If last year was the year in which virtual meetings took center stage, this year promises more of the same, aided by a soft return to hosting in-person events. What’s clear in any case, whether hosting meetings live, online, or as a hybrid of the two, creating engaging entertainment value is key to boosting audience attendance, morale and learning in order to meet association goals and objectives.
Every event tells a story. As far as what specific entertainment best tells that story, Carol Galle, CMP, VEMM, president & CEO of Special D Events, notes that, “It depends on the event design and purpose.”
For Sandy Wachter, CMP, director of meetings & events for the American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA), “We have found using the same, or very similar to in-person entertainment, has been positive [regarding virtual entertainment] for our organization.” Yet, she recognizes that “With virtual entertainment, it does need to be shorter, with a maximum of 15-30 minutes. People seem to have a harder time focusing virtually.”
Galle, who advocates “snack-sized segments,” agrees. “Whether you are providing educational/informational content or entertainment, participant attention spans are short. People appreciate short bursts of unexpected surprise and delight,” she says. “So, whereas in the past you might engage an entertainer for a single performance, now it might make more sense to have him/her pop in a few times during an event. The entertainer’s home becomes their green room as they ‘stand by.’” Galle also notes that clients are looking for entertainment that not only “appeals to their specific audience demographics,” but entertainment that “is culturally appropriate as well,” adding, “We are screening much more carefully for red flags around cultural issues.”
Cori Solomon, a travel and wine writer who also hosts virtual meetings for both her professional and community associations, says, based on her experience regarding meeting trends, “virtual meetings are here to stay because more people can attend. Turnout is higher and it cuts down on expenses.” In her role as membership chair and webinar co-host for the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), Solomon notes the value of virtual entertainment: “During COVID, it has provided our associate members an outlet to expose their destination to a group of travel writers.”
Following a year of steep learning in using technology to host virtual events, industry professionals are leveraging that expertise to further enhance the attendee experience in a variety of ways. Once production quality and strong internet connections are established, using activities such as live chats for questions and comments, online polls and surveys, and icebreaker activities help keep attendees engaged in online meetings. While participants are generally encouraged to turn on their video cameras to enhance networking with other attendees, effective meeting hosts recognize that not everyone feels comfortable on screen. Therefore, having other options available for facilitating communication and collaboration is critical.
Wachter notes that activities such as exercise breaks with yoga mats or water bottles that have been sent to online attendees are very popular. She has also found success with “cooking demonstrations where ingredients are sent to the attendees ahead of time.”
Midgi Moore, CCTP, owner/CEO of Juneau Food Tours, couldn’t agree with Wachter more. As Moore was reeling from the crushing blow of last year’s cancelled cruise season in Alaska, she pondered her next moves to keep her cherished business afloat. She created a 45-minute virtual food tour event, “Swimming Upstream – Navigating 2021 Like an Alaska Salmon,” reasoning that if customers couldn’t get to Alaska, she’d send Alaska to them. Attendees receive one of three boxed options featuring Alaskan products that help support local small businesses. Beyond sharing fun Alaska facts, challenging attendees to a trivia contest, and awarding winners for best, most unique and worst recipes, Moore uses a salmon metaphor to show attendees how to overcome obstacles and find innovative solutions in problem-solving. To paraphrase the quote: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn,” food is one way not only to enhance the fun factor, but also solidify learning.
Where there are food-focused events, can beverages be far behind? Not only do IFWTWA members have the benefit of attending interactive monthly webinars on topics related to craft wines and wineries, they also have virtual presentations to travel destinations and skill development on topics such as photography and the art of travel writing. Solomon singles out a Memphis webinar that “included music of the destination, which elevated the energy of the meeting.” Plus, “With regard to wine tastings, the virtual webinar is more intimate,” Solomon says. “And having bottles of wine sent allows for savoring the wine after the virtual tasting, which you would not normally have at an in-person tasting.”
Also in the travel and tourism community, Travel Weekly hosts virtual destination previews that engage viewers in visualizing future travels through short, compelling video presentations. In addition, the promise of giveaways in these online events brings viewers hoping to score prizes ranging from swag bags to clothing, seven-day cruises, gift cards and hotel stays. Cruise lines, too, have adapted entertaining onboard presentations and performances to a virtual format. For example, Holland America offers HAL@HOME, a series of video shorts featuring cooking demos with Ethan Stowell, chef, and Rudi Sodami, master chef and chairman of the Holland America Line Culinary Council. The video series also includes performances by onboard musicians together with Holland America’s informative, thought-provoking EXC Talks, which explore destination topics such as the life of sea turtles in the Caribbean.
For Tracy Orpin, CMP, former conference and meetings manager with the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), “using a lot of games to engage the audience” is definitely a highlight among attendees. “In my experience,” Orpin says, “clients are open and surprised to see how much fun games and entertainment can be virtually.” In Orpin’s case, she has also done everything from dance parties to virtual bartenders showing how to make specialty drinks at happy hours. “I have done scavenger hunts, Jeopardy, etc.,” she says. “The opportunities are endless, and can be very fun. I have also done virtual coffee breaks where we [broke attendees] up into different rooms where they were able to chat and get to know new people.” Orpin cites one particular activity that resonated with attendees: “We did a dance party that started off with an individual who gave dance lessons for a particular type of dance. [It was] so much fun to be able to learn in the privacy of your own home without judgment. I think more participated from home than would have in person.”
Wachter and Orpin have each also enlisted a magician to enliven and engage attendees in virtual meetings. But to move beyond the traditional offers, Wachter says, “We have had puppy breaks, comedians, museum highlights, musical groups and the Goats of Anarchy,” which is an animal sanctuary for goats with disabilities. In her view, “Clients are looking for a way to relax and forget that they are sitting for hours looking or listening to speakers present on a computer,” she says. “They want something to make them laugh or learn something fun — completely different than their normal work day.”
Galle has been “successful with DJs and [surprise] live performances.” She also finds that “Graphic recording artists [live virtual sketchers] bridge the gap between entertainment and content distribution because they communicate key messages.” Remembering a memorable attendee experience, Galle says, “One of my favorite sessions incorporated a Native American poet who opened an association conference recently. It was a cold open where she just began speaking poetry from the heart. Her performance was breathtaking.”
So how important is it to enlist an emcee for virtual or hybrid meetings? According to Orpin, it’s right at the top of the list. “You need someone dynamic and fun, someone who can keep individuals engaged as virtual [events] need engaging people 10 times more than in person.” She emphasizes the importance of finding someone who is dynamic, “especially when doing new entertainment opportunities.”
Wachter agrees. “It is very important to find people who are familiar with doing these breaks virtually,” she says. “They need to have proper sound and lighting. It is also helpful to have an emcee to tie all of the components together.” Solomon also says the emcee is important, “because the host or emcee is an expert in their field, and they keep the meeting moving and on time.”
Galle points out that finding the right emcee depends on the type of event and its purpose. “For some groups, there is comfort and credibility in having a senior leader host or emcee the events,” she says. “For others, an external professional with high energy and the ability to think quickly on their feet is a better fit. Alternatively, we’ve arranged for some clients to receive virtual moderator training to provide them with the necessary skills and confidence to perform in this role.”
Wachter suggests a host or emcee should be familiar with all of the virtual platforms to be able to adjust to sudden changes. “They should be able to make changes on the move, as we all know with virtual, there are many things that can go wrong, and the host/emcee needs to be able to move forward with plan B, C, D and beyond.”
In essence, the host needs to be dynamic, fun and flexible. Solomon emphasizes that the emcee should be “someone who can keep the meeting on track and not let it go off on tangents, someone who is knowledgeable in the topic of the meeting.” Adds Galle, “The emcee is the glue that holds together every successful meeting. Ideally, he or she should be engaging, quick thinking and flexible. One of our company’s core values is ‘roll with it’ because that’s crucial in the event business, and it’s especially true for emcees/moderators. If a participant takes the conversation in a new direction, the emcee or moderator needs to immediately assess whether to encourage the conversation or re-direct.”
One place to find such a person — or just about any kind of entertainment or entertainer -— is at Las Vegas-based Baskow Talent. Jaki Baskow started the company 45 years ago, and it has grown into one of the top celebrity/talent brokers in the world. The company has booked entertainers for corporate events ranging from country music star Keith Urban to keynote speakers through its Las Vegas Speakers Bureau division such as Sir Richard Branson.
Top Tips & Resources
Wachter and others encourage association meeting planners to talk to friends and colleagues to find out what has worked for them. As Galle notes: “An experienced event planning company will help you source and vet your entertainment, and then recommend the best fit for you and your event,” Galle says.
Orpin suggest that planners work closely with their teams and communicate regularly with vendors. “There are many [entertainment] companies out there now,” she says. “I work directly with my production crew and A/V crew who do this all the time, as [companies] have been reinventing themselves and coming up with new and creative ideas.”
It’s also a good idea to connect with colleagues via social media channels. “I’m part of a Facebook group that loves to share ideas,” Wachter says.
Solomon says to work toward a seamless experience, send a meeting outline to featured guests ahead of time. Then, the week before the meeting, rehearse the program together. “It’s really important to do a dry run,” Solomon says. “That way you can clean up the content and make sure you won’t go over the allotted time of the meeting. Also, people forget things like including their social media handles on the last PowerPoint slide.” She also advises having the host ask questions and summarize comments in the live chats to keep the meeting on track. Also, “Be sure any sent products like wine arrive to participants on time for the meeting.”
Ultimately, Orpin advises: “Don’t be afraid to try something new. Keep the meetings short and interactive. Most of all, make them fun and entertaining, even if you are just learning about a place to visit.” | AC&F |