Reinventing the Virtual Experience for Non-profits

Biotech Week Boston event by AJ Events. Social distancing environment with staging and a large screen in test mode.
Picture of AJ Williams - AJ Events

AJ Williams - AJ Events

As the founder and creative force behind Creative Events, AJ Williams has built a strong 18-year track record by masterminding cutting-edge experiences. AJ began her career at the Miss Universe Organization and cultivated a passion for expressing creativity and design through events. Hailed as an artistic visionary, AJ’s ability, unique talents and outstanding reputation have made her a tremendous success. She surpasses what’s expected of a typical event planner – managing comprehensive PR campaigns, designing event materials, as well as orchestrating successful fundraising for clients - - creating fully integrated events, which has made her one of the most sought-after planners in the area.

Shifting from IRL to digital has become the new normal right now for many event planners and producers who were impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. The event’s industry, in particular, is in the land of uncertainty; organizations are facing tough decisions on how to navigate events in a socially distanced world. This uncertainty around the current state of emergency and with capacity mandates now until by year’s end, have thrown everyone, including health experts and lawmakers – thus creating fear with non-profits’ leaders on whether to cancel, postpone, or instead of nixing the gala or rescheduling, many events including flagship buzz-worthy fundraisers have gone virtual. 

It’s a new world out there. While virtual events are growing in popularity, modern technology has made it possible for companies to host amazing online events that were thought to rival in-person events, a benefit for both event planners, attendees, and non-profits, and it’s a great way to ensure your mission stays visible. Since March, we have been spending large amounts of time in front of screens – watching TV, working remotely and checking in over Zoom meetings with colleagues and clients, social media and webinars have peaked; as a result, online video social get-togethers with friends and family, online fitness classes, Skype cooking classes, online concerts, you name it – and over time, this can be draining. Turns out, even a Zoom cocktail hour can burn you out. You’re probably feeling “zoom fatigue,” too. We spoke about it amongst ourselves while on Zoom, of course, and decided to ask around to see if others were feeling the same. Apparently, we’re not alone, but maybe that’s just us, planners anxious to be social.

Then This Happened.

In the last week of April, we had a Zoom meeting with our gala committee. They all echoed that they are already “over” virtual events and wanted a virtual event only as a back up for their summer event. “Sure,” we said. “We will come up with a hybrid plan. There’s an appetite out there to engage in this way.” We were tasked with pivoting and planning an inclusive hybrid event experience in this new virtual world.

King Legacy Boston gala by AJ Events. Content and images can be projected in front of guests and on the sides of the stage, allowing for virtual attendees to be showcased and visible by in-person attendees.

Let’s face it, I too miss in-person contact, hanging out and cocktailing with friends – we all do! But rather than simply surrendering to this crisis, and moving events to entirely virtual, I thought of ideas to maximize engagement in terms of approach and execution, plus create anticipation with unique event activations. There are plenty of content types to explore that can create an engaging and interactive online event experience. Despite the hurdles we faced on the path to this monumental shift, we realized there was an opportunity to do something special. Live streaming and conferencing tools are more available than ever before, and online events are far more affordable to produce. The good news is we have a variety of options to choose from.

This was an opportunity to reassess the value of the event and see how we can reinvent that experience virtually. The pressure to innovate and redesign event experiences with social distancing will shape the next era of our events. While nothing can replace the in-person experience and sponsor engagement that events deliver, we have conceptualized an inclusive and interactive experience with Hybrid events. Virtual experiences work hand-in-hand with live experiences. Take advantage of both to create the best version of your brand experience and wow your audience from every angle. There’s no reason why you can’t create the event you imagined.

Why Not Just Play It Safe?

Well, that’s not fun! Virtual events can run the risk of becoming less collaborative, there’s only one “conversation” that can take place effectively at a time. Executing a sound game plan can allow you to shift your in-person event strategy to an experiential virtual event.

Mercedes_Benz_Burlington_AJ Events
Mercedes-Benz launch by AJ Events. Send a branded box as Virtual Swag filled with gifts, sponsored items and event materials.

We’ve replaced the virtual event with a modern, creative event your clients can adapt to. What was born out of necessity, has the potential to change the game in what we do.

Find fresh and innovative ways to collaborate and network. Networking and person to person contact is one of the main components of in-person events that can be missing from virtual events. Think through ways that you can replicate a networking experience online. What if you add the Zoom breakout component to virtual attendees so while the in-person attendees are entering the event or safely being social before they are seated, the virtual attendees can network online in their breakout virtual rooms. This actionable item will keep event pros moving forward.

First things to consider, how can we change the virtual attendee experience to make them feel like they’re in the room? How do we bring in the WOW factor when merging virtual and in-person for an inclusive experience? How will you keep an online audience focused? How can we add an element of two-way, live interaction with the auction and our speakers?

Planning Tips

Producing virtual and hybrid experiences may be a familiar or new territory, but you will find the right balance of in-person events. The same strategies made you succeed in events logistically will make you successful in the virtual space. No matter the challenge, every event organizer knows that the real value of events is in bringing people together. Here are some planning tips for hybrid events.

School_the_World_AJ Events
School The World Gala by AJ Events. Live-streaming content to all attendees from other locations.
  • Focus on providing the best experience for your audience.
  • Keep the virtual event to an hour, in-person should be 2-2.5 hours. If you have catering minimums you can’t meet from a rescheduled event, ask if you can move those dollars to a later thank you reception event.
  • Blend multiple tools like live streaming, messaging platforms, social media, and more to deliver a robust and engaging experience.
  • Event emcees/hosts should be skilled at authentically engaging the audience and encouraging participation, live, and online.
  • Include entertainment in short batches, like a commercial break.
  • Make sure you over-communicate and inform live and online guests what they will experience and a “how-to” virtually.
  • Add variety to the way you deliver content.
  • Creative visuals are a must. Dazzle them with theatrics and great graphics.
  • Mix up your content. It’s easy for virtual event attendees to get distracted, and don’t forget to thank your sponsors.
  • Add a virtual Q&A for both live and online guests.
  • Create an incentive for virtual attendees by providing exclusive content or an opportunity to buy out auction items before it goes live.
  • Have your auctioneer interact with your live and online guests with the live auction packages only and handle the fund in need as an announced component with silent bidding.
  • Add Livestreaming. This allows the audience to expand your reach locally and in other markets, or feature real-time, the area they represent i.e., schools they build in Central America during your fund the mission ask.
  • Reconsider the location, make sure your venue allows for added space for social distancing and audiovisual should you implement the 360-degree hybrid event experience. Your site will need to have a strong, dependable internet connection and the flexibility for early set up to test, test, test.
  • Audiovisual is everything, make sure you have the right company, technology, and AV techs. Technical risk is high, so practice transitions ahead of time and have a backup plan just in case capabilities crash during the event.
  • Get Creative with Social Media.
  • Talk to your sponsors and find out how to best feature and engage them with your attendees. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Plan for both live and pre-recorded presentations.
  • Add Virtual Swag. This is my favorite. Send a box filled with the event program and sponsored items like boldly printed materials for attendees to use as visuals – you can get super creative here. Add a branded container so they can fill with their favorite snack, gifts that are redeemable online, add a branded mask; the list is endless. Include a packaged treat or recipe. For auction engagement, include a paddle or ‘raise the hand’ sign. Provide the same items to your in-person attendees.

The Future of Events is Hybrid

The Ad Club event by AJ Events with speaker Jack Connors. IMAG shows same content/image as virtual attendee.

To enhance and bond relationships, we find that when you challenge your attendees to take risks with your experience, they bond more effectively and raise more dollars. Just because you can’t execute your pre-COVID-19 gala, doesn’t mean you should give up on revenue non-profits rely on. Your community wants you to succeed and will understand your pivot to ensure mission awareness is achieved. Choose a strategy and commit. Remember, your community is going through this development together. Donors will support you.

The Associated Press reported, on Tuesday, May 5, that China had one new case of coronavirus and no deaths, marking three weeks since it recorded a COVID-19 fatality. So there may be light at the end of the tunnel, BUT, and that’s a big but, scientists predict a potential comeback and without a vaccine, attendees may be reluctant to be social in big groups. You absolutely need contingency plans over an above back up plans for each component as phases and government mandates change.

Good luck and to find out more about our full hybrid fundraising event plan, please contact me – I’d love to help.  

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