The COVID-19 government-mandated lockdown in mid-March has had a domino effect on the festivals and events industry in Victoria. First to go were events planned for April, then May and June, followed by continuing announcements that private and government summer events have been cancelled, without a firm date on when in-person events can resume.
For event producers the coronavirus pandemic has been a nightmare, but many have pro-actively moved online, creating virtual events and webinars, as businesses and industry organizations also jump into the fray.
One event that’s made a successful shift is the Victoria chapter of Fuckup Nights, a global movement launched in Mexico City almost a decade ago. The format features presenters, typically entrepreneurs, who each have seven minutes to tell their stories of failure — and lessons learned — and then take questions from the audience. Fuckup Nights came to Victoria three years ago courtesy of Jim Hayhurst and Ian Chisholm of The Roy Group, who brought the idea to VIATEC. With Hayhurst as emcee and The Roy Group as sponsors, it quickly grew a loyal following of attendees at sold out events celebrating its presenters’ courage to be vulnerable and authentic.
Fast Pivot Online for a Popular Victoria Event
Tessa Bousfield is the branding and events director for VIATEC and the events director for Fuckup Nights Victoria. Their planned March event was quickly moved to April, with only a few weeks to plan a virtual event that would include speakers from other chapters.
“Before this pandemic,” says Bousfield, “any webinars or video conferencing I took part in were pretty bare minimum in terms of set up or creativity. Like many other people, virtual events weren’t really on my radar.”
Moving their spring Fuckup Night online resulted in a collaborative partnership with fellow Canadian chapters and the Fuckup Nights headquarters in Mexico to present the first ever Quarantine Edition.
Once they’d committed to it, Bousfield found her biggest challenge was coordinating all the moving parts and people without physical meetings.
“Counting all four presenters and each chapter host and organizer, we were coordinating with a dozen people to put the virtual event together,” she says. “We had multiple video meetings beforehand to get a handle on our goal, talk about formatting and scheduling, coach the presenters and practice the event in full before showing it to the world.”
Technology proved to be their friend and their stumbling block in taking Fuckup Nights fully online.
“Just as the event was about to start,” says Bousfield, “the power went out in the slide controller’s building in Mexico City. Luckily, he was able to power back up in a few minutes and we were able to make the most of the down time by chatting to attendees. We’d also asked all hosts and presenters to log on early in order to get situated before the event started, but because we didn’t set up a waiting room, other guests arrived while we were still tinkering — this is the equivalent of guests arriving while you’re doing a sound check on stage.”
To their relief, those proved to be the only challenges, with post-event feedback largely positive.
Pros and Cons of Online vs. In-Person Events
Now that she’s experienced at running an in-person event versus a virtual one, what are Bousfield’s thoughts on what each brings to the table?
“Nothing compares to in-person events,” she says. “Greeting everyone as they check in, witnessing attendees making connections, having a good time with the crew, hearing the ‘buzz’ of the room and seeing presenters’ hard work paying off… it’s why I do what I do. Seeing the event and content come together gives me purpose, pride in our community and inspires me to keep doing better.”
However, Bousfield adds,“With virtual events, attendees don’t feel as much pressure to stay ‘in the room.’ You can simply close out of a window and leave an event, without the awkwardness of rubbing past shoulders to find the exit at an in-person event. As a host, this isn’t ideal, but it just gives you all the more reason to try harder to keep people engaged. In a way, there’s more pressure with a virtual event as an organizer. Much of it is out of your control and you can’t simply go over and fix someone’s internet speed.”
Bousfield also believes virtual events create a neutral environment that makes it easier for everyone to participate, especially for those who are uncomfortable in networking situations.
“You don’t have to check your travel schedule, you don’t need to check if the venue is accessible, and you can choose whether or not you’d like people to see your face (depending on the settings). Many virtual events are free and you can also kick back and just read the chat box, or join in on it too. That chat box has to be my favourite, as we’re now able to see what people think about the content taking place in real time, instead of attempting to read their faces in a crowd!”
Bousfield says she doesn’t miss the physical labour of hauling set-up materials to and from a venue, the budgeting and the constant hunt for unique, accessible and appropriately-sized venues, nor does she miss the stack of business cards to file after each one, though she says, in our new virtual world “I feel like I’m networking now more than ever and getting to see what everyone is up to.”
Planning Your Own Online Event
Given her recent experience transforming a beloved Victoria event into a virtual one, we asked Bousfield to give us her top tips for pulling off a great online event.
- Make sure you’re using the right platform and format for your needs
Do lots of research in advance. Decide which platform is best for your goals? Bousfield’s go-to is Zoom for presenter-type events, and she’s exploring Remo for networking style events; other options include Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, WebinarJam and Facetime. Ask: Do you want to see all the attendees? Should they be able to speak, or should they be muted? Do you want a ‘waiting room’? Bousfield’s advice is to use the waiting room to lay out anything you want your attendees to know in advance and to thank your sponsors. “I also appreciate when you enter a room and hear music and a slide that says it’s beginning shortly. That way you can have a look around and see who is in the room. It’s also nice to be able to see all the faces of the people attending.”
- Prepare and practice
There’s a lot more preparation for a virtual event than most people anticipate. Multiple meetings with presenters are necessary to discuss goals, theme, format and to answer any questions they may have. “It’s a great time to get to know everyone that’s presenting if you haven’t met already,” notes Bousfield.
Schedule practice sessions so presenters can get comfortable and get a feel for timing, especially if they need to take over the remote and advance the slides. Practice the entire event once before it happens live. Bousfield says “just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean you should forego a dress rehearsal.”
Zoom and other event platforms will look different on different devices so, to be safe, make sure all presenters are on a desktop or laptop (no smartphones, iPads or tablets).” Also be sure to use practice sessions to confirm internet freezes or lags won’t affect the quality of the experience,” adds Bousfield.
- If you look good, you’ll feel good and give a better performance
Being a presenter in an online event is a little like being an anchor or reporter on TV, so it’s important to adjust your grooming and attire to suit the virtual environment you’ll be in, including your background. Bousfield says she recommends Tom Ford’s tips to look your best. “We’re all a bit more conscious of our appearance when that green light is on, so if we know we look good, we can focus more on the content.”
- Make sure your hosts are prepared, engaged and authentic
The host should have the agenda in front of them and plenty of notes to consult. Bousfield says she expands her notes window to take up the upper half of her screen, closest to the camera, so it doesn’t look like she’s reading. She says it’s important to come prepared with a few relevant topics to encourage chatter or fill time — awkward silences can dampen the energy of an event.
Bring your attendees into the event by explaining how the event controls work, so they are empowered to raise their hands, answer polls, choose grid view, find the mute button and more.
During the presentation, the host can also refer to the Q&A box as a guide in finding the best questions to ask and form it into an interview style. “They can answer any leftover questions through the chat or Q&A box afterwards, or provide their contact info for follow up. Also, referring to some of the comments occasionally is a nice thing to do, and introducing some sort of ice breaker can be fun as well!” Bousfield cautions against leaving ‘dead air,’ those awkward silences that can dampen an event’s energy — which is why ice-breaker questions and lots of notes on hand are so important.
Hosts usually have the best experience, and the most positive feedback, when they are authentic and welcoming, maintaining a balance of professional and casual. And, if there’s the opportunity for two hosts, Bousfield recommends taking it. “Our attention spans are shorter in front of our screens, so mixing up the presenters can be a good attention grabber. If you go this route and have slides, make sure you assign which slides each host will cover.”
The Unexpected Takeaway
Bousfield says her experience has been an eye-opening one.
“I definitely didn’t predict what kind of impact virtual events would have on us. Although we’re all physically distant from one another, we’ve never been more connected, and that’s pretty exciting. It’s too bad it takes a pandemic for us to get here, but I’m hopeful that we’ll all come out of this a little stronger, a little wiser and a lot more inspired.”
More tips on running your own successful online event can be found here:
Main photo of Jim Hayhurst by Trevor Ball Photography