Learn the ins and outs of the platform you are using, from what boxes to check when you create the registration and meeting link, to how to mute/unmute participants, to breakout rooms, speaker feature options and screen sharing capabilities. For our webinars, we removed the chat box, but kept the Q&A box enabled so participants are able to join the conversation in an orderly manner, and we’ve seen events where random people accidentally shared their screen and the presenter screens were overridden, so knowing these details makes a huge difference.
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 Anna Robins.
A prominent player in the philanthropic and event communities, Anna Robins’ expertise in hospitality, food and beverage, entertainment, and event management makes her one of the most influential and respected event producers in Nevada.
A native Las Vegan and University of Nevada, Reno alum, Robins began her career as the Marketing and Events Manager at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, hosting an array of large-scale events involving high-profile partners such as Wine Spectator, Bon Appétit, and Esquire, as well as celebrity chefs including Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Joël Robuchon, and Michael Mina.
Since 1998, Robins has helmed the fundraising division of Keep Memory Alive, a nonprofit dedicated to raising crucial funds and awareness for Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in the fight against neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases; multiple system atrophy; frontotemporal dementia and related disorders; multiple sclerosis, and more.
Throughout the years, Robins has been instrumental in Keep Memory Alive’s growth and all fundraising efforts including the annual Power of Love® gala, one of the most renowned single-night fundraising events in the country. Her well-earned reputation and strong personal connections have resulted in numerous celebrity appearances and endorsements, one-of-a-kind auction items, and remarkable dining experiences, generating substantial revenue for Keep Memory Alive. Considered the gold standard for high-end, A-list events in Las Vegas, the gala won the 2017 International Live Events Association (ILEA) Esprit Award for “Best Event with a Legacy” and was named a Special Events Magazine award finalist for “Special Event Produced for a Non-Profit.”
Over the span of her career, Robins has been recognized with numerous professional accolades including “Top 500 People in Events” by BizBash; “Women to Watch” and “40 Under 40” by VEGAS INC; “Outstanding Fundraising Professional” by the Association of Fundraising Professionals; “Power Slayer” and “Vegas Gives” honoree by VEGAS Magazine; and honorary recipient of the “Philanthropist” badge from the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada.
Robins also oversees the teams at Keep Memory Alive and the Keep Memory Alive Event Center, bringing together their talents and creativity in additional fundraising and events initiatives. Drawing on her years of experience, she has led the team to multiple venue awards from BizBash, Stella Awards, Special Events and Wedding Industry Professionals Association.
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 raised in Las Vegas and attended the University of Nevada, Reno. My parents are originally from London and my father was a chef, so I grew up learning about food & beverage and was immersed in the hospitality industry from a young age.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
After graduation, I was very lucky to start working at Southern Wine & Spirits (now Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits), the largest wine and spirits distributor in the U.S. During my time there, I wore many hats, not only learning the ins and outs of the beverage world, but also events and catering. I helped to plan, manage and execute events for up to 8,000 guests with high-profile partners such as Wine Spectator, Bon Appétit and Esquire, as well celebrities like Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and Joël Robuchon. I gained first-hand experience in all different types of positions — from working the front door, expediting in back-of-house, keeping track of RSVPs and creating seating charts, to working with the beverage and wine teams on different set ups. I also started learning about the charitable landscape in Las Vegas, managing donations and gift-giving initiatives for community nonprofits.
In 1998, Larry Ruvo (Senior Managing Director of Southern Glazer’s) approached me to helm the fundraising division of Keep Memory Alive, a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds and awareness for Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in the fight against neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases; multiple system atrophy; frontotemporal dementia and related disorders; multiple sclerosis, and more.
My time at Southern Glazer’s shaped and influenced how I approach events at Keep Memory Alive, so we instill great service, amazing wines and cocktails and top-notch food into everything we do. Keep Memory Alive’s cornerstone is fundraising based on hospitality and operating on a very high level of service, and that same philosophy and heightened level of appreciation goes hand-in-hand with how we treat our patients at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
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?
Mistakes are never funny, but they’re all life lessons. I’ve made every mistake you can imagine and I think that’s why I’m a good event planner because I’ve learned from each of them. One memory comes to mind when we hosted a corporate Christmas party. Since there’s no snow in Vegas, we designed and created a synthetic ice rink in the middle of a ballroom and had a pair of ice skaters do a performance. The male was a heavyset guy and not only was he sweating, but every time he lifted his partner up, his belly would pop out. I was just sitting there, mortified. From that point on, I always made sure to have a dress rehearsal prior to every event. You have to run through every element of the event experience, so you can see it, feel it, walk it and know that everything is the way you want it.
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?
“Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. The beverage industry was very male-dominated at the time I was coming up, so it was difficult at first to find my voice without having to raise my voice while understanding that I do have something to contribute. My view or perspective may be different than other seasoned high-profile businessmen, but I’m not afraid to speak up and be confident in my years of experience and make sure I have a seat at the table.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” People think that the grass is going to be greener on the other side, or things would be so much better “only if,” but there is a lot of strength and power in knowing what you’re up against every day and how to overcome those obstacles.
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’ve done small salon events for 20 people all the way up to multiple-day events for up to 5,000 people a day, from high-end fundraising galas to liquor brand launches. No matter the size or type, I utilize the same planning process and put the same eyes into any event, because the devil is in the details.
One of my proudest professional achievements is organizing Keep Memory Alive’s annual Power of Love® gala, one of the most renowned single-night fundraising events in the country, raising more than 320 million dollars since inception. We’ve been fortunate to have Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Lionel Richie, Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli, Gloria Estefan and more appear and perform, along with chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Masaharu Morimoto create remarkable dining experiences. I’m very proud that through our team’s efforts, the gala has won the 2017 International Live Events Association (ILEA) Esprit Award for “Best Event with a Legacy” and was named a Special Events Magazine award finalist for “Special Event Produced for a Non-Profit.”
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
We have been hosting virtual events for patients and their families, such as our Lunch & Learn programs, that maybe aren’t necessarily “special events,” but we have been able to cast a wider net and include more people in the patient experience at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. We’ve found that keeping the format as close to the original has been very comforting for families and has eased the transition since too much newness at once can be overwhelming and a little bit of familiarity can go a long way. We intersperse questions throughout the presentation, so it breaks up the monotony and people feel like they’re being heard even though they are only typing questions. We welcome each person by name as they enter the Zoom room and use their names throughout the program to ask them individual questions or make pointed, person-centered specific comments. We watch everybody in gallery view so we’re able to see facial expressions, and when someone looks like they have a question or something to say, we’ll call on them. Or we will mute/unmute attendees judiciously to allow them to chat, tease each other, share their stories and have a little fun. It really helps people feel like they’re part of the group and are vested in the process, and actually lends to more interaction than in-person events.
We also created a virtual 50/50 raffle and announced the winner on Facebook Live, and cross-promoted through all of our other social platforms and email database. This helped us raise crucial funds while also reaching a new audience who may not have attended a physical event, but could easily attend a virtual one.
We have learned so much in 2020 and will continue threading it through everything we do to expand to a larger base, even when we move back to in-person events.
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?
I’ve watched and attended a lot of virtual events and conferences and I honestly can say, they’re all doing a good job since we’re learning this new landscape together. I am impressed how these companies are thinking outside of the box and bringing a uniqueness into what could be a boring Zoom call, like incorporating interactive pieces into virtual events, which are the hardest ones to pull off.
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?
My pet peeve is when events don’t have a countdown screen, so you may log on early and see nothing, only dead air. Then you’re worried maybe you’re on the wrong link, and as the event planner, you’re receiving multiple emails saying it’s not working. It’s a missed opportunity to put sponsor content, information about your organization or even promote upcoming events. It’s like any other in-person event, you have to think about the guests’ arrival and their first impression of your experience.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We use Zoom webinars to deliver our live streams. It’s very affordable and has most of the features we need, such as registration, live Q&A and a survey that automatically populates at the end of the webinar. Zoom also provides robust analytics after the event, which we are able to make great use of and make alterations as needed.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
We have worked with GiveSmart for the past few years for our in-person events and they’ve always been excellent partners. During the pandemic, they hosted webinars and provided a wealth of information and ideas on how to navigate virtual events and try to reach fundraising goals.
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.)
- Learn the ins and outs of the platform you are using, from what boxes to check when you create the registration and meeting link, to how to mute/unmute participants, to breakout rooms, speaker feature options and screen sharing capabilities. For our webinars, we removed the chat box, but kept the Q&A box enabled so participants are able to join the conversation in an orderly manner, and we’ve seen events where random people accidentally shared their screen and the presenter screens were overridden, so knowing these details makes a huge difference.
- Plan and prepare your virtual event the same way you would an in-person event. Create a run of show and think about the guest’s experience from the beginning to end. When we created a virtual birthday party for one of our doctors, we had a countdown clock, an animated welcome page and Neil Diamond music, so the guests knew they had arrived and were in for a fun evening.
- Incorporate some type of entertainment or interactive component. We created cocktail baskets for an event with two glasses, all the ingredients to make the cocktail along with the recipe, and tied them up in a beautiful, inviting package and delivered them prior to the virtual event. Even though the attendees were physically apart, they all had something to do together.
- Test the tech ahead of time and designate a test group if needed. Knowing what to do on your end is one thing, checking to make sure it comes through how you want is another. Test to confirm your volume is correct, the camera works the way you want, your sound comes through properly, etc. Make sure presenters know how to operate things on their end and understand expectations. Pre-tape anything you can to make each transition seamless, and know ahead of time if a video is embedded in a presentation and if you have the bandwidth to play it successfully. We’ve seen a few virtual events where the connection froze or they had technical difficulties and attendees drop off. Make sure to have a great tech person who knows how to fix what is broken and can work magic behind the scenes.
- Practice, practice, practice! Come over-prepared and do a run-through before the real deal. Don’t make any last minute changes, since that’s when things go wrong. Down time is one thing when it’s live, but it feels so much longer online, so aim to have more than enough material ready to fill the time. Some of our patients feel like they’re watching TV, so they expect that same rhythm and timing. It takes more energy and focus than live groups, but it’s totally worth seeing the participants engage and remain social during a time when socialization is difficult.
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, provide programs people want. There is a lot of competition, so if you aren’t offering something of value that matters, people won’t tune in. Think through the flow of the event just as you would an in-person event. Create a game plan with a profit and loss statement and your strategy and goals. There is a lot of good information out there, so take the time to learn the most you can about production, or hire a virtual event company to ensure everything runs smoothly.
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.
We need to teach young people about philanthropy and community to ensure that organizations around the world that are doing so much good for so many people can sustain in perpetuity. Keep Memory Alive’s vice chairwoman and co-founder Camille Ruvo started a program called “A Penny For Your Thoughts,” a small change fundraiser that engages middle school students in philanthropy to show them that their support and participation makes a difference. We pivoted to a virtual and drive through fundraiser this year and raised 17,000 dollars for no-cost caregiver support programs offered at the clinic.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.