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Navigating the New Normal: Checking in With Michigan Planners

By Megan Gosch

Chances are, you won’t know you’re living through history until it’s too late. It’s already happening. A chain reaction has been set in motion and the ground has begun to slide beneath your feet. This past year has been a whirlwind to say the least. As a global pandemic sent the world reeling, planners were left grasping for footholds as the event industry was brought to a standstill and many of the most fundamental elements of live meetings and events were cast in a new light.

Of course, the pause didn’t last long. Planners quickly got to work, drawing from years of experience as master problem solvers to pivot like never before, while those who had already dabbled in virtual event formats put their skills to the test.

Those early spring days were focused on the immediate future and plans for events already underway, but as weeks and months have passed, one thing’s become clear: the ripple effects of COVID-19 won’t fade anytime soon. As planners begin to settle in to a “new normal,” we’ve checked in with local pros and industry leaders to learn how they’ve navigated an everchanging event landscape and how they’re approaching the year ahead. 

Settling In
After an initial shock to the system with the onset of COVID-19, many planners have spent the last several months getting a new lay of the land—navigating a slew of ever-changing executive orders, safety protocols and health and safety guidelines—while sprinting to become overnight experts in all things micro, hybrid and virtual.

For Bonnie Peck, relationship manager and venue concierge for Forte Belanger, a Troy-based special event design and catering firm, those first few weeks were focused on support for first responders. The Forte team set to work providing food for frontline workers and crucial DTE Energy employees. After stepping up to help their local community, Forte “immediately launched into the virtual world,” Peck says. Previously, Forte had produced a more even split between corporate and social events, but over the course of the year Peck’s seen that ratio jump to nearly 80 percent social (mostly small, in-person, outdoor weddings) and 20 percent corporate work (mostly virtual).

“We’ve been the backyard wedding kings and queens lately, but our virtual events are picking up speed with 13 virtual events already under our belt. Not everyone has the manpower to take that on, but we were lucky to have the resources to pivot and begin offering clients everything from drive-up events to livestreaming and interactive auctions.”

Carol Galle, CMP, VEMM, president and CEO of Special D Events, has worked with her team to move all of the company’s 2020 events to a virtual format and is watching 2021 closely to determine next steps. “Since we manage events nationwide, it’s been a challenge to keep track of the restrictions in place across the country,” she says. Her team has established weekly state-by-state reviews to keep up with all of the changes they may need to factor in and keep top of mind as they move forward with future events. To keep everyone in the loop “[we] update a master spreadsheet and share it on our website for anyone to use.”

And while some have been switching gears to pivot and meet the demands of the day, others have found themselves with a head start but a new set of challenges.

“Pre-pandemic, our team was already 100 percent remote and producing events in virtual formats so when COVID-19 hit, we weren’t working to catch up in quite the same way,” says Will Curran, founder and chief event Einstein for Endless Events. As an established leader in the virtual and hybrid event production space, Curran and his team have become a beacon for planners learning the virtual ropes. “A lot of people in the industry are hurting so we’re trying to do as much as we can as quickly as we can to help planners get started. We received an astronomical number of leads in April, just explosive growth, and while we couldn’t take on everyone as a client, we were able to offer some initial tips to get them moving.”

Promising Perks
While everyone can agree the onset of COVID-19 has been a devastating blow to so many industries around the world, planners have been able to find a few silver linings in its wake.

Through the process of pivoting Cvent CONNECT 2020, an annual in-person premier event technology conference to a digital affair, director of meetings and events Rachel Andrews and her team found increased attendee accessibility and reach to be major benefits in the switch.

“A virtual event allowed more people than ever before to attend CONNECT at a critical time where planners were hungry for guidance,” says Andrews. The conference, which was held August 25-26, brought together 43,000 attendees—nearly 10 times the average in-person attendance in years past—eliminated time, cost and space constraints and allowed whole teams to tune in. “New visitors and people who might have never known Cvent were able to see what CONNECT is all about. There’s no doubt that increased exposure from our virtual event will lead to greater in-person attendance in the future,” she says.

Morgan Doan, CSEP, PWC, principal and creative director for MORGAN EVENTS and chair of the 2020 International Live Events Association (ILEA) Awards Celebration agrees, noting that this year’s virtual version of the association’s awards not only expanded the event’s attendee reach by removing any barriers in physical location, but also combined two distinct awards programs (ILEA’s Esprit Awards Celebration and the Spirit of Excellence Awards) as a cohesive show. Rather than two separate awards programs with their own select attendees, we opened our doors to everyone in ILEA and the live events community, bringing a much larger group together for this one big night of celebration.”

A virtual platform “also helped control the pace of the show,” says Kelsey Secules, CMP, senior manager of events for ILEA. “[When] you can eliminate the time it takes an awardee to get up from their seat, walk to the stage, and leave the stage, and you’re able to control the length of acceptance speeches, you really can keep things moving.”

Other major perks have included new partner and content possibilities, data that can drive ROI and new opportunities to learn and grow. Andrews notes the ability to secure top-notch speakers who may not have been available had Cvent CONNECT been in person, including CEOs from industry giants like Marriott, Hilton, Southwest and American Airlines. “[With] our ability to record sessions anywhere, anytime, we were able to secure an incredible keynote lineup featuring the CEOs of leading global organizations—which only drove added interest to the event.”

With attendees logging on digitally, Andrews and her team were also able to gather realtime insights to measure the success and effectiveness of the event’s programming through composite attendee engagement scores, click and page interactive metrics, real-time chats, user feedback, and more. “Those data points give us insight into buyer interest and help us better personalize the customer experience … helping us to narrow down key takeaways, lessons, and areas of improvement.”

For Galle, who immediately recognized the value of virtual meetings, a pivot to digital solutions was a chance to help her team learn how to best serve their corporate and nonprofit clients. “The business purpose to hold the events we’re producing still exists, it just requires a new delivery mechanism. True mastery is only achieved through both experience and education, so we’ve invested in things like Event Leadership Institute Virtual Event and Meeting Management (VEMM) training and certification program for all the planners on our staff, and even my leadership team.”

Warp Speed
A massive overnight shift to primarily virtual and hybrid meetings and events has not only added pressure to planners trying to identify and master new event tech in a hurry, it’s sped up planning timelines as a whole.

“It’s fast and furious,” says Peck. “Our turnaround is in the neighborhood of 30 days right now. Pre-pandemic, we were booking corporate events at least a year out, and now we’re looking at a virtual tour with meals for 400 people and six weeks to prepare.”

For Doan and Secules, the shift from in-person to virtual shrunk the team’s typical planning cycle of six months or more to less than three. In switching Cvent CONNECT to a virtual event, Andrews and her team had three to four months to build out the company’s brand-new virtual attendee technology, launch a detailed pre-production and production schedule, reconfigure the event’s agenda and rigorously test and refine the process and program.

“[The change] made our planning timeline more dynamic, but also more intense. We had to completely adjust our ‘traditional’ event planner roles to support these virtual needs since hybrid and virtual events require a significantly higher amount of pre-production than what you’d expect for in-person events,” she says. Cvent’s marketing timelines were compressed as well. “Despite announcing the pivot to virtual almost four months out, we still saw over 60 percent of the registrations come in in just the last two weeks, so we really didn’t need as much time to market as we would have for an in-person event.”

“With a lot of my clients I’m noticing the planning timelines have really been squeezed and I’m concerned about that as a long-term trend,” says Curran. “It’s possible to spin up a virtual event real quick, but what you’re really doing is cutting out room for creativity. The shorter you shrink that timeline, the more cookie-cutter and less impactful your event’s going to be.”

Galle, who’s finding a lead time of eight to 12 weeks has become the norm for the virtual event production is concerned as well. “Can we put together a live event with a short lead time? Yes. Should we? Probably not,” she says. “An eight-week lead time allows the host to push content out to the audience, but it doesn’t leave enough time to seek attendee input or to be intentional about that content. To do a comprehensive job of setting event goals and objectives, vetting suppliers, marketing the event and managing all the logistics, you need at least 14 to 16 weeks. Just because you can do it with a very short lead time, doesn’t mean you should.”

Elevate and Engage
With the novel aspects of pandemic life slowly becoming an engrained part of the everyday grind, planners are facing a familiar challenge.

“Now that the immaturity of COVID-19 is coming to a close, the free passes on livestream glitches or subpar webinars are up,” says Curran. “Back in March and April there was this sense of camaraderie between hosts and attendees to show your human side, make mistakes and acknowledge that we’re all figuring this out one day at a time together. Today, not so much.”

The demand for polished programs and engaging events—a pressure planners know all too well—is back in full force. “There’s kind of this mentality of we’ve all had time to figure this out, we’ve all sat through a notgreat virtual event and knowing these aren’t going away, attendees are looking for more,” he says.

Just months into the pandemic, “Zoom fatigue” had already become a day-to-day reality for planners and attendees alike. And with webinars and virtual happy hours starting to feel played out, planners are beginning to prioritize platforms and program changes that can elevate and engage virtual and hybrid audiences. Planners focusing on virtual and hybrid events are funneling more energy and effort into quality content creation. “So much of the end user virtual experience is grounded in those under-the-radar factors—whether that’s sourcing studio spaces and videographers to support engaging pre-recorded programs or live sessions, editing camera angles and virtual presentation cues, or developing compelling content to keep attendees engaged between presentations,” says Andrews. “As planners, we are now TV producers and directors too.”

For Peck and the Forte team, safely executed in-person perks have helped deliver an unexpected “wow” factor to surprise and delight attendees.

“Whether it’s a fully virtual event, in-person or somewhere in between, we’re really leaning in to see how we can get creative with our services, respect the restrictions in place and make sure everyone’s safe,” says Peck.

In coordination with Forte’s virtual events, Peck and her team will send delivery staff to attendee homes to present the catered meals chosen for the event. The literal white glove service can be timed for delivery in advance of the event or clients can choose to have hundreds of hot meals delivered to guests simultaneously just before. “It makes an impact to be getting ready to log on online, open your door, and be greeted by a professional in uniform and white gloves offering a ‘Good evening, sir or ma’am’ and presenting this innovative meal,” she says.

Peck and the Forte team have also offered drive-by employee appreciation events, setting a designated meeting point guests can drive to where they’ll be greeted by their company’s president or CEO and gifted takeaways like happy hour kits or bottles of wine as a live three-piece band plays in the background. For a drive-by event in partnership with the Michigan Opera Theatre, opera singers serenaded guests as they drove up and collected their meal, then drove home to log on for a virtual gala. Forte also recently coordinated a virtual fundraiser for the Autism Alliance of Michigan. Sponsors who purchased tickets at designated price points received a personal at-home chef and Peck personally set a gala-inspired setting in the co-chair’s home to set the tone for those watching at home. “It’s getting back to those custom, specialized, personal moments we were all executing before COVID-19 and challenging ourselves to get creative and think outside this new box we’ve been put in,” says Peck.

Around the Bend
As is the case in most historic, landmark shifts, the impact of COVID-19 is sure to be notable and far-reaching.

While industry experts are predicting a long-standing focus on digital events and a reinvigorated commitment to sustainable and eco-friendly event practices down the line, planners have begun to form their own predictions for the immediate future.

Based on his work with clients, Curran is anticipating an uptick in hybrid events. “I’d say hybrid is the new event—as in, we don’t even need to call them ‘hybrid’ events because ‘event’ will be synonymous with the hybrid platform, and everyone will assume there’s going to be some sort of virtual element involved.” Earlier in 2020, Curran’s clients were hoping to plan for in-person events with a virtual component in case they needed to go digital. “In the year ahead I’m hoping we’ll see groups doing the opposite with a virtual-first mindset, forming full digital plans and an inperson element in mind in case it’s possible.”

For Peck and her team, the hope is to have more of a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. “Our team’s hoping to be back to ‘normal’ by April or May of 2021,” says Peck. “I know virtual may be the path forward and the best fit for some organizations, but the clients I’m working with want to make their attendees feel seen and valued and honored and I just don’t see live events completely off the table when that’s the end goal. If nothing else, live events may become more niche, but I don’t foresee an entirely digital future anytime soon.”