laptop with planning imagery around it
Online summits are simpler to organize and control than live events, costing less and potentially yielding higher profits, while also minimizing the risk of cancellations.

During the 2020 pandemic, we discovered the power of virtual gatherings to bring people together. Although we’re no longer on lockdown, virtual events, often called summits, are still going strong, for good reason. They’re easier to execute and manage than live events; they cost substantially less, thus creating the potential for higher profit margins; and they reduce the likelihood that wild cards like weather or, well, another pandemic will force cancellations. I spoke with three summit-hosting veterans from different crafting sectors to break down the process for planning and hosting your own virtual summit.

Prior Planning Prevents . . .

Every virtual summit starts with an idea. Some topics are general – for example, VK Live’s virtual events, which include classes and an online “marketplace,” are knitting-themed, without focusing on a specific geographic tradition or type of skill. Collage and printmaking artist Drew Steinbrucher prefers to select niche topics. His summits on collage and gel plates are successful in part, he believes, because he is one of the only makers offering these in-depth topics. Knitting instructor and designer Melissa Leapman tends to choose topics that interest her as a knitter. She’s had great success with a series of Virtual Knitting Destination events which focus on the knitting traditions of a geographic area (such as Norway or Peru). As part of the event, she includes content on other craft traditions, cooking, and baking in that region.

How can you find potential topics that will appeal to your customers? Alex Byrne of LixieMakesIt, who hosts popular online quilting summits, advises thorough research.

“Start by looking at the amount of traffic for keywords in your area. Back this up with research into the demographics of your target audience.”

Byrne learned that many quilting guilds successfully pivoted to Zoom meetings during the pandemic, making online events a growth area for the quilting industry. Doing online research about past virtual events – and attendee reactions to them – will help you assess potential themes, including specific topics that haven’t been explored. Melissa Leapman takes a more intuitive approach, first picturing her ideal attendee, then planning the event based on what that person would love.

For a successful summit, you’ll want to start planning at least three to six months in advance, perhaps longer, depending on your industry and the size of your event. Research the dates of long-standing annual events (you don’t want to schedule an online quilting summit the same week as the International Quilt Show in Houston!), other scheduled shows, and holidays. You’ll also need to consider how far in advance popular teachers and presenters are scheduling their appearances. Some popular knitting teachers, for instance, book six months to a year or more in advance.

Speakers, Presenters and Teachers – Oh My!

Once you’ve selected a theme and picked your dates, it’s time to research and book the folks who’ll be presenting at your summit. Niche or highly-specific themes may limit your choices; if you’re planning a loosely-themed event, though, you’ll have more flexibility. Drew Steinbrucher looks for two things when selecting speakers:  experience teaching the medium or subject and a good on-line presence to promote the event. He encourages teachers to select their own topics, so long as they have enough information for a thirty-minute time slot and the topic fits into his theme. Alex Byrne also is flexible when working with potential teachers: “When I initially reach out to teachers, I keep things as broad as possible to encourage them to think about what they would like to teach.” She works with teachers one-on-one to come up with a topic suitable for the event that can be taught as a workshop.

Alex Byrne in front of a quilt
During the pandemic, Alex Byrne discovered that numerous quilting guilds transitioned to Zoom meetings, fueling growth in online events for the quilting industry.

Byrne finds that casting a wide net when looking for teachers pays big dividends.

“I like to include teachers who are early on in their careers as well as very experienced people,” she explains.

She actively reaches out to teachers and communities to include people of color, the neurodiverse, LGBTQ+ makers, and others. “[I]t’s more time consuming than working with people I already know,” she acknowledges, “but the benefit of introducing fresh faces and thinking into the event is absolutely worth it.” A more diverse panel also signals to attendees that everyone is welcome and that the event will be inclusive and safe.

As you plan your sessions, think about mixing up formats, using a combination of classes or workshops, lectures, Q and As, and breakout sessions. That way attendees can learn, do hands-on work, and interact with speakers and other attendees. You’ll also need to decide whether you’ll be using prerecorded segments, have live presenters, or offer a combination. Leapman prefers live sessions due to the give-and-take between presenter and attendees; Steinbrecher generally uses pre-recorded sessions; Alex Byrne uses a mix of live and prerecorded sessions and offers virtual and is developing ways to incorporate real-life networking opportunities.

Once you’ve selected your presenters, don’t just file their information away until shortly before the event. Start by drafting a contract to lock in your presenters and set clear expectations, including addressing potentially touchy issues like intellectual property issues. Alex Byrne opts for a contract in which teachers retain full ownership of their recorded workshops, leasing the recording exclusively to her for a period of time; after that, the teacher can use the recording as they wish.

Follow-up is also important because you’ll want your teachers to promote the event. Sending them logos, links, and images to use will make it easy for them to advertise the event on social media and their websites. Alex Byrne emails a weekly status update to her teachers, sharing statistics about registration, hot topics, and other helpful information. She also includes tutorials on topics like upselling. Byrn’s teachers tell her the status updates are helpful and they like learning about the event as a whole, rather than focusing only on their particular piece of it.

Look to Logistics

Exactly how to plan and execute your event is, to some extent, a function of your personal management style. Alex Byrn, who considers herself a highly visual planner, unrolls kraft paper and uses markers to “mindmap” the event. Once she has mapped out the event, she adds target dates and deadlines for each step. (Byrne also recommends scheduling in extra time to account for snafus and unforeseen circumstances.) She then uses the work management platform Asana to break down tasks and focus on upcoming deadlines.

When it comes to the actual hosting of the event, many small business owners use Zoom to deliver their content. If you’re looking to host a larger, more complex event than, say, the typical guild meeting, you’ll want to consider digital content platforms, specifically designed for creating, marketing, and selling content. Drew Steinbrecher uses Thinkific, while Alex Byrne  uses Kajabi. Comparison-shop different platforms, exploring:

  • Whether they provide marketplaces that offer your courses along with others or are primarily course builders;
  • Any limits on number of classes and/or number of attendees;
  • Whether templates for classes are provided and how easy it is to edit and customize them;
  • Whether/how the platform supports video, audio, PDFs and other media;
  • The ability to create quizzes and/or polls or create paid memberships down the road;
  • How much traffic the site can handle and how much data it can stream.

You may also want to look at registration platforms (one popular one is Eventbrite) that function as ticketing services, particularly for larger events.

Pulling It Off

All three event hosts stressed the importance of planning for unforeseen events – and starting early! For example, if you’re using prerecorded sessions, take a good look at the videos that you plan to offer during your event. You might find that the audio isn’t clear, for example, and you’ll want plenty of time to reach out to the presenter to ask for a re-record. Alex Byrne tests every link provided in emails or webpages before sending them out or posting them to avoid dead links. Practice using the platform or technology you’ve chosen and learn how to troubleshoot common issues.

As your event draws closer, check in with your speakers to confirm they are still on board and have everything they need. Make sure your subscriptions are up-to-date so there are no service interruptions. Byrne recalls a virtual event where the host was locked out of a critical account on the morning the summit started; as a result, she now routinely adds a trusted individual as back-up or co-administrator on important accounts and platforms. Decide whether to have an open chat window or breakout rooms, activate (and test) closed captioning, make sure any automatic software updates haven’t thrown off settings on your camera or microphone.

Melissa Leapman encourages event hosts to make sure they have enough help on the day of the event. She hires staff to moderate sessions and deal with minor snafus, so she can concentrate on bigger-picture issues, including any classes she is teaching. Moderators are also helpful to combat the dreaded trolls that, sadly, pop up from time to time. You and they should be prepared to defuse awkward situations or address poor behavior during live sessions and anywhere attendees can leave comments or participate in chat. That means monitoring social media and other fora (Byrne once had to address Facebook rumors that her event was a scam!) and responding to the disgruntled.

Before hanging up your headphones and basking in the glory of an event well summited, gather all the data you can about your event’s performance. Leapman and Byrne always send post-event surveys to attendees. Byrne includes questions about preferences for future summits, such as whether attendees would prefer Option X or Option Y. Byrne also gets valuable feedback by reaching out to teachers.

“If you are a person who loves data,” she adds, “you can learn an amazing amount [from Google Analytics]: traffic sources, demographics, what’s of most interest, what was a surprise hit and what was a surprise miss.”

All this information will help make your next event even better.

Carol Sulcoski

Carol Sulcoski


Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitting author, designer and dyer by night. Her latest book is “Yarn Substitution Made Easy” (Lark Crafts 2019). She lives outside Philadelphia with her three nearly grown-up children and a fluffy orange cat.

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