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Event planning in 2020: Leveraging technology for virtual events

photo of boise startup week

Boise Startup Week 2019 offered entrepreneurs many opportunities to network at events like mixers. For 2020, the event will pivot to an online format. Photo by Sharon Fisher

When Idaho shut down in March, many event organizers were left scrambling. The normal ways of doing business were curtailed. It was time to get creative.

Boise Startup Week almost immediately shifted to a virtual platform, though the details of what that would look like would take shape in the upcoming months, said Nick Crabbs, co-founder of Boise Startup Week and partner at Vynl. The October event typically hosts several thousand people, approximately 26% of whom come from out of state.

Crabbs said it is important to hold Boise Startup Week, no matter the current challenges posed by the pandemic.

“Don’t cancel your thing,” Crabbs said. “You will be better for it. … You will learn a lot. And you’re going to come out the other side of this with your organization being stronger.”

Boise Startup Week 2020 will primarily utilize digital platforms, though it will also incorporate local event spaces for recording speaker talks and a few live Q & A sessions. This could be a crucial factor in the survival of event spaces, such as the Boise Centre in downtown Boise. The majority of the 85,000 square feet of event space is usually empty these days.

Patrick Rice, executive director for the Boise Centre, is optimistic for the 2021/2022 fiscal years, which now will see many events that had been previously scheduled prior to the pandemic. That is not to say Boise Centre did not experience a permanent loss in revenue. Rice said Boise Centre was on track to break records in 2020, going from $3.5 million in operations revenue in previous years to almost $8 million this year. Then COVID-19 hit.

Event planners continue to seek solutions

While many events — from 20 to 30 person events to those hosting several thousand — have gone virtual, some in-person events have resumed throughout the state. Teree Taylor, with the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, said the organization has resumed hosting its Upbeat Breakfast networking events, serving between 150 to 250 people, at the convention center.

The breakfasts feature a speaker and provide opportunities for businesses to showcase their services at trade tables.

But while the Upbeat Breakfasts are back, there are some changes to protect public health.

With social distancing measures in places, tables that once sat eight people now seat four. Instead of a self-serve coffee bar, there are coffee and water pitchers on the table, along with disposable plastic gloves participants can wear when pouring the beverages. People are asked to bring masks; if they don’t, one is provided. Some speakers who would normally travel to the event now present remotely.

Taylor is optimistic. She and other Coeur d’Alene event planners are discussing utilizing outdoor venues, such as local parks with bandshells, to host upcoming events.

“I know here, the city decided not to allow any new permits for the rest of this year,” said Taylor. “(Event planners) should look at reserving now, because there’s not as many (outdoor venues) that have electric (capabilities), can accommodate sound, all things … that are normally in a convention center.”

Idaho Technology Council is an organization that has moved all of its upcoming annual and monthly events to a digital platform. Idaho Technology Council is preparing to host its annual develop.idaho event in September, though it will look a bit different this year.

“The benefit that we’ve seen with doing conferences virtually is there’s people from all over the state of Idaho and even outside of Idaho, that now have easy access to come in and review the content,” said Christina Slaughter, project manager with Idaho Technology Council. Slaughter recalled Capital Connect, a May event, went from around 300 attendees to over a thousand by being offered virtually.

A challenge, though, will be incorporating breakout rooms and other networking opportunities. Options are currently being considered. David Moore, director of talent for Idaho Technology Council, is considering how more engagement can be incorporated into the event

“The networking is something that has always been a big part of all of our events,” said Moore. “And that’s something that has been hard to replicate just in Zoom.”

Idaho Business Review Publisher Cindy Suffa records video for the virtual Icon Awards at Boise Centre’s studio. Photo by Kim Burgess

10 tips for a successful virtual event

As the CEO of a content creation and live event production company, Eli Eisenberg has helped produce three different types of virtual events: events that are 100% live, some that are part-live and part pre-recorded, and others that are entirely pre-recorded.

“What will dictate that hybrid event will be two things: one will be governmental law, where they say you can only put 250 people physically in a space, … but the other part of it is, I think, people have been so knocked off their feet by the pandemic,” said Eisenberg. “It’s a defining moment in time, that people may not want to physically socialize together, they’re uncomfortable, even when a vaccine happens.”

Eisenberg is with VPC, Inc., a Baltimore-area company that has produced virtual events across the country, including recent awards programs for the Idaho Business Review.

Nick Crabbs, a co-founder of Boise Startup Week, and David Moore, director of talent for Idaho Technology Council, recommended that event planners start by discussing what their event’s values are and what the event is supposed to accomplish. Then, “work towards what enables that.” The point of Boise Startup Week, Crabbs said, “is to have a platform that encourages connection amongst people and celebrate the success that our ecosystem is having.”

Christina Slaughter, project manager with Idaho Technology Council, suggested that event planners connect with each other and local businesses that are hosting events to find out what worked well and what didn’t.

“I think that everybody is in the same boat, and the one of the amazing things about Idaho is that it’s a very friendly and welcoming environment for entrepreneurs and companies where everybody supports everybody,” said Slaughter, offering Idaho Technology Council as an option for feedback. “There is a plethora of resources out there.”

Eisenberg stressed that this challenging situation will bring major changes for the positive.

“Part of that impetus for this change was the pandemic, because people were locked up,” he said. “And then these very unfortunate incidents happen. People had nothing else to do but talk about that. I really feel very optimistic.”

Here are Eisenberg’s 10 tips for planning a virtual event:

1.     Pre-recorded, pre-produced events are highly encouraged because this avoids almost inevitable technical difficulties.

2.     Make sure the show script is relevant and engaging, especially when you pre-record in advance. This can be accomplished with props and social media.

3.     Steer your viewers to watch from beginning to end. For example, it is not necessary to provide a list of who will be presented with an award at specific times during the event.

4.     Keep events, on average, between 40 – 60 minutes. Don’t go more than two hours. And, if events were once planned with a meal, event times on virtual platforms can now be moved to hours more convenient for viewers, such as 4 p.m. rather than 6 p.m.

5.     Live streaming is going to be prevalent for the foreseeable future, so always try to incorporate a virtual element to connect that audience.

6.     Have a portal to event “extras” that maintains a touchpoint for your audience and adds value to sponsorship.

7.      Consider spreading out sponsorship prior to the event for more bang for your buck.

8.     Even though financial times are tough, don’t pull back on marketing. Now is the time to keep yourself relevant. And, on the plus side, the virtual environment is allowing for some content to be produced at a much lower cost since companies no longer have to cover a venue space or meals.

9.     Content is king – and queen. The content of the message is more important than how it appears.

10.  You have to do something to survive. Be nimble to avoid bankruptcy or closure.

Boise Centre East

The Boise Centre is finding new approaches to event production in the COVID-19 era. Photo courtesy of Marc Walters Photography.

What’s next for event spaces?

2020 has presented unprecedented challenges for the event industry, but there is still reason for optimism.

Digital events are an opportunity for Boise Centre to increase part of its operations revenue, according to Patrick Rice, executive director for the Boise Centre.

Rice says he is also seeing an increase in local, in-person events being held, such as the State Bar Exam, which was held at the Boise Centre. Anyone who entered had to have their temperature taken with thermal imaging technology. Rooms were set up to accommodate social distancing. Rice submitted the planned sanitation and other protocols to Central District Health for review and approval.

Rice said he is very proud of his team.

“The future looks very, very bright from the convention market,” said Rice, noting that people typically prefer to gather in-person, such as for fundraising events.

He also agreed a vaccine will be a game-changer for event spaces. Rice said he believes there are many possibilities for the Boise Centre offers, which offers a lot of room to spread out across its 85,000-square-feet of space. He also said he feels the venue can very safely accommodate more than the currently allowed 250 people at a time.

Andrew Heidt, with Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he believes Boise and other Treasure Valley locations will be very sought after places to hold events because of the sizes of the cities. Due to the pandemic, Heidt said he thinks event organizers will prefer to host events in less crowded areas. He also said he hopes many local and regional organizations will plan to hold their events in Boise, as this would significantly help the local industry and the community at large.

“There’s a safer feeling to being in a smaller city after the pandemic,” said Heidt.

While there are noteworthy commitments for 2021 and 2022, the rest of 2020 is still “a waiting game.”

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