I know this is the opposite of what I said last week
Once I entertained the thought that the police suspected me of unprofessional behavior (or working in the world’s oldest profession) or drug dealing, I had a little fun with it.
“I feel like I’m making a drug deal,” I jokingly told the inventor as I took his event ticket and placed the gift box in his passenger-side seat. He laughed, agreed that our exchange was peculiar, and thanked me.
“Enjoy!” I called, as he drove away.
It was Day Four of manning a drive-through area in front of my office building. Inventors in cars slowed down, pulled up to the curb, silently lowered their passenger-side window, handed me their event ticket, and happily took the custom-designed box filled with an event-branded insulated cup, a split of sparkling wine, and gourmet chocolate truffles.
It was a “personal party in a box,” an attempt to recreate the evening we might have had together had COVID-19 not driven us to a virtual event. Usually, we hosted an in-person reception to honor the inventors who had made discoveries or licensed technology in the fiscal year just ended.
This year — after some waffling between an in-person event, an in-person-but- masked-without-food-or-beverage event, or a virtual event — we ended up with a hybrid version. The event was this week.
We decided to do two physical aspects of the event. The first physical aspect was a gift box to the first 210 inventors to RSVP (and agree to pick up a box that we couldn’t deliver). The second was a printed card with event information and a little flat tchotchke branded for our event. Both caused me much anguish and trouble — so much so that I wrote a post titled “What Not to Do When You Host a Virtual Event.”
Point №1 of that post was “Keep the virtual event virtual. Entirely virtual.”
I was sincere. Now, however, I think the hybrid event has greater value for our inventors. I know I’m contradicting myself with this post, but hear me out.
The back story
Until three years ago, we honored our inventors with a similar reception. We invited more than a hundred of them to a hotel where we had hosted a startup business pitch event earlier in the day. Those who came to the startup event usually lingered in the lobby to enjoy the heavy appetizers and adult beverages that would be served for the inventors after a brief ceremony. They didn’t attend the inventors’ ceremony; they simply chatted in the lobby waiting for it to end.
The result was that it didn’t feel honoring. The ceremony felt tacked onto the end of an event for something else. We hustled the inventors from the crowded lobby into a conference room, called each inventor to the platform to receive a cool plaque. We took a group photo and then set them free to enjoy food and beverages in the lobby with the startup guests. Many found it confusing. Why hadn’t they been included in the earlier festivities? Who were these people joining in the celebrations?
So for the past two years, we’ve hosted the inventors’ reception just for them. We’ve tweaked the event to now include one innovator of the year award and six inventions of the year (each in a different field of research). We served heavy appetizers and adult beverages served in wine or beer glasses branded for the event. Some of us waited near the exit doors to carefully wrap their glasses in tissue paper and tuck them into gift bags as their takeaway gift.
Early in our planning this year, we decided we wanted to do a gift box. We couldn’t afford to give all nearly 900 invitees a gift, so we chose to purchase a smaller number of items and custom-designed boxes to gift the first 210 who registered for the event.
But on this side of the gift giving, I would do it again. I would not keep a virtual event only virtual.
Yes, it was frustrating
The morning after I stood at the curb in front of our building, luring cars to stop for a gift box during the four-hour window allotted for this “drive-through” experience the first day, I noticed that 3 of the 53 inventors hadn’t come for their gift box. The next morning, I sent an email asking them to schedule a time for a pickup on a different day.
One inventor replied to say he would come at 2:30 that day. I gave him my cell phone number to let me know when he was close to the building. At 2:37, I sent him an email to ask if he was on the way. No response. At 2:40, I sent an email asking him to text or call if he was still coming; I was going back inside.
At nearly 3, he responded that he was having car troubles and would call when he got close. At 4:16, I suggested he might need to pick another day but to let me know if he could arrive no later than 4:45. He said he would try. I heard nothing.
The following day, just before 4:40, the inventor called me, said he was on his way. Again, I gave him the 4:45 deadline; he wasn’t sure he could make it but said his friend was coming for a box too and was closer to the building. At 4:43, he called again to say he was out front. I brought him his box and one for his friend (also an inventor) and he took both.
It took 11 email, phone, and in-person encounters to get the box to this individual. Argh!
But, suddenly, it was worth it
The next day, I saw that the inventor had staged the box in all its glory to shoot a photo that he posted on Twitter with “Thank you for the Standing InnOvation gift box. We are celebrating the innovations we did…” and he went on to discuss why he liked working with our office and promised that more innovations are on the way from his team.
His friend retweeted the original post and added: “I agree… the patenting process has been a breeze and the feedback from Richard and Autumn has shaped our ideas! Thank you for the wonderful gift box.”
Eleven encounters that had been the poster child for NOT having a physical component in addition to a virtual event suddenly became a reason TO have a hybrid event.
The eleven encounters and a gift resulted in some organic publicity — and that garnered thanks for one of our teams as well as demonstrated appreciation for the gift. (And the photo was great!)
In addition, a different inventor I’d given a box at the curb not only sent me and his licensing officer a thank-you email, but he also sent an email to my boss, thanking him for the kind gift, which he called “Very elegant!” (When I had been crafting this package for our inventors, I had leaned away from our usual school colors to go with black, silver, and gold, to be more festive and, my exact word, “elegant.”)
My boss was particularly impressed that this inventor had taken the time to email and that he had described the box in that way. He mentioned it in multiple meetings.
One day, an inventor who was receiving not just the gift box but also a trophy for his “invention of the year,” pulled up to the curb. I sent a text to his licensing officer to come with the trophy and then waited beside his open passenger window after I gave him the gift.
On his front seat was a towel, bathing suit, and goggles, and I asked him if he swam at the health club where I swim. We chatted for several minutes about swimming, the pool on campus where he swims, etc. The next morning, when he communicated with me via email about a marketing project we had completed for his technology, he added, “Glad to meet a fellow swimmer” and provided me a link to book a lane at the campus pool.
Are those small things? Perhaps. But they revealed that gift recipients were impressed enough by the gift or our encounter that they acted on their gratefulness. Did they feel honored by the gift? It seems so.
Their words of affirmation and actions warmed me to the possibility of doing a hybrid event again — just more efficiently (somehow).
If your event is for people who don’t have a personal relationship with your office, keep your virtual event strictly virtual. But if your event intends to both honor your guests and encourage them to keep working with your office personally, then go the extra mile and add a physical component.
It leaves a lasting impact. Yes, the sparkling wine and the chocolate truffles disappeared quite quickly, but the insulated cup is a lingering reminder of the event (and a useful one!). What’s more, getting the boxes to inventors is an opportunity to connect with them, even briefly, even masked and fast. And meeting them at the curb as they arrive to make this as easy and convenient as possible for them? That makes an impression too.
This week we hosted the actual virtual part of the event — a live stream via Youtube and a virtual happy hour. We’ve received all kinds of kudos for the quality of the live stream, and, frankly, by the time the actual event happened, my work was done. (Well, my work is never done.)
But I did sleep well.