Planning events, whether virtual or hybrid, is much more complicated in the pandemic age.
Online meetings were the rule for the first three months after the state-imposed COVID-19 shutdown. Now event planners are getting requests for live events or hybrids with both in-person and online components.
They’re having to learn new skills and come up with creative ways to handle each situation.
Lisa Bachman of Bachman PR, who works primarily with government and quasi-governmental clients, has hosted online events ranging from 10 participants to more than 200 people.
“People were saying doing an online event versus an in-person meeting should be a lot easier and take a whole lot less time,” Bachman said. “What I have found is that is not the case at all.”
At an in-person meeting, “you need maybe four or five people to set up and be part of the presentation,” she said. “With an online meeting, you’ve got to spend more time doing your advance communication to give people guidance and instruction. You’ve got to test the technology — are you explaining it properly and thoroughly?”
Once a meeting begins, “if you’re going to have opportunities for people to comment or ask questions, you need people helping on the back end,” she said. “You want to have one person who’s the moderator [and] someone who is letting people into the meeting and monitoring the chat function.”
And finally, “you want to have a technology person standing by, in case the whole thing shuts down for some reason,” Bachman said. “I just found, to do it well and right, it’s a lot of work and a lot of planning.”
With an online event, materials such as PowerPoint presentations need to be prepared early and distributed at least a day in advance to give people time to review them, she said.
For privacy purposes, Bachman records the presentation parts of the meeting but not the Q&A part.
“Some people don’t want to have their name showing up in the recording,” she said.
After an online event, she posts the recording and PowerPoint slides on the client’s website. That allows people who couldn’t participate and attendees who want to revisit the presentation to access it at their convenience. She also sends out an e-newsletter or email with a link to the recording.
“A lot of people are comfortable just calling in to a meeting and listening and then going to a website later,” Bachman said.
These options are important to make sure people can participate, she said.
The “million dollar question,” Bachman said, “is how to deal with people that are going on to disrupt the meeting. … I don’t like to bounce them out, because who decides what’s unruly and what’s not? So I like to set the guidelines up front that our expectation is that people will be respectful, and if they can’t be respectful and it gets out of line, you can mute them.”
Some of Bachman’s clients have started requesting hybrid meetings.
“The hybrid approach seems to be working pretty well,” she said. “There are pros and cons, because it’s all new. But I do think more people are going to be able to participate.
“I do think in-person meetings eventually will come back, but I think we will always have that virtual aspect, because it provides more access for more people,” she said.
A LEARNING PROCESS
At the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, “our team hasn’t really missed a beat,” said Nora Hardin, senior vice president of membership and events. We immediately transitioned events to a virtual format. We picked Zoom as our platform.”
Pivoting Chamber Connects and twice-monthly luncheons to virtual events, “while it’s not the same as seeing our members all together in one spot, has allowed us to continue to keep people connected and offer our audiences the educational and networking opportunities that we are used to delivering,” Hardin said.
The move to digital meetings happened within about a week of the COVID-19 shutdown in March.
“It’s a learning process, and if you’re in the event planning business, you’ve got to just dig in,” she said. “And, of course, I was talking to chambers of commerce across the country, and we were all comparing notes and best practices.”
Emma Mitchell, the chamber’s member engagement manager, schooled herself on Zoom and has become expert at facilitating meetings.
“You really need to do your homework,” Hardin said.
Now, four months into virtual meetings, people are starting to have Zoom fatigue. To overcome that, “your protocol has to be pretty tight,” she said. “So you want somebody who’s technically the host and knows what’s going on in the background. And if you’re doing breakout rooms or an online poll or taking people through some kind of interactive exercises, you’ve just got to be sure that you’ve practiced and practiced and done lots of planning.”
Both virtual and in-person meetings and events require the creation of dynamic content, but networking and business development occur more naturally at in-person events.
“We’ve done some networking breakout rooms at the end of a few of our events, but the networking just didn’t reach a critical mass,” Hardin said.
In order to replicate at least some of the connections of an in-person meeting, the chamber instructs people to rename themselves in the Zoom panel so that their full name and company name show on their images.
The chamber also has invited people to join Maximize Your Membership, the orientation events held once a month.
“I’ve been encouraging people to come to as many of those as they’d like, because we have time designated for everybody to introduce themselves and do an elevator pitch,” Hardin said.
Another step was to form new committees that convene online to discuss various aspects of economic development and recovery. They include a franchise focus committee, a group that focuses on diversity in the workplace and a small business advisory council.
Created before the pandemic, these committees have brought together people with common interests for high-value conversations and networking, she said.
“I see that as being kind of the antidote to not being able to meet in person — making sure that the connections you do offer are ones where people can really connect,” she said.
The chamber has not offered hybrid events thus far.
“We’ve taken the tack of really adhering very conservatively and strictly to the protocols that are out there,” Hardin said.
The organization has had to make some difficult decisions, postponing eight of its signature events, including the annual Armed Forces and ATHENA awards luncheons, until 2021.
But it has sponsored one live event — a ribbon cutting at a Quick Quack Car Wash on June 30.
“It went really well,” Hardin said. “It was outside, and we limited how many people we invited, and everybody wore their masks and kept their 6-foot distance.”
But Hardin said it’s difficult to be in the business of policing people’s behavior, and that the larger the event, the more people who will not comply with the rules.
“So right now we’re in a phased approach,” she said.
To follow the 6-foot distancing protocol, an event planner would have to seat two people at each table instead of the usual 10.
“I don’t know how you can create a dynamic event, even if you can get 175 people in one hall, if there’s two people at a table,” she said. “I just don’t think it would deliver. The chamber is known for high-quality events, and I don’t want to drop the bar.”
Michelle Talarico, co-owner of the Picnic Basket Catering Co., said she started to see live events come back in late June.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also really scary because we’re trying to keep our staff safe and acknowledge that they have concerns about working,” she said.
Every situation so far has been unique, Talarico said.
In some cases, instead of self-service buffets that were the norm, the Picnic Basket is offering individually boxed food items for hybrid and virtual events.
For an online fundraiser for Early Connections Learning Centers on June 27, the catering company prepared a meal kit that participants could order. The kits contained ingredients such as partially cooked potatoes and tri tip sirloin, plus a chocolate flourless torte with berries and mint.
The boxes contained recipes for preparing the meal, and the presentation included a prerecorded demonstration of preparing the main and side dishes and garnishing the dessert.
“It was more of a heat-and-serve kind of thing; people weren’t really cooking things from scratch,” Talarico said. “But it was kind of an experience for the guests that were enjoying it, and they were able to raise over $100,000.”
The Picnic Basket also planned to serve individual breakfast boxes at a hybrid First Friday event hosted by the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce on July 10 at the Space Foundation.
Because only 26 people could come to the live event, the chamber is livestreaming the event as well. Although the caterers will not be providing meals to online participants, they did offer boxed breakfasts for online attendees at a Women’s Chamber First Friday event in April.
“We donated meals for anybody who wanted to pick them up the day before,” Talarico said.
“A lot of businesses are going to have to figure out a way to offer both online and in-person events, because there will continue to be people who do not feel comfortable going to an event,” she said. “Some people really are missing gatherings and human connections, but I think that we all need to offer alternatives. And those of us that are in the event world, I think we will continue to have to reinvent ourselves.”