Elevate Your Virtual Events: How to Keep Up with the Rising Expectations for Virtual Experiences

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events were quickly transitioned to virtual settings. And, while four-hour long Zoom calls were tolerated at first, virtual event attendees are now looking for engaging, interactive experiences where they can connect with others.

In this recorded conversation between Dianne Devitt, Experiential Consultant and Producer, and Michael Hoffman, CEO of Gather Voices, they cover what is means to be an Event Producer, and how you too can create an elevated virtual event people can't wait to attend.

Topics discussed include:

  • Pioneering the new virtual event landscape
  • The power of selecting a motivating theme and outlining clear objectives
  • The importance of incorporating diverse voices
  • Engaging attendees before, during, and after the event
  • Pre-recorded content vs. live webinar content

Watch the Complete Conversation

Read the Complete Transcript

Michael Hoffman:

Hey. Hi everyone. I'm Michael Hoffman, and welcome to Elevate Your Virtual Events: How to Keep Up with the Rising Expectations for Virtual Experiences. Part of our regular conversation series. I am just over the moon, I would say, Dianne, to use an old fashioned term, to have you here.

Dianne Devitt:

Thank you.

Michael Hoffman:

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Michael Hoffman and I'm the CEO at Gather Voices. We're a software company that makes it easy for organizations to collect, create, manage, edit, share, publish videos. We're doing a lot of work in the virtual events space and online engagement space. And so that's one of the reasons we've been doing a lot of these conversations around virtual events and these transition to virtual events.

Michael Hoffman:

And I could not be more excited to have Dianne Devitt with me today. And that's because Dianne is a veteran of the events industry, having been deep and influential in that industry. But not saying, when all this COVID stuff, not saying, "I don't know. What am I going to do?" But actually jumping in and helping to build that transition, transition in skills, transition in ideas that was really needed. And that's what we're going to talk about. So Dianne, I'd love for you to just introduce yourself a bit. And everybody can see some of your accolades there on the screen.

Dianne Devitt:

Thank you.

Michael Hoffman:

But I'd love for you to tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dianne Devitt:

Thank you, Michael. And thank you very much for inviting me to join you today. Because I think we're just in such an exciting time. It's the Wild West, this frontier of space, and what we're going to do with it. My background includes production and events, and meetings and events. Where I've planned, from a destination management point of view, exhibits, meetings, incentives, and events of all sizes and scope. So in addition, as you see, I'm an adjunct professor at NYU, which is one of the things that I'm the most proud of. I love being involved with the industry. I love the industry for what it stands for in terms of being the place that brings people together. And I think that there's no greater privilege than to be involved with that.

Michael Hoffman:

So I want to just jump into our conversation, and I'm going to stop sharing the screen. And I want to talk about, when we started talking, you said something that really kind of blew me away. Which was when COVID started and everything transitioned to virtual, we were all very forgiving. Oh, this is the first time you've done this. Oh, you're doing the Zoom thing. Oh, whatever. And you would tolerate a lot. The event would be okay to be a long Zoom thing, and maybe there's some technical glitches and whatever. But what you said to me was the expectations have shifted very quickly. And what was four months ago okay, maybe's not okay right now.

Dianne Devitt:

Sure. And shifting as we speak. Right, Michael? So the one thing we were speaking about, and jeez, someone sent me an email this morning that said back in February, you remember six years ago. Because our sense of time has been so distorted. But the interesting thing is when this happened and when COVID hit us, we were all in shock, weren't we? Shock and chaos. And of course, out of chaos and the confusion comes how are we going to fix this? And the creative thinkers start to get a little bit ahead, which is what happens.

Dianne Devitt:

And you start going through this process of accepting that, jeez, this situation that we're all in collectively is not going to go away. So you accept it. You then start saying, well, how can I make this work for my situation? How am I going to move ahead with my responsibilities, planners and associations, corporations, nonprofit, they have customers, they have clients, they have donors. You have to keep that human contact up. So how do you adjust it? And then how do you take action? And so I think that's what we were speaking about is, sure, jump on a Zoom, and let's just see one another. Because we need to see one another, that we're still living and breathing. At the same time, now that we're taking action and we're adjusting to this new landscape, the criteria and the demands are definitely shifting to higher expectations.

Michael Hoffman:

And when you say that, one of the things we talk a lot about at Gather Voices, Gather Voices is a video technology, but it's not Zoom. It's not about being on at the same time. It's about pre-recorded content, getting people over geographies and over time to be able to record things that you can then share and watch later, or collect for virtual events, which is what a lot of our clients are doing. Do you think part of the shift in expectations relates to this idea of needing to produce things and prerecord, and think about it almost in a really different way than simply, hey, here we are.

Dianne Devitt:

Oh, I think yes. Yes is the short answer. What people first and foremost need to understand is that virtual meetings and virtual events are meetings and events. And you wouldn't jump into, or you shouldn't jump into any kind of meeting without designing that objective and goal and agenda and timing. Didn't you and I, when I was telling you, I was sharing that newspaper article with you about the timing of the one of the one convention. But everything adds up to producing a robust experience for the viewer.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Right. And let's just talk about that for a second. So in person, there are certain things that work for someone. If I'm in a room and somebody is speaking in that room, I'm present, and I have no choice really but to be present. And so your ability to engage me is different than online, where I can be completely distracted. And that relates to what you were just saying about the timing. So at a typical event, you'd have a session that's 90 minutes. Another session that's 90 minutes. A break. Another session, it's 40 minutes or whatever it is. And you'd have this very understandable schedule that was kind of these predictable blocks of content. And I think people are starting to do that online. But you were pointing out, you were talking about the Democratic National Convention, which regardless of your politics was an incredibly well produced event. And all the speaking slots were all different times. Every element in there was a different time.

Dianne Devitt:

Yes, yes. So I think there's two things here, Michael. And I think this is what is important to understand is, for example, what are the different types of online meetings? We can have a webinar. Well, what is a webinar? A webinar is typically a one way conversation. I log in, you're the subject matter expert. You're sharing information with me. It's usually 45 minutes, right? And it can be a chat feature and all of that. There can be a web conference that goes on every day with people who are located around the world, but who have to collaborate for a common issue within their company and share a screen.

Dianne Devitt:

Virtual conferences, virtual trade shows, virtual fundraisers, virtual galas, these all take production, attention, and deliberate planning. Because in person I'm going to engage your senses in a different way. Online, you're paying attention to me, and what am I going to do with that? So I think that's where our conversation with the DNC came up because when I saw the article and I analyzed the timing, I was like, oh, that's right. That's actually what I did was mine, which we can get into. And I was criticized at first, or let me just say, not criticized, but commented on. But if I spend five minutes cookie cutter with everyone within a certain timeframe, you are going to be zoning out in a minute. But if I'm done in two minutes with this one, three minutes with that, four minutes. And it's facilitated by a moderator or a host, then it's going to be interesting. You're telling a story at that point.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Right. And I think that's something that's a great first piece of advice here, is don't feel like you have to squeeze every type of content into the same format, in the same bucket. There's a saying in the film business, which is how long should this video be? As long as it needs to be, and not one second more. And so if you have content that can be delivered in six minutes instead of 20 or 45 or 90, do it because it's going to be really engaging that way. And I think that's something we haven't seen a lot of is that idea of being able to go from one thing to another, and not sort of put it into the same normal buckets that you see in a regular. 

Dianne Devitt:

Yeah. And I think one of the biggest things that are happening now, and they're still happening, and I think there's a lot, but there are two specific things. If there are the people, and I have respect for everyone, who's jumping into this space who say, "No, no, no, we don't need production help. We can handle it. We have a Zoom account." All right. With all due respect to Zoom, "We have a Zoom account. We have a Zoom Pro account. We can handle it." Great. Good luck. Okay. And I think that's what you're bringing out is the technology there. Yes, but just as with Gather Voices, how you use it, where you use it, and when you use it is what makes it the most effective, doesn't it?

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I think that's right. And there's a problem that we're experiencing. I mean, I think one of the reasons we have so many people attending right now is because of the fact that there's this huge skills gap. You have all these people in these organizations who put on the galas, who put on the trade shows. They know how to do that. And here they are. And it's like, how do we do this? And this was your experience, right? As soon as this happened, you said, I'm going to host something, right? Tell me a little bit about that and what are the things you learned really quickly?

Dianne Devitt:

I will. I will. Thank you. So exactly. So when COVID hit, here's what I did: I have two colleagues in the industry. And I mean, I'm a producer for over 25 years. So I had two colleagues in the industry. One actually owned a digital event agency, which I'd like to share more of, is understanding the difference in them. So I reached out to her. I reached out to MAP Digital. And I reached out to one of my colleagues of 25 something years who is a technical expert.

Dianne Devitt:

So even though I come from this industry, I reached out to those people to help me. So I said, "We have to do something." This was really premeditated. How can I help the industry with the resources I have? And that's what started the Dianne Devitt Presents series, as we brought on legal and insurance, finance things that were, and still are, critical for the planner and the host organization to keep up to date with the latest information.

Dianne Devitt:

Jonathan Howe, who is one of the industry's top attorneys, said, "I don't prepare for these till the night before and the morning of because that's how fast information is changing." So yes. So that's really what started me in this landscape. But what I wanted to just point out too for people on the call is to understand the difference in the various production agencies now. There are digital event agencies who have legitimately been pioneering in this landscape for 25 years. There are production agencies, experiential agencies who have excellent experience, people who understand production, who are now navigating new waters and bringing on partnerships to enhance that product. And then there is the event production company who is also exploring and creating partnerships and bringing the digital broadcast qualities in-house. So it's important to understand which one is focused on what for your specific needs.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. It seems like all of a sudden, everybody's a digital event expert. And we understand that, right? If your whole business is events, you don't have a choice but to be that. And one of the things you were saying is when we were talking about the skill, well, I just want to back up your point. If you're going to hire help, make sure it's the right help for the thing that you need. And it compliments the skills that you have and what you can produce in-house.

Dianne Devitt:

Right. And understand that again, this is a process. Like so many people said, hybrid meetings, right? Hybrid meetings. They're going to come back. So is the company you're working with one that you can still depend on when you're clicking a glass in person.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Right. And we have a couple of questions I want to turn to. So one is saying that do we have any real data about how people are feeling in terms of their expectations, or are we just too early in it to really know what exactly works and what doesn't in the virtual world?

Dianne Devitt:

So expectations in terms of the quality-

Michael Hoffman:

The quality or the timing-

Dianne Devitt:

... or attending a virtual conference? Not to my knowledge, but I do know that there is research in the process of people analyzing how effective different meetings are, different types of events are. Yeah.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. And another question we have is about Doug says that he keeps hearing about Zoom burnout. And how do we keep it engaging and sort of fight that fatigue? I think one of the answers we already talked about, which surprises people with the timing. Do something that's two minutes, and then something else that's six minutes. And if you make it too predictable, they can zone out. But what else are we doing to fight this idea of fatigue? And let me just contextualize this a little more for one second. People go to events, go to trade shows to escape their day to day routines. To do something different, to be able to learn in a different context and environment. If you're on Zoom all day for work, that Zoom event is not that anymore if it's just like that work experience.

Dianne Devitt:

Right. Right. Well, I think that's a loaded question, and it's certainly something we could focus on another half hour plus with. But the short answer is this. I have done a lot of research in sensory communication. Right now, I'm seeing you, Michael, right? I'm listening to you. The participants on the line are doing the same. They're engaging in chat. How can I design whatever type of event Doug is thinking of, and I'd be curious to understand if it's a conference or if it's a gala fundraiser, whatever niche he's looking for, that can give people some kind of tactile experience while they're online with me. Also, are you allowing for breaks? Not too long. Not too long the break. But are you allowing for breaks so that people can get up legitimately and stretch their legs, and get a bite to eat? Sometimes people they're just brutal with the lengths of things without allowing people to get up and stretch.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Dianne Devitt:

So something.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's interesting. Right? It's like, you gotta put yourself in the shoes of the people who are experiencing your event.

Dianne Devitt:

Right. But I will say this, there are so many creative ways to engage people online and to add an element of surprise. I mean, without going too much, like Uber Eats or having food delivered or having wine delivered. Or there's so many ways to do it. That's another conversation.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. But I think that's probably the point. What are the tools that are at our disposal to surprise and delight people? And if we think of it that way, and we really dig deep, depending on what our event is, what type of event we can come up with some things. So if you're an event planner, you're now a producer, right? We're shifting from the planner to the producer. And what's the difference there? What does that event planner have to be thinking about that they just were not thinking about?

Dianne Devitt:

So good question. So I think it's interesting that when I wrote my book, I put the definition of... Whoops. Excuse me. Need a technical assistant. I put the definition of event planner as event director. Because at that time I saw the event planner role more engaging in terms of messaging and engaging with the advertising and PR departments where the different campaigns at the company were built in.

Dianne Devitt:

But now with production and with broadcast an absolute necessity for virtual meetings, I see the meeting planner name change to meeting producer. And that is a whole different realm of, I want to say, best practices and thinking. Now it's not going to take away the role of the meeting planner, because again, meetings come back, they're real, they're live. They need people to implement and execute and make that vision come alive, right, and come to life. The same thing with virtual meetings, but it takes an understanding of technology.

Dianne Devitt:

So what's happened in the switch over of that, Michael, is that budgets that were normally focused on food and beverage, or included food and beverage and transportation, are now shifting over to technology. And technology, given one of the companies I just referred to before, they're really scrambling. All the technology companies. In fact, there's an Excel document flying around somewhere that shows over almost 80 companies in this landscape right now. So people are trying to catch up with what their client demands are, and integrate different platforms and how they're going to make things happen.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. And that relates to this question we have from Seth, which is about part of what you get when you go to an event is this person to person connection and networking and chance encounters. And I think what I see is a lot of that running after the technology is on that side of things. Trying to figure out, hey, we've been able to deliver content to people. Well, we have to create this interactivity at a different level. How have you seen that done, and how do you think it will play out over the next next year?

Dianne Devitt:

Well I mean, it's obviously done through breakout rooms, right? And breakout rooms, and are you assigning a leader to a breakout room, or are you giving the breakouts a specific task? Are you giving them certain times? Are you, in other words, laying out the rules of the breakout before the breakout happens. So that people know I have two minutes to speak, everyone gets a turn, we have to accomplish this task. And then we have to report back to everyone, and have an interchange and an exchange of ideas and results that come out. So I just see this growing, but it has to be managed, it has to be facilitated.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I think that's really interesting because I do think that when you have a common thing to talk about, that it's connecting, that you don't need in-person necessarily, but you really need online. And we're doing something at Gather Voices. Every Friday, we use a tool called Icebreaker. If you haven't seen it, it's icebreaker.video. They basically have these games and the games are questions that you get paired off to answer. So questions like do you have any siblings? How did you grow up? Or it could be funny would you rather games? So they run the gamut. And you feel connected to the person after something like that, because you shared something.

Dianne Devitt:

One of my favorites... I have to fix this. Excuse me. One of my favorites is do you like chunky or creamy peanut butter? Anything you can do to get to break the ice like you say, and get to know someone better.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. And I think that's a whole discipline in and of itself is the online icebreaker things. How do all these things translate to being okay online? So I want to just close. Our half hour's almost up. It's unbelievable. But there's people who are on this call right now who are here with us, their events coming up, they need to think about what to do. What's the top advice you would give them as they're sitting there going, we want this to be good.

Dianne Devitt:

Well, so the first thing I would say is approach this as you would a live meeting. And define all your objectives and goals. And then, take a step back, speak to your stakeholders, engage your production company. If you're not familiar, then get on a chat with somebody who is, and who can give you advice so that you can make the right investment of time and resources and reap the benefits that you need. I think that's something to remember that you want to, above all, engage people. You don't want to distract them. Michael, we spoke about this, the whole media production, how you look in the background and the impression that you make can be very distracting to people, or it can engage people depending on that balance. So this is something that we're all learning. Be gentle with yourself in the process. And don't be afraid to ask questions.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's great, great advice. So I want to just close with just something that we're doing at Gather Voices. What we see is that these meetings and events are an intensive engagement with your community, but it can't be the only engagement. You need to be engaged in a community all the time. So the virtual event is open all year long, right, in theory in the sense that the tools are there, that people are there, they have access to it. So how are you doing that? How are you continuing the feeling, the content things, from your event afterwards. And that's something we're doing.

Michael Hoffman:

And one of the things we're doing with associations is many associations use these private discussions and threaded discussion lists as ways to create communities online where people are already engaged. And so one of the things we're doing is we are working with this company Higher Logic to create Community Voices, which is a plugin for Higher Logic communities that brings video into those communities. Because I think we were starting to blur some of this line, right? An event, if I travel to an event, I have an event and it's over. But if I have content that I'm delivering in a short period of time, I can also be delivering that content all year long. I can be delivering that content in communities that exist in the places where engagement exists. And I can also ask people to contribute to that content in a way that wasn't possible before. So Dianne, I want to thank you so much for being here. Is it okay for people to contact you if they have questions?

Dianne Devitt:

Sure. They can definitely send me an email, and I'm happy to help you with how I can. And it's a learning process, Michael. You know that. You're a part of this journey. And I'm excited to see what next year will bring.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Well, hopefully next year will be a different kind of year than this year has been.

Dianne Devitt:

Exactly.

Michael Hoffman:

But same for me as well. So if you want to contact me, I'm just michael@voices.co. And you can also, if you haven't seen the Gather Voices tools, reach out and we're happy to give you a demo to show you and show you what other organizations are doing both around their events and all year long. So Dianne, thank you again. And I look forward to the sequel of our conversation so we continue to go.

Dianne Devitt:

Thank you, Michael.

Michael Hoffman:

All right.

Dianne Devitt:

Thanks so much. Bye everyone. Thank you.


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