Virtual events aren’t new; anyone who has spent the last four months meeting via Zoom, ClickMeeting, Google Hangouts, and more (which is everyone) can tell you that gathering virtually has become a necessity. Health and safety concerns surrounding travel and large gatherings has created the need for seamless and engaging virtual experiences. We’re not talking about your Tuesday morning team meeting, but rather gatherings and celebrations that create novel opportunities for interaction and that leverage technology to foster relationships — whether between a corporation and its key stakeholders, a couple and their wedding guests, a milestone birthday celebrant or a Bar or Bat Mitzvah child and his or her family and friends.
Times like these call for creative solutions; we spoke with a panel of event experts who are pioneering new ways to connect from a distance. They gave us their input on how to plan a virtual event that your attendees will remember long after.
1. Define the Purpose & Goals of Your Virtual Event
“What do you want to get out of this event? What do you want your attendees, guests, partners, sponsors, donors, staff to walk away with?” asks Becca Bloom, Owner and Event Producer at BB Events in San Francisco. “These questions are important when developing the program and content so that you can make thoughtful, purposeful decisions on the elements that you want to incorporate.”
Adam McCarthy, Managing Director of BlackOak Technical Productions in Chicago, asks, “What can you as a host do better for your audience than anyone else? Also consider why would anyone choose to attend this and stay engaged for the whole time? If you have a lot of great answers, then you have a really strong event proposition.” He notes the competition for engagement at virtual events is much greater than at live events — with family interruptions, outside noise, phones ringing, dogs barking — so ask these questions early on in the planning process to ensure that you’ll capture and keep your attendees’ attention.
Of course, these answers will vary if your gathering is a social celebration (a wedding, shower, anniversary, birthday, and more), a fundraiser, or a corporate event. Your response might vary from “have fun and connect with loved ones” or “create awareness for a worthy cause” to “introduce a new product” or “create team cohesiveness.” Whatever your answer, let it guide you during the following steps.
2. Determine the Scope & Guest List for Your Virtual Event
First, a note about language: When we talk about virtual events, often the terms shift from “guests” to “audience.” Traditionally, virtual events have often been one-way communication — information delivered from one group to another. Today’s virtual gatherings are much wider in scope with unprecedented opportunities for interaction and engagement. We will use “guests” here to shift the thinking toward more inclusivity of attendees and support the concept that you are the host.
When it comes to creating the guest list, Bloom from BB Events asks, “Who will be attending the event and where will they be tuning in from? What are their expectations? It’s important to understand…so you can craft a program and an experience that caters to your guests’ needs and expectations.” For example, are you hoping to create an opportunity for large group interactions, as well as more intimate connections? Principal and Creative Director at Atelier Events, LLC in Washington D.C., Deborah Lesser, says, “Be prepared to segment if individuals will be invited to different (sub)events.”
For example, a large corporate group meeting might evolve into smaller breakout discussions. Or for a social event, there might be an opportunity for like groups to gather as they naturally would at tables at a live celebration. Priyan Chandraratna, Creative Director for Alfred House Productions in Los Angeles, recently shared the story of a 400-person, multi-day Indian wedding scheduled for mid-June; the celebration has shifted to a 10-person intimate Hindu ceremony that will be live-streamed. He says, “The reception will be an elegant dinner for the couple and their parents with a virtual component in the form of breakout rooms, that will allow the couple to visit with smaller cohesive groups across time zones like they would make table visits.”
3. Create a Virtual Event Vision or Concept
Before you can line up the perfect event team, you’ll need to fully understand your vision for your event. “Draft a plan for your virtual event by walking through the event experience…what format will it be? Will guests participate or just listen and watch?” asks Bloom from BB Events. She urges hosts to consider what guests will see and experience.
4. Choose Your Virtual Event Team & Assign Responsibilities
Your virtual event vision and plan for guest interaction will guide you in choosing your partner team. Bloom from BB Events says, “Many of the same roles you would have for in-person events will apply here. For example, event producer, stage manager, speaker manager, guest manager, sponsorship manager, marketing/branding manager. But the main difference will be a boost in technical and web support.”
For a social celebration, consider a planner to coordinate all of the roles, plus décor options, potential entertainment, and catering, in addition to a tech support team. A corporate gathering might necessitate the need for a studio appropriate for live broadcasting (more on that topic below).
- BB Events, event planner based in the San Francisco Bay Area, possesses strong vendor relationships and a deep understanding of and experience in creating intentional gatherings, handling all of the logistics and guiding the guest experience from start to finish. This accomplished team is taking critical event planning concepts into the virtual world to produce purposeful content and create meaningful connections among participants.
- JOWY Productions, event planner based in Los Angeles, specializes in international full-service event design for in-person and virtual events that include social media engagement, themed décor, branded gift bags, digital invitations, and a “sense of solidarity” during these challenging times.
- Atelier Events, LLC, event planner based in Washington, D.C., is pioneering ideas for hybrid celebrations that feature small in-person gatherings with larger groups of virtual attendees, “hub-and-spoke” events where smaller live elements happen simultaneously in different locations, and virtual social and nonprofit gatherings.
- Kis(cubed) Events, event planner based in Atlanta, is hyper-focused on creative ways to tell a story utilizing visual elements — which is a natural partner for virtual events where you need to anchor attendees’ attention and engage their minds and senses.
- Alfred House Productions, event planner based in Los Angeles, has been producing seamless “socially-distanced soirées” that feature food and beverage components (like high-tea bento boxes and specialty cocktails), fun virtual hosts (think drag queens, comedians, and singers), and engaging activities (including fun quizzes, trivia, cake decorating, and family feud).
- Mindy Weiss Party Consultants, event planner based in Los Angeles, is taking her years of experience creating buzzed-about celebrations for celebrities and tastemakers and applying it to the realm of virtual events for creative and fun celebrations (that remain Instagram-worthy).
5. Choose the Right Virtual Event A/V & Production Resources
Lesser from Atelier Events urges hosts to “think carefully about the quality and interactive/production experience; the type of platform that you might use for personal interactions and business meetings (i.e., Zoom) may not be best suited for the needs of your virtual event.” McCarthy from BlackOak concurs, saying, “One of the keys in talking about platform selection is to view the process as similar to venue selection for an in-person event. Even the same client doing the same event each year, might choose a different venue. There are countless platforms out there; considering only one platform for every type of event is the same as saying one venue is perfect for every type of event.”
When it comes to choosing between A/V and production services, Bloom from BB Events suggests, “There are many types of platforms that each offer something different, so it will depend on the type of event and experience you are looking to deliver. Take the format and your event concept…and get various quotes from A/V companies to see who is the best fit. Understand their services and capabilities and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be sure you are each on the same page with what you’ll be managing.” She also notes that it’s important to keep in mind how you want guests to participate.
McCarthy explains the range of platform possibilities: “At one end, we have the option of the host broadcasting to guests (think network television), then next we have live-streaming platforms with simple engagement — like Q&A, polls and maybe an attendee list (Vimeo and Zoom might fall here) — then next we will see virtual meeting and conference solutions — more advanced ways to interact and engage, like the ability to network and engage attendee to attendee not just attendee to host. You can also get social media interaction, e-commerce interaction (i.e., a brand selling a product). Then maybe we start looking at different forms, richer ways to engage attendees with third-party forms and add-ons and this takes us to the most exciting sphere of virtual platforms: fully custom.”
Bloom also suggests potentially upgrading the experience by shifting funds planned for elements of live events like lighting, rentals, and more. She also notes that “the A/V company should be able to provide professional equipment like microphones and cameras should presenters need them.”
- BlackOak Technical Productions in Chicago is able to create a custom virtual experience from scratch. This “design-focused, human-friendly” tech production company manages the full-scope strategy, build, and delivery for an event that is capable of creating those organic, serendipitous connections that in-person gatherings foster.
- Moonlight Studios in Chicago features a live broadcasting studio through their partnership with Sound Investments. The two event powerhouses have collaborated to create a facility that features an LED-wall set that can be transformed to resemble anything from a newsroom to the Taj Mahal; the studio also allows presenters to easily engage with their at-home guests.
- Blueprint Studios, based in San Francisco with showrooms in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, offers experienced designers applying their in-person event know-how to create custom interactive virtual environments that keep attendees fully engaged (through a virtual event platform solution or their 360° virtual exploration space).
- LEVY|NYC in New York is a lighting and A/V company that is offering use of their studio for corporate, non-profit, and other events to elevate streaming. They’re also offering consultation services to guide clients as to which equipment they could use at home to enhance video production
6. Create Opportunities for Virtual Event Engagement
Engagement between the hosts and guests, plus guests with each other, is key to making the experience memorable. Lesser from Atelier Events says, “Think about the before and after, as well as the event itself.” She suggests engaging guests in the moments leading up to an event with, for example, a short teaser video or the delivery of a welcome kit and adds, “Make it easy for guests/attendees to engage and respond leading up to, during, and after the event.”
Co-Founder and Owner of JOWY Productions in Los Angeles, Sarah Lowy, says it’s all in the details. “Special touches will make any event stand apart from the rest. Capitalize on what’s most personal [about the client or experience] and build from there. Conversation and engagement will follow. You want guests saying, ‘That was so them.’”
- Craft Yours, cocktail caterer in Chicago, is offering experiential virtual events leading guests through creating shaken or stirred cocktails with in-home substitution ideas for barware; they can also send barware kits as well as cocktail kits to-go; for local events, they offer mixer delivery of fresh juices and shrubs.
- Loni Paige Events, event planner in Miami Beach, has created a virtual experience called “CompanyToast” — a fun, hands-on happy hour experience hosted by a professional bartender (from a network of professionals throughout the country) who will lead a 30-45 min cocktail-making class; they offer no-contact home delivery cocktail kits with a full bottle of featured spirits and all necessary mixers.
- Oysters XO, caterer based in New York, is offering virtual oyster-shucking classes where their “Oyster Girls” and “Oyster Guys” teach online participants how to shuck oysters in five simple steps; classes include overnight shipment of fresh oysters from a farm closest to each participant, plus shucking kits and recipes for condiments and suggested pairings.
7. Consider Virtual Event Entertainment Options
When hosting in-person events, entertainment is always a core consideration, and virtual events are no exception. In fact, since (as noted above) virtual events are vying with more distractions than traditional celebrations, entertainment may be even more vital.
Lowy from JOWY Productions says, “Surprise entertainment on Zoom calls have been fun — whether it’s your child’s favorite musical act or your best friend’s celebrity crush, many talents…are available and accessible. Talent agencies are also offering musical acts to perform virtually which can be a big treat for everyone to enjoy ‘together.’”
Meanwhile, Alfred House Productions has been planning virtual milestone celebrations with a drag queen hostess who keeps guests engaged, laughing, and dancing — like at a recent disco-themed virtual 60th birthday, changing personas (and clothes and makeup) to perform as luminaries like Donna Summer and Abba.
Harlan Ellis, Senior Event Producer with Hank Lane Music, says, “We’ve been evolving our services to incorporate more virtual entertainment options to engage guests.” For example, after hiring Hank Lane Music to perform at their wedding, one couple asked them to entertain for their one year old’s virtual birthday. “The same bandleader and singer from their wedding Zoomed into their home and performed a few songs.” The team is also working on a Hamptons virtual charity event that will combine live performances with DJ-created playlists.
- Hank Lane Music, entertainment company based in New York, has been actively engaging with virtual entertainment solutions (providing technical expertise as well) — from creating playlists for virtual events and staging live performances to staging interactive game shows and compiling video messages for guests to enjoy from their homes.
- EastCoast Entertainment, entertainment company based in Palm Beach, has been producing a variety of virtual events with entertainers ranging from emcees and auctioneers to live music and comedians.
- Rachel Dalton, entertainment company based in New York, has been getting requests for virtual activities (and fulfilling dream experiences) like dance lessons with entertainer JLo, cooking classes with chef Bobby Flay, and private dinners catered by celebrities and top chefs.
8. Decide Whether to Cater Your Virtual Event
There’s something wonderful about sharing a meal with friends, old and new, and that doesn’t need to be lost in the transition to a virtual medium. Lowy from JOWY Productions urges hosts to “consider a delivery for everyone to share together…a beautiful, thoughtful meal and/or a drink kit and pre-dinner spread.” For example, Lowy suggests a delicious delivery of lox and bagels to all guests of a virtual Bar Mitzvah celebration to serve as a Kiddush luncheon or meal.
Lesser from Atelier Events notes that caterers are getting very creative and that many are now offering pickup and delivery, with interesting packaging that makes for a “special experience” for guests. She says that offering individual catering for a virtual event has different logistical considerations and that hosts and planners should work closely with their caterer to anticipate possible complications and solutions.
- CxRA, caterer in New York, has begun offering individual deliveries for full meals as well as beverage pairings and cocktail offerings. Additionally, they are able to provide virtual culinary classes with delivery of ingredients before walking guests through fun preparation in real time.
- Marcia Selden Catering & Events, caterer in New York, has been offering innovative menus for virtual gatherings — including larger-scale galas — with customized boxes of elevated snacks (like spiced nuts and truffled popcorn), individual servings of Champagne, and options for full three-course meals.
9. Develop Protocols for Potential Virtual Event Challenges
Just like you create back-up plans for in-person gatherings (for example, a tent or second location for a potentially rained-out garden wedding), you should spell out alternatives for your virtual event. “Determine steps you will take if things go wrong — and who will manage these steps,” says Bloom from BB Events. She offers examples like poor sound or video, attendees with how-to questions, inappropriate comments/questions from attendees, cybersecurity, and more.
It’s important to line up a knowledgeable team to produce a fun and flawless gathering. Part of that preparation should include rehearsals for large events. Especially when there’s technology involved, it’s important to ensure that all presenters, entertainers, and attendees have the knowledge and skills needed to join and interact. A script and run-of-show outline are helpful here.
Bloom suggests, “Walk through the entire event with your team, speakers, and any other key players as if it were live to ensure that everyone understands their roles, transitions, cues, and the technicalities of the platform.” She also advises establishing a communication platform on the back-end (think texts, chats, or other quick and easy methods) for the team and the A/V company, speakers, or entertainers.
10. Virtual Event Followup
An advantage of a virtual event is having the electronic means to stay engaged with guests after the gathering has ended. Don’t miss the opportunity to send out thank-you emails, an event recap, or other materials that guests might enjoy and appreciate. Lesser from Atelier Events suggests the memorable touch of a “take-away gift” delivered afterwards.
The most important thing to remember when hosting a virtual event is your goal to create a memorable experience for all involved.
If you’re an event company engaging in virtual events, we’d love to hear about it. Email us with details.