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Alex Howland of Virbela: “Commit to being an early adapter”

Commit to being an early adapter: As we’ve seen this year, the event industry has been defined by how well companies can adapt to the new normal. As everyone is looking forward to 2021, the event industry has been changed forever. Event organizers need to be open-minded and embrace the new world of events–which offer […]

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Commit to being an early adapter: As we’ve seen this year, the event industry has been defined by how well companies can adapt to the new normal. As everyone is looking forward to 2021, the event industry has been changed forever. Event organizers need to be open-minded and embrace the new world of events–which offer much more opportunity to expand attendance and influence. Virtual reality will become a more compelling, interesting, and mainstream option as events organizations recognize the benefits of blending in-person and remote opportunities–creating a completely new event concept.


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 Alex Howland.

Alex Howland, Ph.D., is president and co-founder of Virbela, a virtual world platform for remote work, learning, and events. Howland created Virbela in 2012, before it was purchased and made public by eXp World Holdings in 2018.

Virbela’s mission is to help organizations and people thrive in a remote-first future. Alex leads the development of Virbela’s products and services — continuing to expand the platform to accommodate not just business workspaces, but classrooms, event spaces, and recreational areas as well.

Prior to co-founding Virbela, Howland was an instructor in the Psychology Department at University of California, San Diego, where he taught Industrial and Organizational Psychology to undergraduate students. His expertise in organizational psychology gives him a unique perspective on creating virtual work and education spaces. He designed Virbela specifically to create a unique virtual experience where users feel psychologically safe and are more likely to collaborate, brainstorm, and succeed.

Howland has a bachelor of science in psychology from Providence College, and his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from Alliant International University, San Diego.


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”?

As a child, I grew up in Dartmouth, MA and am the youngest of three boys. I spent the majority of my time as a child outdoors playing sports and sailing competitively. Contrary to my current profession, I wasn’t allowed to play video games growing up and I’m still not much of a gamer today.

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

I’ve always been fascinated with people and particularly leadership. Whether it was a coach’s selection or a peer decision, I always found myself in a captain role on all my sports teams growing up. I pursued a doctorate degree in organizational psychology because I thought I wanted to become an executive coach. While I certainly like to support the growth of other leaders, I enjoy the challenge of growing my own leadership skills as well.

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?

When I first got started, I won a 2M dollars grant to begin Virbela. While I was super excited about the grant, I was also thinking, “holy sh*t, do these people know I have NO IDEA what I am doing?” I knew literally nothing about software development and had no formal business training. I quickly learned to lean on my ability to build strong relationships and get the right people on board. I focused on the vision, putting the pieces together, and fostering a rewarding culture to be a part of.

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?

In my early days of entrepreneurship, I spent a lot of time watching Shark Tank and listening to the podcast StartUp. StartUp was both educational and therapeutic — teaching me I wasn’t the only one experiencing the rollercoaster of emotions as an early stage entrepreneur.

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

I took an organizational theory business class in my undergraduate program. It was an experiential class and the first opportunity to put to practice the theories I was learning in my social psychology classes. The teacher shared the most basic process — Do, Assess, and Improve. While there is nothing sexy about the quote, it is simple and cuts across most scenarios.

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?

As we all know, the events industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. Events are all about the experience–learning, socializing, and networking. It’s an experience that is hard to replicate through video conferencing or a webinar alone. When I co-founded Virbela in 2012, our goal was to create virtual environments for organizations and people to thrive in a remote-first setting, while feeling psychologically safe to collaborate, brainstorm, and succeed. Today, Virbela offers a variety of immersive 3D spaces that are deeply social and collaborative, bringing business and in-person experiences to life online. Over the past year, our virtual world platform has become a critical solution for companies looking to transform online meetings and events into immersive and social experiences.

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

Virbela’s mission is to improve the way people learn, collaborate, and innovate together while physically apart. When the pandemic brought the events industry to a standstill earlier this year, Virbela quickly became a go-to for hosting large-scale virtual events, business conferences, and online educational programs.

Our virtual worlds help organizations bring their in-person experiences to life online — from expo halls that hold thousands of attendees and auditoriums for speaking engagements and presentations to music stages for social events. Event attendees create and customize their own avatar to explore the different venues and network with other attendees, just as they would in real life.

And we’re constantly iterating to bring new experiences to life. In December, we debuted our new entertainment venue, The Virbela Speakeasy, by throwing a virtual holiday party with a live performance by DJ Jazzy Jeff. The event brought together more than 500 people from around the world who had the opportunity to experience the new venue — an expansive, multi-level event space with a large stage and multiple screens for viewing live performances, a dance floor, balcony, retractable roof, and even a VIP backstage area. We received enthusiastic feedback from attendees who genuinely enjoyed their first speakeasy experience — not to mention testing out their new virtual dance moves like breakdancing and the twist.

We’ve seen a lot of early interest in the new entertainment venue:

VRDays held its annual Halo Awards, recognizing the outstanding achievements of European XR developers. The ceremony took place on Nov. 4 inside the venue in Laval World’s private campus, powered by Virbela.

Our partner, Event Farm launched their Fatigueless concert series on Nov. 5 in the new venue inside their own private campus, giving attendees a fun and engaging way to enjoy concerts online.

During the week of Nov. 9, eXp Realty hosted the industry’s largest real estate event, EXPCON, which drew over 12,000 attendees from 35 different countries. The five-day event included a virtual concert in the new venue in eXp World, their private campus powered by Virbela.

On Dec. 8, Kool & The Gang performed in the new venue at the Omni Cultural TV Fest, which took place in STREAM World, powered by Virbela.

Other organizations that have turned to Virbela to host large-scale industry events this past year include:

Bordeaux Geekfest, which held its first fully immersive, two-day virtual festival in Virbela in June. The event brought together more than 200 guests from around the world, with nearly 400 hours of content and entertainment through meetings, video games tournaments, concerts, and more.

iLRN brings together an international group of developers, educators, and researchers dedicated to advancements in immersive learning technology. Their annual conference saw more than 3,300 registered attendees and 300 speakers/paper authors who presented almost 200 sessions during five days.

Laval Virtual, a key facilitator in the discussion around VR/AR, which has hosted numerous events in Virbela. Most recently, Laval Virtual World 2020 drew more than 6,600 people from 110 countries who participated in business meetings, an award ceremony, as well as fun activities and challenges.

Additionally, eXp World Holdings, Virbela’s parent company, hosted their annual Shareholder Summit on the platform with more than 9,500 people from 27 countries in attendance. The four-day event brought together the eXp family of real estate agents, brokers and staff for networking, business updates, a keynote speaker, expo hall and 75 breakout sessions.

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?

Event Farm, an event and experiential marketing platform, is a great example of a company that has surpassed expectations in creating successful live virtual events. Their creative and fresh perspective within the industry makes them true pioneers in the online events space, and they are changing the way we view events as a whole. Since partnering with Virbela, Event Farm has seen a pivotal shift in engagement among attendees. The number of people interested in live virtual events on Event Farm has been steadily increasing with hundreds of people now attending their own virtual events and thousands attending customer’s virtual events.

In October, I spoke at San Diego Startup Week, which was hosted in Virbela. San Diego Startup Weekis usually a week-long event with crammed activities, networking sessions, and fun social gatherings. However, this year looked a lot different. The event turned into a month-long event allowing attendees to digitally attend demos, meetups, sessions, and pitch competitions in a virtual environment. It’s great to see events transition to virtual spaces so quickly during the pandemic and offer attendees more engaging and personalized experiences. Other companies looking to transform their event experience should consider how virtual worlds can help build community and foster connections in ways beyond what video interactions can offer.

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?

Events– especially virtual events–are all about the experience. Without the ability to connect naturally and spontaneously, it’s basically just another video call or webinar. When planning a virtual event, organizers should think about how the audience will experience the event. Interacting with your colleagues in a virtual environment allows for a more connected, interactive, and immersive feeling that replicates the way people would communicate and engage in real-life.

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

I’m biased, but I really do believe that Virbela is an outstanding platform for virtual events. Virbela allows for people to come together, using personalized avatars that represent their personalities, and to interact with colleagues in real-time. When you’re in Virbela, you might bump into someone in the hallway or you can step into a private conversation area–replicating the experience and feel of real-world interactions. Virbela also provides customizable all-in-one virtual venues with expo halls, auditoriums, and social spaces for people to explore and stay engaged.

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

When planning virtual events, having the correct tools, resources, and software are vital in hosting a successful event. Organizers should weigh all their options and think through accessibility for attendees, global reach and impact, and any pain points that may come up during the event, which is where Virbela comes into play. Virbela can help companies scale their events and ideas faster and more efficiently–even when all attendees are remote. First, Virbela is an easy-to-use platform, and with no VR headset or special computer required, anyone with a web browser and Wi-Fi access can download.

Second, using a virtual world platform allows companies to reach a larger audience–regardless of their physical location. In fact, to accommodate our growing global customer base we’re expanding our language capabilities. We recently added five new ones including Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese (simple and traditional), French, Spanish, German, and Japanese.

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.)

Commit to being an early adapter: As we’ve seen this year, the event industry has been defined by how well companies can adapt to the new normal. As everyone is looking forward to 2021, the event industry has been changed forever. Event organizers need to be open-minded and embrace the new world of events–which offer much more opportunity to expand attendance and influence. Virtual reality will become a more compelling, interesting, and mainstream option as events organizations recognize the benefits of blending in-person and remote opportunities–creating a completely new event concept.

Adopt a hybrid mindset: This goes hand-in-hand with what I stated above, but the future of events requires more flexibility. Hosting events is never going to be the same. We’ve seen millions of funding flowing into the online event space, and this is because a hybrid-event model is the future. The companies that figure out how to best incorporate interactive, virtual aspects into their events will be the companies leading the space.

Understand the psychology behind virtual: Organizers need to learn how to replicate the chemistry people feel at in-person events, which is why understanding the psychology behind these virtual interactions is key for their success. Creating a community presence, diminishing ‘Zoom fatigue,’ understanding the positive benefits of spontaneous interaction, and having a safe and secure space to engage are all things to consider when planning a virtual event. Virtual event platforms allow users to connect faster and more frequently (you’re a simple click away), network further professional relationships for personal and work purposes, and give you the support from team members you didn’t know you needed.

Recreating in-person interactions: Right now, most people are longing for interactions that feel more like in-person, which is why hosting your next virtual event needs to create an environment that promotes human and unplanned interactions to be successful. This stems from fostering strong personal connections, spontaneously interacting with colleagues, and being able to engage and feel fully present in working sessions. With the use of virtual platforms, users can experience all the various things that in-person events offer while letting the user feel physically connected and closer to one another–despite their physical distance.

Having the necessary tools and features in a virtual environment: Incorporating customizable avatars, various language capabilities, text chat and private messaging, spatialized voice, or personalized office spaces are all important features that can create a more personalized experience for the user. All these features allow the user to have control over their design whether it’s in the form of personalizing your avatar or customizing your campus, the goal is to creatively connect with one another and make it feel as real as possible. The more human-like features a virtual environment offers not only creates a successful environment, but a more realistic experience for the user.

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?

Think about experience first: Thinking through the big-picture of what the event should look like and feel like is crucial. A good place to start is thinking about what you want your audience to experience. As the host, attracting attendees and ensuring attendees are having a fun and productive time are all important factors when planning a successful and engaging experience. Once you decide what that experience looks like for your guests, you can establish the logistics and ins and outs of production to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Consider your audience: Determining your audience should be top of mind when planning your virtual event. The audience you want to attract and entertain sets the stage for how the whole event comes together–from what types of topics will be presented to what kind of activities should be offered.

Build a team you trust: Lastly, finding a trustworthy team that will execute your vision is vital. In order to create a successful virtual event, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page and dedicated to bringing the event to life–online. Creating a sense of community and camaraderie within your team is paramount, and a tight knit team that works well together creates a strong foundation for hosting events.

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 aim to empower individuals, teams and organizations to thrive by providing tools to build intimate learning communities regardless of the geographical location of their members. The context could be a startup looking to become the next unicorn, a youth group promoting diversity and inclusive initiatives, or a university teaching developing global leadership skills of its students. The importance of community cuts across many sectors in life and business.

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.

Reid Hoffman, as I enjoy listening to his podcasts and reading his books on Mastering Scale.

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

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