Events expert shares (virtual) planning tips for media companies

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA

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If you’ve ever tried to “do an event” without professional help, please excuse me while I laugh out loud and try not to point.

There is a reason seriously funny memes around this mistake abound. Allow me to share a few favourites here:

If you are a news media professional, this does not mean you are an event-planning professional. You may have an idea, yes, and a revenue goal, of course. Those two things put you in a good position to “seek help now,” as my older sister said while giving me side-eye back in college when I considered becoming engaged to a particularly bad lemon of a boyfriend.

We at The Spokesman-Review are smart people. Our editorial team is known nationwide for the impressive Northwest Passages Book Club and Community Forum it launched. Through very smart trial and error, they’ve created a promising model that delights attendees time and time again. And in the age of coronavirus, the editorial team has moved book club events to the virtual space.

In marketing, our events tend to be larger-scale, with multiple and often competing goals depending on which advertiser we’re serving at the moment. So when our full-time marketing events manager left to pursue her dream job in the financial industry, we quickly contracted with a small but mighty local event planning company (Encore Events in Spokane, Washington) of two people, who became our very best friends over time.

And now with coronavirus still shaking all business models to their very core, Encore Events has shifted its focus to serving clients through virtual marketing events.

Below is a Q&A with Encore Events owner Jennifer Evans with insights on how to leverage the virtual space as your media company plans and rolls out events that are safe — and effective — in the age of coronavirus.

Jennifer Evans, owner of Encore Events, shares tips on how to transition successfully to virtual events.
Jennifer Evans, owner of Encore Events, shares tips on how to transition successfully to virtual events.

Q: Please describe the event/events you moved from in-person to virtual.

A: To date we have successfully transitioned three corporate events into the virtual space.

The first was a fifth-anniversary celebration for the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine (in Spokane), where faculty, staff, and students heard an address from our founder’s wife, Carmento Floyd, and the founding dean of the college. It was the first full gathering of the college since the shelter-in-place order. It was well attended and people were excited to engage in the platform’s chat feature.

The second event was a virtual fundraiser for a non-profit organisation. The hour-long celebration/fundraiser was high energy, interactive, and inspirational. Supporters were engaged and it showed in their giving. In the live auction and paddle raise, they were as generous and supportive as they have been at live events.

The third event we hosted was a supply chain matchmaking conference for small businesses who wanted to engage with prime contractors and government agencies. More than 450 people registered for the event, and our engagement was high. It was great to see business networking happening online, and we are proud to have found a way for suppliers to remain connected to opportunities and profitable through this crisis.

Q: What are the best things that come from doing an event virtually vs. in-person?

A: It seems easier to mine data from a virtual event. We can track marketing, traffic, registrations, attendance, and connections made at the event using tools that each platform provides. Some platforms allow us to see where guests logged in from. We learned through post-event reports that our matchmaking conference was viewed globally. Some of our small businesses were out of the country and could still participate from places like India, Ukraine, and Ireland. Conflicts that sometimes arise and prevent people from registering and attending are eliminated.

I also appreciate the brevity of online events. Studies have shown humans now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish. People want to be educated and entertained, but make it quick! We have learned events need to be concise and interactive to hold attention. If people don’t make it to the end of the event, that’s on us.

Virtual fundraisers should not exceed one hour and 15 minutes, but I recommend 60 minutes max. Full-day conferences should be cut down to half days. If there is too much content to cover in a half day, we recommend having it span multiple days.

Q: What are the challenges?

A: Virtual events are time consuming.

At first glance, we thought our load would be lightened, and we were proved wrong. It takes more time to produce an event online, and there need to be more players at the table. Depending on the type of event, there needs to be greater production and planning so that the “run of show” is flawless. This requires more rehearsal time and sometimes hired help to assist with recording and streaming.

Sponsors and speakers need more education on virtual tools. Not only do planners have to know the tool flawlessly, but then they have to educate the rest of the team. You will need tech-savvy people on the job. A locally live-streamed virtual commencement required seven engineers behind the scenes. We pulled off our virtual conference with two admins and it was a lesson learned: We needed more help.

You have to exercise patience and grace to yourself and everyone participating. This is a new chapter for all of us, and the spectrum of experience in a virtual world is vast. Some people will struggle to register for your event and some could have done the coding for the platform provider. As with any event, you’ll have people who love what you’ve created and those who don’t want to engage again until you’re live. Your level of patience and kindness will be the difference between losing clients and customers and keeping people engaged and persevering.

As we’ve learned in a social media world, people are fearless behind a keyboard. It’s easier to express frustration through typing, whereas in person, people tend to soften their tone. Prepare yourself for the feedback and protect the chat feature in your event. Also, anticipate double or triple the amount of pre-, during-, and post-event communication with speakers, sponsors, and guests.

Q: What types of events could work best virtually?

A: I feel confident that just about anything can translate into the virtual space. Social events, trade shows, conferences, fundraisers, happy hour gatherings, commencements, and all variations of celebrations and orientations.

And the truth is, we may not have a choice. Major organisations have cancelled live events through June 2021, leaving us with virtual as the only option. Many businesses and organisations simply can’t survive without their events, so we need to look for new and different ways to stay in touch with our clients and constituents.

Q: Are people (attendees) willing to pay for virtual events?

A: Absolutely!

There is great value in a virtual event. Sponsors have made remarks about seeing even more recognition during the event and greater engagement from guests. Attendees still need education, training, and networking opportunities. Our celebrations and recognition of major milestones must continue.

While many of us would prefer to be together and in person, it’s important that we keep our connection alive and do what we can to fill in the void of human connection that we are missing.

Q: What are the takeaways for next time you undertake a virtual event?

A: Our greatest pain point has been not having enough staff behind the scenes. We won’t make that mistake again.

I can’t recommend enough the need for tech support, production assistance, event planners to assist with logistics, and excellent communication support and training. Having an event strategist who can oversee all of these areas is critical to your success. A virtual event is not the same as a live event and it will require a qualified team of event professionals who are dedicated to acknowledging the difference and helping you succeed.

Carefully choose your online platform. There are a lot of options out there. You’ll want to know what your event goals are and what you want guests to experience as you choose the option that is best for you.

Here are a few things to consider: Will you have live speakers or will you be streaming pre-recorded content? Do you want guests to interact or just view the event? Do you want a chat function enabled? Will you need to use more than one platform to accomplish the task at hand? How will guests register and is there payment involved? How many attendees are you anticipating? Will the event be hybrid (some guests live, some online only, etc.)?

Also, over prepare. Whatever can go wrong, will. The more you prepare and rehearse, the more you can manage the unexpected on event day.

Virtual events are intense and will take a lot out of you. Get lots of rest the night before, sit and/or stand in a comfortable location, have plenty of water within reach, and take good care of yourself. You’ll find a half-day virtual event is every bit as exhausting as a full-day live event.

As with any event, be kind to yourself and extend that kindness to everyone involved. Your level of calm will be reflected in all of your interactions with participants.

About Kathleen Coleman

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