When looking for entertainment options for meetings and conventions, meeting planners are often bombarded with resumes of magicians, as they historically have been a go-to option for many conferences. Nothing against magicians, but in today’s world, there are so many entertainment possibilities that no planner should ever have to hear the words “hocus pocus” again.
Of course, with so many meetings recently being virtual or hybrid, it creates some problems with booking acts. After all, you want entertainment that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of what medium they use to attend the event.
Patrick Perry, director of events, sales and partnerships for Virbela, which partners with meeting organizers enabling them to host conferences, expos and trade shows in the virtual world, suggests working with an event-production team or partnering with an outside vendor to ideate on a venue and source talent. “You could also ask your network for recommendations — LinkedIn is a great way to solicit input — or reach out to one of the meeting planning associations like MPI or PCMA,” he says.
Adam Christing, chief entertainment officer of Clean Comedians, has booked both virtual and live events for companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Insperity and nonprofit groups such as Mercy Ships and many more. “I don’t think we’re ever going fully back to in-person events, and I think this hybrid concept of in-person and virtual will be with us for a long time,” he says. “Our motto is, ‘It doesn’t have to be filthy to be funny,’ so it’s a real safe, positive option for meeting planners. There’s an old saying that ‘A smile is the shortest distance between two people.’ So, when you want to create community in your audience of people, laugh together.”
Karen Millard, senior loyalty advisor, marketing and business development, for Insperity and a veteran corporate events planner, has worked with internal teams to coordinate hundreds of small business meetings, trade shows and national conventions. Currently, she plans and executes high-level live and virtual experiences, and has utilized Clean Comedians numerous times. “Clean Comedians consistently delivers top-quality, clean entertainment that captivates, inspires and revitalizes live and virtual audiences of any size and industry,” she says. “They offer an extensive menu of entertainment and speaker options, which enables them to provide exactly what your meeting needs. The highlight, for me, is seeing our guests leave happy and energized.”
Virbela launched The Virbela Speakeasy in 2020, a virtual live entertainment venue that’s ideal for group events and large gatherings for thousands of attendees. The space includes a large stage and multiple screens for viewing live performances, a dance floor, balcony, retractable roof, lighting options and a VIP backstage area. To attend an event, participants create and customize their own avatar in Virbela, which allows them to explore, socialize and enjoy the event with other attendees — just as they would in the real world. They can even hit the dance floor as every avatar has 10 different dance moves. “We’ve partnered with companies like The Economist to host an after party in The Virbela Speakeasy after their virtual meetings and events, with DJ Jazzy Jeff as the entertainment,” Perry says. “What’s also great about the space is that there are dozens of branding opportunities. Organizations can customize the name of the venue, add their logo, and curate images, videos and posters throughout the event space.”
Izolda Trakhtenberg, workshop facilitator, singer and speaker for IzoldaT, provides live interactive music and singing for the participants, and gets them singing too. “By the time we’re done, I have the entire group singing in three-part harmony, even if they’ve never sung before,” she says. “I also sing in 15+ languages, so I’m particularly compelling to multinational corporations because their employees will have the chance to hear music in their native language.” Trakhtenberg also provides a Mindful Creative workshop that gets everyone creating art and writing mindfully. They get involved hands-on, and everyone learns something about themselves and leaves the event with unique art they created. All they need is a pencil and a piece of paper, and their creativity blossoms.
Having hosted 3,000-plus events over the past two years, Millard notes comedy is just the tip of the iceberg for entertainment options. “Meetings that work are those in which participants stay engaged, leave motivated, and with a clear understanding of the intended message,” she says.
Natasha Miller, CEO, founder and chief experience designer of San Francisco-based Entire Productions, responded to the pandemic-era “Zoom Gloom” by curating and programming a faster-paced, more engaging virtual meeting event with team-building segments seasoned with a scintillating musical performance, celebrity appearances, giveaways and more. “Our EntireVariety format works well with our team of videographers, editors and switchers to create a broadcast TV-quality experience for your town halls, launch and customer announcements, but we can also create a more modest production with engaging messaging and a faster-paced presentation style,” she says. “Our world-class talent and vendors are experts at engagement, and will have your attendees on the edge of their seats craving more.”
Many meeting planners and hosts are using video conferencing or video streaming, and that just isn’t a replacement for live events. Quite simply, these kinds of solutions are not as engaging or immersive, and they don’t allow for networking and spontaneous run-ins, which are vital to any in-person experience. “At Virbela, we’re focused on helping event planners create unique and memorable virtual event experiences that provide value to attendees,” Perry says. “Through our virtual worlds and event spaces [from an expo hall for trade shows to live concert venues where artists and DJs can perform on a stage], we offer expansive environments for people to move around, mingle, dance and have fun, just like they would in real life. We believe environments that allow for this kind of movement and interaction are key to putting on a great virtual event.”
Grace Good is an entertainer who is bringing virtual and hybrid meetings to life with her flaming hoops, a big red ball, and all the excitement of the circus. “What is the greatest show on earth? The circus, of course,” says Good, owner of Grace Good Cirque Entertainment. “I provide an exciting, one-of-a-kind virtual and hybrid experience for meetings and conventions. And I’ve learned how to bring the excitement of the circus to attendees, whether in person or remote. Not only that, I’m able to engage the meeting audience in a fun, interactive event that creates a shared experience and makes everyone feel more connected.”
Her virtual and hybrid shows are adaptable to meet the needs of the audience. They can include acts performed on the “Go-Big Show” or “Game of Talents” from television, elements from Good’s international tour with Cirque Dreams, or other popular acts, including a Dragon Staff routine. “I can perform a variety of feats atop my big red ball, including hula-hoop tricks, acrobatics and fire stunts. I can stun audiences with multiple spinning hula hoops, fiery acts, aerials and acrobatics,” Good says. “I can float into the air while hula hooping, or perform while suspended upside down from one ankle.”
One of the most popular elements she offers is an interactive hula-hooping lesson that gets everyone out of their seats, moving and having fun. “With employees struggling with isolation and many gyms closed, hula hooping has many physical and mental health benefits, and I share fun, simple ways attendees can challenge themselves with new skills while enjoying an entertaining, effective new workout at home,” she says. “I also often include an Ask Grace Anything-Q&A session. People love to hear what life is like from someone else’s perspective, and I’m always ready to answer questions about how I ran away from college to join the circus, how much I train or what it’s like to eat fire.”
As an example, Good recently produced a virtual event for Morgan Stanley — a 45-minute show that included a 20-minute performance, a 15-minute hula-hoop lesson and a 10-minute Q&A. “It was so much fun that remote attendees began bringing their spouses and children onto the feed to watch the show and participate,” she says. “They’ve already rebooked me for two shows. One of the next virtual events I do for them will be similar to [that] show, and another will be a hula-hoop workshop for the kids of the attendees.”
Krissy Garber, co-founder of Even if it Kills Me, a company that offers immersive murder mysteries for team- or company-bonding events, utilizes a format that allows it to not feel like a virtual event, and lets the participants communicate as if they are in the same room as each other. “We try to eliminate the awkwardness of a typical Zoom meeting,” she says. “It’s great to see people do something so different than what they’re used to, and see how quickly immersed they become in this fictional world. We really embrace the technology and use it as an asset instead of a hindrance.”
For example, utilizing Zoom, the participants communicate on the site via chat, have active polls, use breakout rooms to have private time between certain members and can easily see 10 people at once. “Even when we have people in-person for hybrid events, we have them on Zoom using their phones to use chat and the other features while they are able to speak to each other in person,” Garber says.
Mollie Plotkin, owner of the Mollie Plotkin Group, serves as an agent for high-profile keynote speakers in the celebrity realm. “We do a series of short videos asking questions for the audience to think about, providing fun facts or bits of inspiration and motivation,” she says. “By doing so, the audience is aware of who they are going to be listening to, what they may be learning about and left with a genuine feeling of wanting to know more. Doing so provides a greater success rate in people logging in and staying logged in.”
Stephanie Malek, host lead for San Francisco-based Avital: Virtual, has come up with three great entertainment activities for hybrid meetings: a mixology class, a water tasting, and their virtual tongue twister tasting, formerly known as the flavor tripping experience. For the latter, attendees eat a fruit or a pill that makes sweet things bitter and bitter things sweet. “We offer ingredient delivery internationally, so we are allowing for teams to connect across the world, no matter how many people are able to be in the same room,” she says. “Our water tasting and virtual tongue twister tasting are especially well received for virtual/hybrid meetings. Allowing people to experience something new and surprising together really unites groups. This allows us to keep teams connected, even as offices open up globally.”
The main purpose of meetings is human interaction, but the pandemic has created a plague of isolation. Virtual and hybrid meetings are an attempt to capture as much of that interaction as possible. The biggest limitation of virtual and hybrid meetings is the lack of touch — shaking hands with a new acquaintance or giving a bear hug to a friend you’re glad to see. Virtual and hybrid meetings have no way to replicate the in-person ability to give a colleague a pat on the back, but they are one of the best ways to create opportunities for human interaction when being in-person isn’t possible, especially when it comes to shared experiences.
One of the things that’s more difficult with virtual event formats is the interactivity and audience involvement that’s more inherent with live in-person entertainment. However, this is not insurmountable by any means. For some entertainers, it can be more challenging to read the room in virtual/hybrid meetings. So, the entertainer can have a tougher time gauging the room and amending their show accordingly. “Audience engagement is a challenge, but hands-on activities bring them back to focus on the meeting in a fun and creative way,” Trakhtenberg says. “Plus, people discover and share their hidden talents so everyone gets a chance to shine. Additionally, people in hybrid/virtual meetings feel disconnected. These shows/activities reconnect them and supercharge their creative mindset for their work and their personal lives. The experience enriches all of the participants.”
Planning a good act is itself a big task for an entertainer, and when it comes to organizing on a virtual platform, it becomes more challenging to manage. Miller notes some of the biggest limitations for virtual/hybrid meetings are poor technology or a poor connection, and not enough opportunities for engagement. “Everyone knows the best way to lose everyone’s attention during a virtual meeting is for the tech to go haywire,” she says. “Nothing draws you out of a meeting more than poor Wi-Fi, sound or video quality — which is sometimes unavoidable, as we’ve seen with even some of the largest events.”
Plus, because of technology, you can only really have one person speaking at a time, otherwise the feed cuts out. “Because of this, we try to give natural cues that let people know when they can jump in,” Garber says. “Additionally, it can feel difficult to feel connected to the people you are speaking to when you’re not physically in the same space. We try to mitigate that hurdle by throwing everyone completely out of their element and letting them experience something new together.”
Another limitation with virtual/hybrid events is a lack of opportunity for engagement. So often, content is streamed without a chat function, polls, Q&As, games, giveaways, etc., which can be extremely boring for viewers. Miller tries to design each meeting or event holistically, so that there isn’t a virtual event and an in-person event, but an equally engaging experience that can be done online or in-person. She says extra incentives for virtual participants, such as exclusive content, special invitations and mailed gifts, are a great way to ensure they get the most out of the event.
Another challenge, Perry notes, is that virtual attendees of hybrid events may feel like “forgotten attendees.” “They might be able to stream content, but the experience isn’t as immersive or collaborative as it is for in-person attendees,” he says. “Virbela allows for your virtual attendees to also receive an elevated event experience that focuses on content, but also networking and collaborating just like in the real world, no matter where they are located and tuning into the event from.”
There may also be limitations in the traditional event format of general session, followed by breakouts, ending with evening networking or a reception, and its translation into the virtual world. Most solutions for virtual event planning rely heavily on video conferencing, which does not allow for one-to-one conversation in a casual setting.
Plotkin notes the greatest limitation in virtual/hybrid meetings is that you can’t “read” the audience. “When people turn their webcam off, that makes that even more difficult,” she says. “The goal for a great hybrid meeting is to make sure you keep your audience tuned in, cameras on and engaged/interactive.”
The secret for entertainment acts to establish a relationship with a meeting planner is to continue to add value to the connection. “Most of the time, meeting planners just need their lives to be simpler, so help them out by offering solutions to their problems and making the process simple and enjoyable,” Miller says.
Good notes that entertainers need to listen to what planners want and not try to force something else down their throats. “Meeting planners have a lot at stake. They want to deliver entertainment that tops everything their client has experienced before,” she says. “They want the entertainment they book to ‘wow’ attendees and be the act to beat for years to come. They know their client best, so I pay close attention to what they are looking for, the vision they cast and the atmosphere they want to create.”
The biggest way to ensure that participants get the most out of what entertainers offer, both in person and virtually, is by letting them experience something new together. “A shared, brand-new, experience transcends when you’re able to attend in person or virtually, and gives you something to talk about later with each other and a new way to bond,” Garber says. C&IT