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Chocolate festival exemplifies 5 must-haves for successful virtual events

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA

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When The Spokesman-Review paired with the founder of Decadence! Spokane Chocolate Festival in early 2020, we had a sell-out winner of an event.

Staged in an elegant local hotel, vendors offered fine chocolates, coffee, cakes, wine, ale, and other delectable treats. We hosted a celebrity bartender signature chocolate cocktail competition, and attendees got to sip samples. We invited chocolatiers, historians, and others to teach classes in adjacent rooms. And, of course we featured professional musicians on a center stage and the ubiquitous photo booth for attendees to memorialise the night.

Hot on its heels in 2020 came COVID-19.

Flash forward to this year’s incarnation, Days of Decadence. The four-day virtual experience aimed at celebrating joy, self-care, local shopping, and Valentine’s Day.

Sixteen vendors participated in Days of Decadence.
Sixteen vendors participated in Days of Decadence.

With careful planning and great promotion, our team attracted more than 350 registered virtual attendees who “tuned in” on the Hop In platform for free. There they visited 16 vendor booths and watched four live presentations where they could ask live questions and click to buy merchandise via the presenters’ Web sites.

With an enviable average visit time of 44 minutes the first day we launched, by its final day, Days of Decadence averaged 91 minutes per user spent perusing the vendor booths, watching the presentations, and shopping from the virtual storefronts. Our event received 459 chat messages on the “stage” live presentations alone and 790 for the event in total!

We began planning last October with our partner and Decadence founder Jennifer Evans, who owns and operates Events By Jennifer Evans in Spokane boasted hundreds of hours in 2020 setting up multiple national and international virtual events.

We all agreed the event should be free to attendees and that we’d offer a lot of hand-holding with local advertisers unfamiliar with hosting a virtual event. Leading up to the event, we ran consistent promotion both digitally and in print to help consumers understand how to participate. We also did consistent social media to promote our presenters and highlight participating businesses.

To officially kick off Days of Decadence, we wrapped the Sunday, Janunary 31, edition of The Spokesman-Review with a spadea, and pushed the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday presentations heavily via social media. To invite further interactivity, we sponsored a colouring contest for kids, a “find the code word in vendor booths” contest, and a people’s choice award for favourite vendor. (It was not surprising to us that Victoria Ferro, owner of the popular local boutique Audrey’s, took this top honour with her hilarious, welcoming, and interactive presentation Champagne Shopping on a Box Wine Budget.

The event featured live demonstrations and speakers, and opportunities for virtual shopping.
The event featured live demonstrations and speakers, and opportunities for virtual shopping.

Comments from participants hinted that we’ve landed on a winning model, with one person stating browsing the virtual booths was much like walking down the street and into local stores. Others simply appreciated something fun and entertaining to do — safely and for free. Here is some feedback we got:

  • “This is so informative and fabulous! THANK YOU!”
  • “Can anyone else smell this deliciousness through the screen???”
  • “I am so excited about the Whiskey & Chocolate, I took an exam early so I could attend!”
  • “This is so wonderful! I was rightly very excited to be here tonight!”
  • “My wife has not been a whiskey drinker, but the pairing (and chocolate) has her engaged and she is enjoying this experience.”
  • “Thank you so much for this. This really made my heart happy tonight.”
  • “This was a pleasure to watch today. You were amazing. Loved this! Thank you, Victoria!”

In the event wrap-up, I asked Evans to share some of her best success tips for other media companies wanting to try virtual events.

This is what she suggests:

  • Don’t sacrifice good quality production because of expense. You’ll end up paying for it in poor results. Keeping people connected through a screen is difficult. Your success depends on an outstanding director, lighting, set, audio, a good tech, and quality camera work.
  • Call in the pros as speakers. If they’re going on camera, make sure they are the best. Again, it’s hard to hold an audience if you don’t have quality content.
  • Budget the same amount of time to go virtual. There is no savings of time when it comes to planning a virtual event. While there may be fewer moving parts than live, the behind-the-scenes work is heavy and time-consuming.
  • Diversity matters. Varying your speakers, content, even the times that your event is accessible to people matters. If you want your event to attract a broad audience, you need to bring diversity to the table.
  • We can’t wait for restrictions to be lifted to connect. Our mental health, relationships, and businesses depend on us being connected. A well-produced virtual event will bring every bit as much networking and business as a live event if people play full out and invest in the event. Hire a professional, use quality tools, and get creative!

Would we do it again? Absolutely! The feedback tells us people are hungry to interact, hungry for fun, and willing to try something new. And now we have a good story to tell other potential advertisers looking for creative ways to reach customers during year two of the COVID-19 era.

About Kathleen Coleman

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