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How Ottawa meeting planners are creating engaging virtual events

With in-person events on hold for the foreseeable future, event planners in the capital are putting a new spin on virtual gatherings and enlisting the help of local businesses to create memorable experiences for online attendees.

But with many virtual events still lacking the natural opportunities for networking found at in-person conferences, a growing number of companies and organizations are creatively using bonus activities – or “activations” – such as wine tastings, virtual escape rooms or a guided tour of a local landmark, to entice event goers to connect in a more relaxed setting.

“Activations are designed with audience engagement in mind,” says Stephanie Seguin, the assistant director of sales, business events at Ottawa Tourism. “We want people to be participating and experiencing the city through more than just a presentation.”

Local community leaders including Ottawa Tourism and the Shaw Centre are working with businesses, restaurants and museums across the capital to create memorable activation opportunities that event planners can incorporate into their online functions to help them stand out in the virtual world.

Chef cooking

Connecting in the kitchen

While eye-catching extras such as a prize wheel or an interactive game are commonly used to draw guests to corporate booths at trade shows, the addition of an online activation can be a great way to reach a wider audience and ensure a lasting impression, says Karen Wiersma, an account manager at the Shaw Centre.

“Standing in a booth, hoping someone comes by never worked before, and it definitely doesn’t work online,” she says. “In a virtual world, you have to have a bit of a draw.”

For MPI Ottawa, it was the opportunity to cook alongside one of the city’s top chefs that helped to draw a crowd of more than 100 participants to its annual year-end networking event.

The local chapter of the international meeting professionals organization worked closely with Wiersma to plan a virtual cook-along with the Shaw Centre’s head chef, Patrick Turcot, who showed guests how to prepare a world-class meal at home, guiding them through the process step by step.

A virtual tour of Ottawa

“The idea of getting on another call just to sit in front of your screen and occasionally chat just wasn’t going to work for us,” says Gabrielle Whittaker, director of member events at MPI Ottawa. “Seeing everyone participate and do something physical helped people get over that hump of being online all day.”

Whittaker received such positive feedback from the event that she subsequently hosted a brunch cook-along with Turcot for her team at software firm Kinaxis, where she works as an events specialist.

Hosting the gathering online also gave her team the opportunity to connect with their Kinaxis colleagues around the world – something they wouldn’t have been able to achieve had they met up in person.

“This really demonstrated how much of a global reach you can have by hosting creative virtual events,” adds Whittaker, who is planning a virtual escape room experience for MPI’s next event. “It also shows the value of forming those great relationships with businesses in your local community and how a little creativity can go a long way.”