What Not to Do When You Host a Virtual Event

This is how I learned — by making mistakes

As the police officer slowly passed our spot on the sidewalk a fourth time, I had a horrible thought.

“Do you think he thinks we’re prostitutes?” I asked my colleague Carla. “Or drug dealers?”

Rather than standing near a traffic light, we were standing beside a large light-bulb shaped balloon proclaiming, “Your time to shine.”

“Well, look at you in your skimpy black dress!” my dear colleague said dryly.

She was wearing pants and a shirt, nothing overly alluring, but, then, my “skimpy black dress” was a professional-looking, glorified T-shirt intended to keep me cool as I manned my outdoor post from 2-6 p.m. We were both fit but in our 50s and not exactly prostitute material. Or drug-dealer material.

What hadn’t phased me before 5 o’clock suddenly seemed questionable after the workday was done. Carla and I peered intently at every passing car, willing them to stop. On occasion, one would pull up to the curb, lower the passenger-side window as we approached, and then leave with a proffered box.

When the police vehicle passed again, Carla stuck her thumb out and pointed to me.

“She’s the one!” she called.

Me and my big, bright idea

She was right, in a way. It had been my “bright idea” to add a physical component to our virtual event. It just hadn’t gone as planned. For one, I envisioned overloading our campus courier with hundreds of boxes, not me standing curbside for hours on end waiting for guests to drive by for a quick party pick-me-up. The box, not me.

Turns out you can’t send sparkling wine through the courier or campus mail.

Carla had volunteered to stay an hour late so I wouldn’t have to work the street by myself. We were handing out gifts to those who had registered for our virtual event, scheduled for next week. We call the event Standing InnOvation, usually an in-person reception where we honor innovators who had made new discoveries or licensed an invention in the fiscal year just ended.

Typically, inventors would enjoy heavy appetizers and beverages, a short program, and each others’ company, then leave with a branded glass or two commemorating their inclusion in the event. We didn’t want them to go empty-handed this year. Hence, the idea of a gift.

“All this for a virtual event!” my wonderful marketing assistant had said it best a week before. She had gazed at her once-sparse office now loaded with box after box of custom-designed boxes, beverages, chocolates, trinkets branded for the event, and 120 pounds of crinkle paper.

On Friday, it took four of us nearly four hours. We built 250 boxes, then added gold tissue paper, an insulated wine cup, sparkling wine, gourmet truffles, crinkle paper, a program card, and a whole lot of love — compliments of a generous sponsor whose name we drop anyplace we can and our determination to make a “bright idea” happen.

We stored the stuffed boxes in a cold room. We borrowed large coolers and ice packs. On Tuesday, three of us were prepared to hand out 53 boxes starting at 2 p.m. We put a balloon bouquet near the street, moved the two coolers outside, a cart filled with more boxes just inside the building so we could easily refill the coolers. We brought plastic bags and umbrellas as rain threatened, and we armed ourselves with Eventbrite organizer to facilitate quick check-ins.

And then we waited.

The nightmares I had the eve of the first pickup date included all 53 recipients arriving at once, resulting in traffic jams and accidents, and, yes, visits by police officers to arrest us for causing them. Instead, the flow of cars was a mere trickle, and though the police were present, we weren’t arrested.

As a car slowed and pulled in front of the building where we stood, Carla waved and walked to get a box while I pulled up the app on my phone to check-in the guest. Another lowering of the passenger-side window, another quick exchange of a QR code for a party in a box.

The upside: 50 of the 53 guests arrived to get their gifts. The downside: We had a lot of downtime between cars (and that seemed to draw the wrong kind of attention). The last car arrived at 5:58 p.m. It had been a long four hours.

Only four more days of drive-through delivery to go!

Learn from my mistakes

If you’re wondering why I didn’t publish this blog post until Friday, it’s because I did drive-through duty every day. I thought I’d save myself from lurking at the curb for hours on end by having gift recipients schedule a time for pickup.

I emailed each recipient and asked for a specific time or small window of time when I might expect them. I also provided my cell phone number so they could text or call when they got close to the building.

(I found it ironic that I was providing my phone number and responding to calls and texts of relative strangers a week after I’d written a post warning about such things: Is Your Cell Phone Number Being Used to Scam People?)

Though it was better than standing outside for hours, it wasn’t a good use of my time. I’d work at my desk for 15 minutes, then head to the curb to wait for the next guest. Up and down, outside and inside. No time to get into a work flow — or a writing-lunch-break flow.

But today I don’t open the “drive-through” until 2 p.m.

Your path to success

If I have learned anything from hosting my first virtual event, it mostly relates to No. 1 below. This is what I would advise you to do if you’re planning an event:

  1. Keep the virtual event virtual. Entirely virtual.
  2. Recognize that virtual events take time to plan and orchestrate. “Virtual” may seem less than real, but the work to make it bear any weight or offer value to your guests is quite real. It will cost you either time or money, likely both.
  3. Plan for a pandemic to drive you online for your event. Don’t hope against hope that life will return to normal sooner rather than later. Think of it this way: If you’ve got a physical event planned and a pandemic happens, you’ve got to go virtual or cancel it. If you’ve got a virtual event planned and a pandemic happens, you’re set.
  4. Email save-the-dates and invitations. Collect RSVPs online.
  5. Create an event home, a webpage or website to serve as home base for your event, and share that link with your guests. That one link should be all they need. It will lead them wherever they need to go for the event.
  6. Keep in mind that when your guests are on a virtual platform they are often at a computer or on a phone. If you want to keep their attention away from all the other apps and alerts populating their devices, you must win their engagement. Think about how can you do that. Then do it.
  7. If you need a program or instructions for your event, add it to the event home website or webpage. You may make it interactive (i.e. hyperlinks and buttons take a user to more information or a place where that part of the program will happen but always lead them back to the home page).
  8. Provide a place and time where guests can interact with you and their peers — chat, conference rooms, Zoom happy hours, message boards, etc. — but don’t let it be another potential distraction.
  9. If you feel the need to provide your guests party favors or event-branded tchotchkes, provide downloadable, digital gifts, such as virtual backgrounds, screensaver images for cell phones, gift cards for coffee or restaurants, maybe an e-book related to the conference or event theme, or a subscription to a digital tool.
  10. Above all else, be virtual.

I failed at No. 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, and, of course, 10. I could share little nightmares about most of those failures. Next week I’ll know if I succeeded at No. 6. I’ll let you know.

And because I failed to do all things virtually, I will spend the afternoon meeting strange cars on the street, exchanging QR codes for what so impressed one inventor that he wrote my boss an email to thank him for the “elegant gift.” (Woot woot!) Two others shared images of their box contents and their thanks on Twitter today. (Score!)

It’s possible I may decide to go this route again — but do it more efficiently. Please advise me against it.

Be real. (But make your events virtual.)

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