that you think is really important for people to know with virtual events.

[00:20:47.270] - Robert Gelb

I think one thing that I impart is to again trying to get back to what is it that you're trying to accomplish with an online event? If you're thinking about a hybrid event, try and give it a little bit more thought than literally just we need to live stream everything just to make sure that everything is available. Treat your audiences differently because they're different. They're mission for coming. Their reason for coming the way in which they will be served best might be different depending on if you're doing it kind of online only a hybrid or an in person event.

[00:21:25.850] - Robert Gelb

So when you think about the attendee and you make sure that the attendee is first, it actually means that you're able to more simply decide, make decisions about whether or not a certain direction makes sense or a certain platform makes sense or a certain activity makes sense. You shouldn't really be doing things just to be able to say that you're doing them because that's kind of the definition of, like wasted energy and wasted time, both for you and for the organization. The last thing I'd kind of leave with is just because you haven't done something doesn't mean it's going to be impossible.

[00:22:03.410] - Robert Gelb

And I think a lot of folks see words like Summit, and they think that's a big deal, and absolutely it should be a big deal, but a big deal to your attendees, not necessarily for you. So I think that there are some tactics and approaches for you to be able to. I think the average number of people that attend any one event on HeySummit is about 2400 people. So that includes some events that are 70,000. That includes some events that are 100. Right. But 2500 people. The average team size on HeySummit is two. Wow. So you're able to create a lot and you're able to do a lot with not a lot of time or expertise if you're using the right tool set, if you know what it is that you want to achieve, and if you're smart with making sure that you're productive with the content that you're creating and that you're managing, so give it a go. Think about your attendee persona fundamentally and try not to worry too much about taking on more than you can chew before you've thought through it and given it a chance.

[00:23:12.650] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah. And it's true the audience size doesn't depend on the amount of work. I mean, you can put the same amount of work in for a summit for 100 as you can for a summit of 2500 attendees because

[00:23:28.730] - Robert Gelb

a lot of times more.

[00:23:29.870] - Marlys Arnold


[00:23:32.090] - Marlys Arnold

The thing is that it's managing those details, like we talked about of getting the speakers on board, getting the promotions done, just organizing it all. But it doesn't necessarily scale up that it's harder if you have a bigger audience. So I think that's what people need to understand is you can kind of adjust it to whatever size and whatever scale you want. Like you said, you can do a 90 minutes summit, or you can do a five day summit. So there's a lot of variables in there.

[00:24:02.690] - Marlys Arnold

I just want to remind everybody again the link is, nice and easy. So you can go check that out. Learn a lot more about what HeySummit has to offer. I'm a fan. Like I said, it was a great tool I used last year for the Trailblazer Summit, and I look forward to using again for future Summits when I ramp myself up for the next one. So, Rob, thank you so much for being a part of Virtual Lunch today. I really appreciate you being here.

[00:24:31.310] - Robert Gelb

Of course. Thanks for having me.

[00:24:38.790] - Marlys Arnold

You can find all the links mentioned during our interview in this episode's show notes at And if you'd like to join us for an upcoming virtual lunch, you'll find info on that at

[00:25:05.170] - Marlys Arnold

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[00:25:46.750] - Marlys Arnold

Well, that's it for this episode of Trade Show Insights. Be sure to check out our show notes and archives at You can also to connect with me using the social media links or the contact page on the site. I'm Marlys Arnold. Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time for more tools to improve your exhibit results.


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