Rethinking Event Design in Changing Environments

Rethinking Event Design in Changing Environments

Visit Alexandria recently spoke with two event experts who have seamlessly adapted to the virtual and hybrid meetings scene: Nicole Cozier, director of virtual events and national senior account executive at CSI DMC, and Jessica Shea, CEO and head event strategist at J Shea and Cheers in a Box. Keep reading for their tips on designing an engaging virtual or hybrid event, from virtual talent shows to 360° online event spaces and more.

What are creative ways your organization can re-purpose event content and yield a return on investment?

Nicole (CSI DMC): Encourage registration for in-person attendance but provide on-demand content, understanding that some people cannot attend live. You can also restructure your event format so that it occurs over shorter days across a longer week or separate it into two phases. Within your content, utilize creative design elements. Replace your lighting budget with creative thumbnails, branding and backdrops, etc. Keep your slides simple with questions only to inspire dialogue. Divide up content with unique breaks, such as a wellness activity, and use breakout sessions for collaboration and virtual white board sessions for brainstorming.

Jessica (J Shea): ROI for this year and into 2021 will be determined by the attendees’ level of engagement, even more so than financials. Find ways to catalyze networking experiences, be they creatively themed boxes sent to attendees or virtual experiences. We recently took a closing night event and created a virtual talent show inspired by “The Voice,” featuring a former contestant, and attendees received a box in advance containing a branded bottle of bubbly to sip on while they watched.

How are budget allocations changing for your clients, and what considerations should planners have when proposing a budget to their stakeholders?

Nicole (CSI DMC): Before you cut the live meeting budget buckets (such as “Travel”), repurpose those funds into different buckets to be utilized in the virtual space. At CSI DMC, we developed a step-by-step infographic to help planners with this process, whether you’re starting with your budget and going backwards, or starting with your goals and going from there. (See the first slide below and contact CSI DMC to learn more.)

Jessica (J Shea): The first step when budgeting is to consider what makes your attendees tick.  Something has to replace those traditional tangible experiences, like an open bar, especially if you want to charge a fee that approximates your usual fee. Enter: Boxes. We started Cheers in a Box back in April. Receiving a gift taps into the human psyche as well as giving your sponsors something to rally behind. A well-curated box can go even farther for sponsors than their usual logo on a sign or a beverage nap at a reception.

Image Credit: CSI DMC

What are new budget line items that meeting teams should incorporate? 

Jessica (J Shea): Given the learning curve for virtual events, certain areas will need more investment of time and funds, though other costs such as catering, travel and lodging will be mitigated. Be sure to prioritize your production budget, not just for that general session opening video as in years past, but for the entire event. That cost is going to be much higher than it was onsite. Keep in mind that production companies are currently overwhelmed with business, so be prepared to devote more time to the back-and-forth coordination. Additionally, you’ll want to spring for an effective platform to host your virtual event, plus any additional tangible components. More funds will be needed for marketing, either in-house or outsourced, and collecting information for exhibits will be a heavier lift.

How can the virtual attendee stay engaged given the surplus of virtual meetings, temptation to multi-task at home, etc.?

Nicole (CSI DMC): Try to incorporate prerecorded moments, such as mindfulness, HIIT or chair yoga sessions. Also, provide on-demand content that guests can review at their leisure as part of signup price.

One positive we’ve seen is the success around virtual exhibit booths. Social events can be a detriment to sponsors; now, they capture more qualified leads, rather than someone just grabbing a trinket and leaving.

Jessica (J Shea): The two key factors are simplicity and joy. Teach them something new that they can talk about with their spouses, friends, etc., and connect them with one another. Walking into a ballroom of 1,000 people, it’s easy to dodge meeting new people and just mingle with the usual coworkers.  Virtually, you have the ability to really help people connect with one another without the additional distractions of a live event.

Image Credit: J Shea

What programs or tools are you finding most successful for networking?

Nicole (CSI DMC): We’ve developed a 360° event space through which attendees can navigate like a ballroom. As you explore the space, you can click on things that allow attendees to socialize. For example, when you click the bar, you can be fed into a Zoom meeting with a mixologist workshop. If you can dream it, it can go there.

Jessica (J Shea): We’ve been using two platforms with a focus on networking: Icebreaker and Remo. IceBreaker is a virtual “speed dating” game, which you can prepopulate with questions. Remo offers the closest thing to being in a ballroom, with interactive “rooms,” ways to incorporate sponsor logos and more. These are two cost-effective options that allow attendees to meet one another.

Image Credit: Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

How can planners still apply a creative element for a 10-100 person meeting?

Nicole (CSI DMC): We predict that we are moving out of the “Zoom” season of virtual/hybrid meetings and into the “broadcast” season, which will feature more alternate and virtual reality experiences. One of our recent meetings, for example, included a virtual truffle hunt in Italy. With broadcast meetings, you can gather the leaders in one location and broadcast your meeting out.

Jessica (J Shea): Give them something to make them smile and feel. Help them learn about one another. You could provide a box with the president’s favorite snacks, or a list of your C-Suite’s favorite inspirational podcasts. Thoughtful touches go a very long way. You also want to understand your attendees and what’s most important to them: Content? Networking? Experiencing something (like VR)? Finding a partner that can help lead the way is worth the investment of all that time to spend the right solution.

What are your top three “aha!” event design takeaways over from this year?

Nicole (CSI DMC):

  1. Add an element of surprise, like a concert or live performance.
  2. Open or close with a high production element.
  3. Try international virtual experiences that would not have been possible otherwise, such as virtually visiting a Bailey’s Irish Cream Farm, complete with an at-home tasting kit, or an eco-tour in Costa Rica. You can also offer community-service related activities, such as partnering with Feeding America. You can find experiences to meet most budget ranges, depending on the tangible piece.

Jessica (J Shea):

  1. Now is the time to be bold. When it comes to rebranding and changing your meeting up, no one is writing the rules. Have fun with it.
  2. Find platforms that connect people. We’ve discovered that you can network even more effectively virtually than in person.
  3. Rehearse. Rehearse. Keep asking presenters to send you their info so that you can all feel prepared ahead of time.

Insider Tip: Explore the virtual tours and experiences that Alexandria has to offer, and check out resources for hosting your own hybrid meeting in the city.

Header Image Credit: CSI DMC