These days, hosting a trade show — or any other event — is a bit of a long shot. For a business that relies on networking, this tends to be a major obstacle.

Virtual MeetingThe good news is that not being able to connect in person isn’t the end of the world. What’s the secret, you ask? Simple: virtual networking. Right now, these events are the best way to maintain your professional connections.

Of course, hosting a virtual event is very different from hosting one in real life. Here are 7 useful tips that should help you make the most of this opportunity.

1. Invite the Right People

Virtual events should be more exclusive than physical gatherings. Before you start sending out invites, make sure you have a good reason for each of them.

Also, you’ll want to give your guests enough time to interact. This is why we don’t recommend inviting more than eight people, including yourself. On the bright side, the virtual format allows you to invite people from anywhere in the world.

When it comes to who to invite, try to go for a mix of old acquaintances and new contacts. Remember, nobody wants to feel like the “odd one out.” If all your guests but one or two know each other, the event may seem like a reunion of old friends.

2. Do Your Homework

Once you have a list of confirmed attendees, it’s time to start thinking about logistics. The key is to make things as easy as possible for both you and your guests.

Start by sending each guest a link to the video app you’ll be using. There are plenty of free video services you can use, such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. If they need to download software or enter a password, let them know about it in advance.

You should also think about what you hope to achieve with the event. Consider making a list of networking goals beforehand, such as exchanging emails with five attendees. This will make it easier to invest your time productively.

3. Consider the Timing

For a virtual networking event with eight people, a 90-minute session is about right. That said, this is one of those things that depends on your business needs.

When deciding on session length, consider what it will take to facilitate the conversation. You’ll want to give everyone time to talk without feeling rushed. With enough time on the clock, attendees will feel more welcome to share their stories.

Time zones are another topic worth considering. Try to come up with a time that suits everyone on the call, regardless of where they live. For most people, the happy — or at least tolerable — medium will be somewhere around 6 to 7:30 PM ET.

4. Make the Introductions

As your event draws near, start introducing your guests to each other. The easiest way to do so is to send out a mass email.

The key things to include are the names of the guests, a short description, and a link to their LinkedIn profile. This helps people find out who will be there, which is very helpful for introverts. Plus, it humanizes the participants.

You should also include guidelines for what to expect. Mention when the event will start, how long it should last, and what topics you’ll cover. You can bill the event as a “virtual cocktail party,” which allows guests to bring drinks.

5. Make Everyone Comfortable

Greet your guests as they enter and provide guidance if necessary. Start the session a few minutes early, so that everyone can join as soon as they arrive.

Once everyone is in and ready to go, get started with the initial introductions. If anyone needs to sign off early, let them introduce themselves first. That way, it won’t be awkward when they leave before the gathering ends.

Each introduction should last about two minutes and include a mix of personal and professional information. In general, it’s best to choose a person to go next rather than wait for a volunteer. This will get the ball rolling faster.

6. Ask Specific Questions

This is another way to provide some much-needed structure to the event. Otherwise, the conversation may spiral into politics or other current events.

As for what to ask, anything that helps attendees share something will work. Back and forth comments are fine since they help create the rapport of a real cocktail party. Still, make sure everyone gets their turn to share.

Here are some examples of good questions:

• How did social distancing influence your work and home life?

• What’s something unexpected that happened to you in the past year?

• Can you tell us about an interesting way you’re using your time now?

• Can you recall a time when you’ve been resilient?

7. End on a High Note

By the time you run out of questions, the event should be close to the end. More often than not, the conversation will then ease into a more natural flow.

At in-person cocktail parties, this isn’t a great time for one-on-one interaction. Virtual gatherings are different, though, especially if you keep them small enough. For the host, this tends to be a sign to relax and enjoy the show.

As good as the event may be going, it’s still best to end it on time. Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and video meetings are more taxing than in-person gatherings. After the event is over, thank everyone for coming via a follow-up email.

More on Virtual Networking Events

Though virtual networking can’t replace a trade show, it can still help your business. The fact that we’re physically separated doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do.

Remember: without in-person events, there are no interactions that go with it either. This is why networking is more important than ever nowadays. On top of that, hosting a virtual conference event is a great way to enhance your reputation.

Want to know more about the future of trade shows? Interested in what a virtual trade show might look like? Check out this article to learn more!