Think outside the box and put yourself in your attendees’ shoes. We are all at home, some of us having to facilitate virtual learning for our children, take care of loved ones, and divide our space, time and internet between multiple individuals trying to work or learn all at the same time. Consider offering an ‘on demand’ ticket option or add-on for those who may not be able to attend sessions live, but still are interested in the content and represent your target audience. Considering virtual swag bags or food delivery for lunch portions of the event is a great way to give your audience a multi sensory experience, even if they may not be in the same physical location as your team or the speakers.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Lawrence.
Beth Lawrence is an award-winning, international meeting and event planner, connector, and entrepreneur. She is the CEO of Beth Lawrence Meetings and Events, and started the company in 2017. She is also the Co-Founder of The Industry Formula, a hospitality sales and marketing firm.
Over the past 10 years, Beth has made a name for herself in the Philadelphia hospitality industry, holding positions in event planning, sales, and marketing for brands such as Dave & Buster’s, Brûlée Catering, The Palm Restaurant, and Austin-based startup Snap Kitchen.
Since launching her first business in 2017, Beth has worked with business owners in the tech, blockchain, cannabis, hospitality, wellness, and lifestyle industries to craft virtual, hybrid and live experiences that will connect them with their customers, partner brands, and communities they serve.
Her event experience ranges from private finance conferences; to intimate VIP dinners for international delegates; to multi-day citywide conventions, and a car less, 10-mile, public experiential pop-up that aimed to bring a healthier mindset to the citizens of Philadelphia.
Most recently, Beth and her team have helped clients pivot their organization’s strategy from primarily in-person events and experiences, to digital and socially distanced experiences and campaigns.
Beth was recently awarded a 40 Under 40 Award by Arcadia University, and was the recipient of 2018’s Best Independent Meeting Planner Award by Pennsylvania Meetings & Events Magazine. She has been featured in the Trade Show News Network, Corporate Event News, Marilyn Russell’s Remarkable Women, the Balance Boldly Podcast, Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine, and more.
Beth lives in Collingswood, NJ with her husband and her dog, Diesel, and holds a degree in Event Planning from Arcadia University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born, and grew up, in a rural area of Southern New Jersey. My mother’s family were cranberry and blueberry farmers, and my father worked as an Arboretum coordinator, so my childhood very much revolved around being outside and in nature. As a child, I would wake up at the exact same time each day (6:48am), and as my parents recall, “just start talking.” I was a naturally inquisitive child, always asking about the day’s plans and inserting my wishes when I could. My sister and I both attended Catholic school from Kindergarten through to 12th grade, which I think influenced my desire to challenge the status quo and not simply do things “as they have always been done.” The classic overachiever and perfectionist, I enrolled in honors and AP courses and was part of the National Honors Society, as well as captain of the dance team and a member of the school’s theatre program.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Ironically, what led me to this career path was an ‘a-ha’ moment in an English class, which was my first declared major at Arcadia University. When the professor mentioned that he had been teaching Hamlet for 30 years, I knew that simply wasn’t the right route for me. After wavering and even thinking about transferring, my academic advisor suggested that I look into Individualizing my concentration and pursuing an event planning degree. From there, everything seemed to come together. I realized that I had always been a planner, even when I first woke up in the morning! I planned my first National event as a junior in college, as the final project for one of my classes and working alongside my professor. The rest, as they say, is history!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I recall a moment at an internship with a local radio station, working in the promotions department. My supervisor asked me to put about 20 physical sheets’ worth of guest names and contact information into an Excel spreadsheet. Rather than telling him I didn’t have much experience with Excel and risk looking ‘inexperienced,’ I spread the papers out across my desk and started to write the names out. I was doing alphabetical sorting in my head! About an hour later, the supervisor came in and asked what I was doing. Within seconds, he showed me how to sort A-Z on excel and how much time I could have saved myself and the department! Thankfully, it was a laid-back company culture and everyone thought it was hysterical, but it taught me to always ask for help when needed!
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I was younger, The Hills (the original, on MTV) was an extremely popular show. As I saw the show’s cast begin to work for Teen Vogue and People’s Revolution, I felt so much awe and respect for their PR boss, Kelly Cutrone. I picked up her book, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside, and it made me respect her even more. It became a book that I now read when any unexpected shifts come in my life to give me perspective and inspiration. I started my company after an unexpected layoff in late 2017, and made the difficult decision to pivot toward entrepreneurship instead of go after another full-time job. While working to launch this business, my husband knew that I would need another book for inspiration. He bought me her second book, Normal Gets You Nowhere, and a copy of Jen Sincero’s You Are A Badass. They both gave me such inspiration at a time where I needed it most, and touched on exactly what I needed to hear to move forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is what you make it.” Sometimes we get so caught up in society’s definition of success and what society thinks we need to have to be successful. I realized that we can, and should, define success for ourselves, especially in the entrepreneurial world. Is success, to you, ‘the grind’ of working 24/7 toward a common goal with your peers, or does that look like a part-time gig with more time to spend living your life? Money isn’t the only currency with which we should measure success, and I’ve so enjoyed defining and redefining success for myself.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
My first planned and executed event was a national marketing conference that I planned in 2008, when I was in my junior year at Arcadia University. Before graduation, I planned a second conference and a nonprofit fundraiser, and from there I was hooked. I made a name for myself in the hospitality industry in Philadelphia, working for national brands such as Dave & Buster’s, the Palm Restaurant, and Snap Kitchen, and local catering company Brûlée Catering. I also volunteered on event planning and fundraising committees for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Human Rights Campaign, and more, and have planned events for up to 40,000 people.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
My foray into virtual components of events began a few years ago, the first full year that I started my business. I worked with several tech and blockchain conventions on their event tech strategy, build-out and execution, while simultaneously managing the live experiences. This year, I happened to have a live event on March 19 that I had to pivot to virtual in a week. Fortunately, that event was with a tech company who is extremely well-versed in technical solutions, so it was relatively simple to pivot together. Throughout the rest of the year, I successfully pivoted clients from in-person, live experiences to fully virtual events, communities and campaigns. Some highlights this year include: working with New Jersey Women Vote to pivot their one-day Suffrage Slow Roll event to a month long, statewide campaign and a virtual tour grant program; supporting B.PHL Innovation Festival as they moved their three-day experience to a virtual festival; and working with Living Beyond Breast Cancer on their first-ever virtual gala fundraiser.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
There were so many nationally-attended or viewed events this year that pivoted to a virtual format, it would be difficult for me to choose one company or event that stands out. In replicating a lot of the higher-end events that I’ve seen, I’m typically most impressed by production value. By taking into consideration the audience’s viewpoint, it’s obvious that higher production value will keep attendees engaged longer — which has historically been a hurdle for many companies in the virtual space. Carefully selecting the best tech for your event is of the utmost importance, as not all live-streaming options are able to accommodate higher production values.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistakes, in my opinion, come in the strategy phase. Without looking at the organization as a whole — their brand values and mission statement, key goals for the year and for the event itself, key stakeholders, results from previous event surveys, etc — you’re not getting a full picture of why this event should happen. If you don’t know your own event goals, its impossible to create an event that exceeds expectations for those goals. Take a look at your internal team, workload, and any large projects that will take focus off of the event. Look at your desired attendees, and create profiles or archetypes for each, walking through their days and customizing your content and marketing campaigns accordingly.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
With event platforms, there are so many out there, and many offer different features. I recommend clients have at least (3) possible tech partners in mind for every level of event, from the small sales meeting to the annual convention — that way, you don’t have to search for, or learn, a new platform each time. I have loved working with event platforms like On24, Bizzabo, Socio, Boomset, Run the World and Lemonade, to name a few. What I’m really looking at now are platforms that incorporate video games/gamification into their software, as well as 3D virtual ‘booths’ for exhibitors. The key is really thinking about your company, your sponsors and partners, your attendees and your goals for the event, and how well these platforms meet the needs of those individual goals. In some cases, I have worked with partners like Pacesetter Global to create a customized digital solution for clients.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Obviously, project management softwares. I’m pretty vocal about my love for Airtable, but there are countless options depending upon your individual needs (Trello, Asana, Notion and Google Drive, to name a few). With event platforms, there are so many out there, and many offer different features. I recommend clients have at least (3) possible tech partners in mind for every level of event, from the small sales meeting to the annual convention — that way, you don’t have to search for, or learn, a new platform each time. I have loved working with event platforms like On24, Bizzabo, Socio, Boomset, Run the World and Lemonade, to name a few. What I’m really looking at now are platforms that incorporate video games/gamification into their software, as well as 3D virtual ‘booths’ for exhibitors.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- As you select your speakers, make sure that they are technologically savvy, and make sure that you provide plenty of opportunities and various ways to familiarize them with the tech prior to the event going live. There is nothing worse than a speaker joining mid-session, turning their camera and microphone on, interrupting the discussion and asking “Can everyone see and hear me?” This is especially important for speakers who are used to a certain level of interaction between speakers and attendees — you’ll want both the speaker and the viewer to have as impressive of an experience as they would in a live format.
- Assign members of your team to ‘check in’ on each session before it goes live, to make that pre-session connection with the speakers, make sure their tech is working correctly, and see that everything that they need to run the session smoothly is already within the platform. Even if you purchase ‘white glove’ support from a tech partner, it’s still important to let speakers know that your team is committed to ensuring that their presentations are a success and that everything is as promised.
- Make sure your platform has a ‘backstage’ for speakers. I’ve seen too many live events ruined by a speaker not realizing that there is no backstage and accidentally coming on camera in the middle of a session! Also, it gives less control to the event organizer overall when there is no ‘backstage’ between your speakers and attendees. What if a speaker is running a few minutes late, or has to take a few extra minutes to collect themselves before presenting? In a live event scenario, you wouldn’t open the curtains or push a speaker onstage when they weren’t prepared, so don’t do that to your speakers virtually!
- In the virtual world, content is king, and content is connection, When you’re planning your event, the best way to approach it is with your content in mind. How will you stream, create and record content, and how can that content be reused and repurposed throughout the year and across multiple channels? Which speakers need to be live (IE, workshop facilitators) and which may be better pre-recorded? Will speakers have access to the recorded content, and can they share that content on their own channels and/or publicly? Will attendees have access to the content post-event, and if so, for how long? Which ticket tiers will have access and which won’t? It’s these considerations that should also be brought into the hybrid and live event space as well, because content will continue to be the best way to engage your audiences across the globe.
- Think outside the box and put yourself in your attendees’ shoes. We are all at home, some of us having to facilitate virtual learning for our children, take care of loved ones, and divide our space, time and internet between multiple individuals trying to work or learn all at the same time. Consider offering an ‘on demand’ ticket option or add-on for those who may not be able to attend sessions live, but still are interested in the content and represent your target audience. Considering virtual swag bags or food delivery for lunch portions of the event is a great way to give your audience a multi sensory experience, even if they may not be in the same physical location as your team or the speakers.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first step would be a deep-dive analysis of your organization as a whole, including short and long term goals, and how the event will fit into those goals. Then, I look at what metrics we would like to be able to report on at the end of the event. Next, the most important step is to find the right tech to support those goals, and make sure that it has the capabilities to provide comprehensive post-event reporting on the metrics that you’ve selected.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would work toward giving equitable access to basic needs, starting with healthy food. In my experience with Snap Kitchen (a health food startup out of Austin), I started to look deeper into the groceries and takeout food available in one neighborhood vs another neighborhood, and the difference is staggering. We would talk about healthy food to students, and I recall standing in front of a room full of teenagers talking about making healthier choices. Many of the students’ feedback was that they don’t have access to many of the (even moderately) healthy options that I do, although they live just a few miles away from my home. In close proximity to me, I have 6 grocery stores and several small markets. And yet, I live walking distance from a city that is considered a ‘food desert.’ It is frankly unacceptable to live in such a developed country where this is still the case. There’s so many hotels, farmer’s markets, restaurants and shops that waste food — how can we close this gap?
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Of course, my first instinct is to say Kelly Cutrone, but she is the person I always say. Thinking more, I’d love to have a conversation with either Billy McFarland or Andy King, of the famous Fyre Festival (and subsequent documentaries). I was fascinated by those films, and especially trying to put myself in Andy’s shoes. I’d love to take a deep dive into what happened, the moment they knew that it was a doomed event, and what went on behind the scenes when everyone arrived at an island that was not at all ready for them.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.