Event Planning: 5 Lessons for Planning a Virtual Conference

Authors: Priscilla Pangan, Sakshi Mehta, Hunster Yang, Lauren Murray, Jana Martic, Sabina Iqbal

On October 17, 2020, the Canadian Global Health Students and Young Professionals Summit (GHSYPS 2020) brought together inspiring panelists, speakers, workshop leaders and participants to explore the theme of “Ideas to Impact: Global Health In Action.” Participants examined priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of health students for a green recovery, social entrepreneurship, and much more.

2020 has been a year for continuous  change and adaptation. As Canada adopted COVID-19 measures earlier in March, the GHSYPS Planning Committee looked ahead to what an accessible and engaging event could look like for summit attendees across Canada and the globe. After eight months of hard work, our team proudly presented the first-ever free and virtual edition of GHSYPS. 

Here are our top 5 lessons learned from planning GHSYPS 2020:

1: Putting the “Global” Back in Global Health

While the Global South is uniquely impacted by today’s most pressing global health challenges – fair  access to care, emergency preparedness, impacts from climate change – the vast majority of high-level conversations on global health still take place in high-income countries situated in the Global North. Amid calls for more inclusive approaches to international development and public health broadly, our team saw the necessity of meeting virtually as an opportunity to do our small part in closing this gap.

The virtual format for this year’s summit allowed us to expand to 250 participants from coast-to-coast and outside of Canada, representing 15 countries.

2: Accessibility Changes Everything

Virtual events meet audiences where they are. They also provide an opportunity to create a more accessible environment for participants. Accessibility considerations were front and centre in our planning. In the end, we were able to:

  • Provide the GHSYPS experience fully free of charge;
  • Deliver the first-ever bilingual Summit by securing programming and translation services in both English and French;
  • Offer closed captioning wherever possible

GHSYPS is grateful for our incredible partners, whose commitments to fostering an educational and supportive environment were critical in meeting our accessibility goals. 

3: Why Compromise on Connection?

While we have come a long way when it comes to online events, very little of it comes close to the real thing. We didn’t let that deter us from seeking new and creative ways to facilitate the connections that we look forward to building at GHSYPS each year.

Virtual networking opportunities became a top priority for our team. This year’s GHSYPS Social Night took the form of a Virtual Pub Trivia. A range of interactive workshops kept our participants involved, and a closed Facebook Group continues to provide an open  space to “mingle”, build connections, and share ideas.  

4: New and Exciting Collaborations!

Every year, GHSYPS is proud to unite an audience from different disciplines, backgrounds, and geographic locations representing the full spectrum of global health work. There is a growing  recognition of the importance of multisectoral approaches in securing health for all, and it can and will start with students and young professionals (SYPs).The power of collaboration was further highlighted in our closing keynote, where we were joined by Dr. Gigi Osler and Dr. Vicky Nyaiteera. Together, Dr. Gigi and Dr. Vicky spoke to breaking barriers and provided practical insights into North-South partnerships in the context of global surgery.

5: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

GHSYPS is always planned by SYPs, for SYPs. A team of diverse and dedicated individuals based across the country coming together to make it happen. As such, the Planning Committee is no stranger to the online work environment. Some of our top tips for launching virtual projects include:

  • Use project management apps (e.g. Slack), to ensure regular and ongoing communication between team members;
  • Set tasks well in advance – especially dedicated tech support – delegate day-of responsibilities and prepare run-of-show guidelines to ensure your event runs seamlessly;
  • Check-in regularly with all team members to identify opportunities for cross-team support. Teams are stronger when their members lean on one another. Flexibility, open communication, and commitment to outreach are critical skills not just for virtual event planning, but for global health careers overall. GHSYPS 2020 sent a resounding message: as all of us in the global health space adjust to new ways of convening, researching, and implementing, we must not lose sight of parallel opportunities to bring about more locally-led, equitable, and lasting partnerships.

For SYPs, change and adaptability is more than a familiar face. We have a role to play in rethinking the ways in which the global health sector works, and we are ready and eager to take on the challenge.


November 16, 2020


GHSYPS planning committee