Emily Koches of LulaFit: “Create opportunities for connection”

Create opportunities for connection. Not all of our events require participants to interact or even see each other’s videos. We do, however, find ways to remind our participants that we’re all here, together. You can create this feeling in small, simple ways, e.g. utilizing polls, surveys, Q&As, chat features. In these times, even if the […]

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Create opportunities for connection. Not all of our events require participants to interact or even see each other’s videos. We do, however, find ways to remind our participants that we’re all here, together. You can create this feeling in small, simple ways, e.g. utilizing polls, surveys, Q&As, chat features. In these times, even if the event is not necessarily interactive, it’s still so important to cultivate a feeling of connectedness.

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 Emily Koches.

Emily is the Director of Programs at LulaFit. She brings over ten years of leadership and management experience with degrees in education from Northwestern University and American University. After her career as a school leader, she transitioned to the wellness industry as a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Emily has experience designing holistic wellness programs, workshops and events to help people lead a happy, healthy life. She is excited to combine her education & wellness background with her creativity and attention to detail to develop unique programming for the LulaFit community. In her spare time, you’ll find her strolling Chicago’s parks with her daughter, planning her next scuba diving adventure with her partner, and playing with her pup Carl.

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 grew up outside of Washington, DC and have always been very close with my parents and younger sister. I was actually extremely shy as a kid, and it wasn’t until high school that I came out of my shell. My school was a progressive, international, all girls school (fun fact: the school mascot is the snail). I’m forever grateful for the self-confidence my teachers and peers helped me establish there.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

My career has been much more of a winding road than a straight path. I graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Education & Social Policy and spent the next 11 years in education. I started as a Teach for America corps member in Washington, DC, continued teaching middle school in Chicago, and ultimately became an assistant principal and founding member of a charter school on the far south side of the city.

Throughout my career in education, I always had a passion for health and wellness. During free time on the weekends, I became a personal trainer, pursued a certification in integrative health coaching, and ran my own wellness programming. I taught workshops on sustainable habits and home cooking hacks, designed a healthy meal prep program for busy professionals, and coached private clients on their own individual wellness journeys. I eventually realized this ‘side hustle’ of mine was turning into a real career.

When I joined LulaFit, I knew this career change was absolutely the right step for me. I found a job that combined all the things I loved most at a company aligned with my own beliefs about health and wellness. As Director of Programs for LulaFit, I now work with an amazing team of content creators, event organizers, instructors and presenters that bring LulaFit’s wellness ethos to life.

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?

Early on as a fitness instructor, I taught a kickboxing class at a large gym. My first time teaching the class was an all around disaster. I was supposed to wear a headset because the room was so large, but I had never taught with a mic before. I remember thinking, “I look cool with this headset! Like a real pro!” Except… my earpiece kept falling out, my hand would get caught in the wire, I kept moving too close to the speakers and there would be a horrible feedback sound… it was terrible. I kept trying to play it cool, but that just made the whole situation even more awkward. I was certain the entire class thought I was a fraud, but I didn’t know what else to do other than try and pretend like everything was fine. Finally, after realizing I just looked ridiculous and not at all like a professional, I ripped the headset off and yelled “ok, that’s enough of that!” Everyone started laughing, and I felt instantly relieved.

My takeaway: don’t pretend to be something you’re not. I’m not the cool kid (honestly I’ve never been cool); I’m friendly and approachable. When I let those qualities shine through, my classes were so much better. It’s probably an obvious lesson, but being your authentic self is the best version of you there is.

And while I eventually figured out the headset situation, I still get nervous if I have to use a mic.

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?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. My dad gave me this book, and in a particularly challenging time in my life when I was going through a divorce, I remember he referenced back to the habit of “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It is such a powerful way to approach communication. This type of empathetic listening is something I still constantly work on, especially as a Type A person who likes to be right.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” — Steve Martin

I have this quote printed and framed on my desk. It reminds me, through all my career changes and times I felt like I was starting over, to be patient and let my hard work speak for itself.

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?

I suppose my first foray into event planning was organizing field trips, proms, graduation ceremonies, back-to-school nights, talent shows, science fairs, fundraisers, and orientations. I think if you can successfully manage 100 middle schoolers on a weeklong trip to Washington, DC (including a 13 hour bus ride from Chicago), you can pretty much plan any type of event.

In all seriousness though, those experiences thoroughly prepared me for organizing events in a new industry. LulaFit’s events are always connected to our Five Spokes of Wellness: Nourish, Move, Empower, Restore, Connect. Often we utilize a combination of the spokes to plan dynamic events, e.g. Bootcamp, Brews & BBQ, or Happy Bodies, Happy Bellies: Yoga & Kombucha Tasting, or Skin Glow with Cryo: cryotherapy facials and a healthy skin smoothie demo.

As LulaFit grew and our client base expanded to large class-A commercial and residential buildings in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, our events followed suit. We were organizing about 150 events per year, including events for hundreds of people featuring a variety of wellness activities, food and beverage, live music, entertainment and more. One particularly memorable event was a “Homecoming” themed party we organized for the grand opening of the Banker’s Club at 120 Broadway in Manhattan. We actually brought a live marching band through the space. I remember watching everyone’s reactions and thinking “now THIS is what “surprise and delight” means!”

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

When the stay-at-home order hit Chicago and New York in March, LulaFit pivoted to a virtual platform within two weeks. Our first live event, and my first experience organizing a virtual event, was on March 25th. Organizing a virtual event still requires many of the same processes as an in-person event: establishing your goals, planning logistics, creating a detailed run of show, staying within budget, etc. You still have to handle unforeseen issues, but in the virtual space they can feel much more out of your control: Internet connections can be unreliable, cameras cut out, and, my favorite, the surprise dog, cat or toddler popping up on screen.

Rehearsing with our presenters, under the same conditions of the live event, has been imperative. Our checklists are long, but the smallest details can make a huge difference in production quality and the participants’ experience. I remember one of our first virtual events was a live cooking class. We worked with our chef to configure her phone, a tablet, and a computer so she could capture the best camera angle, interact with the audience and see the live chat comments. And I’m pretty sure all of her devices were precariously balanced on a stack of books.

We’ve come a long way since then; we hosted about 150 virtual events in 2020 (that’s about 3–4 events per week from April to December!). The most exciting result of shifting to virtual events has been developing a network of vendors and partners from across the country. From Sound Bath Meditations to Plant 101 Workshops to Mindful Mixology Classes to themed Trivia Nights to holiday parties for Fortune 500 companies, we’ve been able to expand our event offerings and source partners that best align with our wellness ethos and quality standards. We’ve also made a concerted effort to support minority and/or women-owned businesses as our vendor partners, and I’m excited to keep increasing that network in 2021.

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?

While there are so many companies and individuals out there hosting virtual events, there is one experience that really stood out to me. Back in June, SuperFly (the company behind Bonnaroo) hosted Small Biz Live, a collection of musical performances to raise money for small businesses, with a focus on those run by women and people of color. The artists who performed actually chose the business they wanted to support, and they juxtaposed the musical performances with footage of the businesses and owners. The event was so emotional and touching and just really unique. I realize not everyone has the resources of a company like SuperFly, but we can certainly try to replicate the passion and connection experienced in that event.

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?

I’ll share three we experienced ourselves and still see other people make:

  1. Not being intimately familiar with the event platform you’re using. For example, there are A LOT of setting choices on Zoom. You can control the experience much more than is instantly obvious. Don’t just spend time on the platform’s Help site; get on the phone and get your questions answered by a human being. Learn all of the settings and controls on the backend, and test everything out several times before the event.
  2. Being afraid of silence. Presenters tend to speak much more during a virtual event than they would if it were in person. Remember the audience needs some down time to process what is happening and absorb what’s being said. Don’t be afraid of pauses — I know even 5 or 10 seconds feels like an eternity online, but reassure your presenters that it’s OK!
  3. Starting your event by saying “Hi! Can everyone hear me?” They can, and if they can’t, they’ll let you know. The host or presenters should not be the same people dealing with any technical issues. If you have the means, have a dedicated production or technical support staff on your event to jump in immediately if anything goes wrong.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

We’re still searching for one! We host such a wide range of events that we need a nimble platform that can integrate with our other production features. As with most tech solutions, there is no magic bullet. For example, we’ve tested out platforms that are great for entertainment, but would not work well for interactive networking events. I’m confident there will be more innovation in this area, though, since virtual and hybrid events are still in our future.

Even with the perfect platform, an event is only as good as the people behind it. It’s vital that you have a clear run of show, rehearse ahead of time and communicate any platform best practices to your audience. It also helps to have a dedicated support team when something inevitably goes wrong with the platform.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

For event planning purposes, our team uses a combination of Asana and our own custom spreadsheets. We did not find one event planning program or software that suited our needs, so we built our own tools.

In terms of event production, we have been experimenting with mmhmm (yes, that’s the name of the product), Descript, Crowd Purr and Slido. I’m excited to see what new developments come out in 2021 as the virtual event space is certainly here to stay.

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.)

  1. Create opportunities for connection. Not all of our events require participants to interact or even see each other’s videos. We do, however, find ways to remind our participants that we’re all here, together. You can create this feeling in small, simple ways, e.g. utilizing polls, surveys, Q&As, chat features. In these times, even if the event is not necessarily interactive, it’s still so important to cultivate a feeling of connectedness.
  2. Prepare your presenters. When the audience tunes into a virtual event, you’re competing with television and film. Presenters, though, are not actors and may not be as natural on camera as they are in person. They have to find the balance of being prepared without sounding scripted, having flawless communication without sounding like a robot, and finding moments for spontaneity without sounding awkward. It’s imperative to rehearse with them so they’re not only comfortable with their content, but also with the technical aspects of the platform.
  3. Content is key. With the multitude of platforms out there, just about anyone can host a virtual event. How is your content unique, informative, interesting, engaging? You can have all the bells and whistles of a top production studio, but if the substance is lacking, the event will fall flat. One of our best events was a seminar on natural herbal remedies. Our presenter spoke from her home in a very simple, minimally produced 30 minute talk with Q&A. She had such a fresh and interesting perspective that the chat box was buzzing with questions and comments. The audience was captivated purely because of the content.
  4. Invest in production value. The above point being said, it is worth it to invest in some type of production value. Depending on your budget, it might be as simple as a few ring lights, or it might be renting out a professional studio space with a camera crew. As I mentioned, virtual events are competing with television and film. Camera angles change every few seconds, there are special effects and lighting and music… we have to bring at least a taste of this to virtual events. Rehearse your event at the same time you’ll be doing it live and check the lighting. Make sure your presenters know how to set up their cameras and their mics, and check that their devices are on the proper settings. You may even want to invest in a production kit you can send to your presenters if they are streaming from home. We did this for a few of our vendor partners and it made a huge difference in the quality of their set-up.
  5. Surprise and delight. One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is how to create the element of “surprise and delight” during virtual events. If you can find a way to go above and beyond your participants’ expectations, you will definitely create a memorable event. I don’t want to give away too much of LulaFit’s “special sauce” here, but I’ll share one example. We host monthly trivia nights as part of our social wellness event offerings. There are lots and lots of virtual trivia events out there now, so we are always looking for ways to make ours unique. We decided to use a stand-up comedian, and it transformed the experience. Also, comedians are really great at improvising if there’s a technical glitch, so they’re perfect virtual event hosts!

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?

First, establish your overall goal for the event in terms of your audience. At LulaFit, one of our main goals is to improve the wellbeing of our participants. Keeping that north star in mind helps us innovate and shape the event without straying too far from our vision.

Then, during every step along the way, keep your participants in mind. As you choose the platform, the features, the production elements, visualize from their point of view what the experience will be like. From the second they enter the event, what do you want to happen? Try to anticipate not just the problems that could occur, but the places where you can add connection, special touches, surprise and delight.

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 wish I could inspire a movement in which everyone received mental health support, and it was completely normal and comfortable to talk about. Being able to go to therapy, without any shame or stigma, could be a small step towards helping people heal their own issues, while cultivating empathy for others.

There are definitely people out there already doing this work, and I want to call out specifically DRK Beauty Healing, whose goal is to give away 10,000 hours of free therapy to those who identify as women of color in the US.

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.

I would love to meet Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Her leadership style is amazing, and I think the world has a lot to learn from her.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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