Sammy Courtright of Ten Spot: “Cameras and mics on for attendees”

Cameras and mics on for attendees. Now this does entirely depend on the type of event you’re hosting but there is nothing better than engaging with attendees. This is an opportunity for people to connect with one another. Perhaps you allocated a four-minute social block where you create breakout groups for attendees to turn on […]

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Cameras and mics on for attendees. Now this does entirely depend on the type of event you’re hosting but there is nothing better than engaging with attendees. This is an opportunity for people to connect with one another. Perhaps you allocated a four-minute social block where you create breakout groups for attendees to turn on their cameras and microphones and converse with each other. As a reminder, it is always helpful to provide an icebreaker in these situations to spark the conversation.

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 Sammy Courtright.

Hailing from Australia, Sammy Courtright is the co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Ten Spot, an all-in-one platform that helps companies connect, engage and manage remote and on-site employees.

After finding it frustrating to stay healthy in a typical 9-to-5 environment, Sammy and her co-founder, Jonathan Cohn, teamed up in 2014 to create Fitspot, whose mission was to deliver wellness where employees needed it the most — at work. Renamed Ten Spot in 2020, the company not only rebranded to expand beyond wellness, but now offers a centralized solution for companies to increase their productivity, boost retention and build a strong culture.

When COVID hit, Sammy learned that customers were facing a similar issue: how do we ensure employees feel like they work for the same company when they are not in the same place? Through research, she discovered that leadership was struggling to manage distributed teams. This led to Ten Spot’s expansion to the workforce engagement platform it is today.

With a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Miami, Sammy is a certified Pilates instructor who brings a blend of grit and imagination to the zillions of tasks that confront every startup. While she wears many hats, Sammy’s passion for building culture has created an atmosphere at Ten Spot dedicated to positive thinking and collaboration.

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 moved around a lot as a kid; born in London, moved to Holland then Texas, Australia and eventually made my way back to the U.S. for college. Growing up, I enjoyed having everyone together and being close, and would always put on talent shows, host movie nights or come up with any reason or excuse to get my friends and family together.

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

I’ve always been very creatively inclined, and in school, I studied theatre. However, at the same time, there’s always been part of my brain hyper-focused on solving problems.

Anytime I go into a restaurant or a store, I find myself thinking about all the ways it could be more efficient and scalable, and have even emailed the owners with my ideas (I know, I am that person). That is how I met Jon, my co-founder. Mutual friends introduced us and once I heard about what he was working on, I started telling him all the ideas I had to make it scale.

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 we first launched our business, we offered a live experience that we hadn’t tried before. We partnered with a local animal shelter to offer ‘live puppy yoga’ for a corporate customer. The idea was to have a 45-minute outdoor yoga class with the puppies followed by a 30-minute playtime to allow attendees to adopt the animals. Naturally, as puppies do, they went crazy. They were running around, barking, peeing everywhere. Let’s just say it wasn’t a peaceful yoga class.

I quickly learned that you need to prepare for all scenarios. Even though it can take weeks to plan an event, there is a need for agility so you can adapt in real-time.

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?

A great book out there is “Never Split the Difference” (Chris Voss) because there are skills you can learn outside of any formal education, and negotiation is one of those.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read over the last few years because negotiation comes in all shapes and sizes and occurs in all types of everyday situations–whether we realize it or not. I’ve learned so many invaluable techniques. I am mad I didn’t read this earlier in my career (*cue time machine*.)

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

“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” — Denis Waitley.

It is not easy running an early-stage company. I am, ironically, quite risk-averse. This quote reminds me to always take the plunge, make the tough decision, and speak up because any path taken involves risk.

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?

In college, I interned for a creative agency that curated experiential marketing events for major brands. After I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles and assisted Viacom’s production teams working on award shows and live events.

Before the pandemic, Ten Spot delivered on-site community-driven events to companies nationwide. That has entirely shifted to virtual interactive experiences that help connect and engage distributed teams.

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

We’ve been hosting virtual events for more than six years now, and it is incredible how much technology has improved to create a more multidimensional and interactive experience.

It’s been really fun recreating a lot of what we used to do in person, virtually. Let’s take company holiday parties, for example. Traditionally there would be a bar, a dance floor, food, etc., all available in a space with opportunities for employees to chat and congregate. How can we replicate that virtually? We’ve been having a lot of fun creating virtual rooms for every party mood. So, there is live music in one virtual space, a quieter virtual room where you can chat with your colleagues and sip on your drink, a live virtual trivia room, a live comedian doing stand-up in a comedy room. As a guest, you can transition from one room to the other.

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 have been impressed with a few of the virtual conferences. CES 2021 was a great example of how companies can reveal exciting new products via live stream. You can’t network as effectively as you used to when in person, but some conferences offer pairing opportunities so you can connect with potential partners or customers virtually.

While major conferences have the budget to create an incredible experience for attendees, there are plenty of more affordable takeaways:

  • Make sure your set-up has a professional look and feel. There are tons of affordable options online on ring lights, box lights, and microphones that can transform your event’s production quality.
  • Use applications like Canva to create dynamic, branded presentations in a snap.
  • Pay attention to the small details: what will people see when they first log in? Have you created an opening slide? What do they hear? Can you set the tone with music?

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 experience for the participants starts before the event begins. How are people signing up for the event? Do they receive an email reminding them of the event 24 hours before? What does that email template look like? I attend as many virtual events as possible to see what other people are doing and what areas we can replicate. I also recommend taking yourself through the entire experience from start to finish so you can understand the participants’ journey.

The experience doesn’t end when your event does. Are participants getting a follow-up email? Do you have a calendar of upcoming events that might interest them? If you are interested in growing your attendee list, you have to prioritize the follow-up.

Technical issues can and will happen. I get it, we can do endless test runs and your Wi-Fi can cut out mid-event. What do you do? We always recommend that hosts dial into the event via their phone so if your video cuts out, at least your audio will remain on.

Teamwork does make the dream work. As a host, it is really difficult to balance the live chat, Q&A, participants’ technical questions all while trying to present. We recommend having another person on your team participate in the event to answer those questions so you can focus on executing the event.

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

We always ask customers: what tools are you using today? To prevent attendee drop off or a less engaging event, we typically like to use the software that our customers are comfortable using. We all know downloading yet another video conferencing platform can be tricky to navigate and launch, so it is worth quickly surveying attendees to better understand what platforms they currently work with to ensure the experience is as seamless as possible. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts are the most commonly used tools.

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

All of these platforms release new features/updates regularly. It is important to read the release notes so you can learn what new features are available and how they can impact your event.

Managing event hosts, MCs, musicians, and contractors can be a headache. We ended up building our own software to staff, schedule, confirm, and pay contractors but there are other out-of-the-box solutions that will streamline this process for you like Schedulista, MindBody, Schedulicity, Vagaro.

I mentioned it before, but Canva is a graphic design platform that will elevate your presentations, social media templates, email templates, and it’s super easy to use.

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.)

Create a ‘vibe’. Remember when we used to go to live concerts, conferences, bars, workshops, book clubs? Those in-person events were hosted at a location. That location had an atmosphere. Whether it was music, lighting, a smell, an energy — it made you feel something. That is really hard to replicate virtually especially when attendees are tuning in from their homes, which is an environment you cannot control. We’ve found our most successful virtual events had a ‘vibe’. That vibe largely comes from the music and the host. One of the reasons people enjoy going to bars, for example, is because of the bartenders. They ask questions, crack jokes, tell stories, give advice. It is important to have event hosts that have the personality and skills of a master of ceremonies — you want them to create relationships virtually.

Cameras and mics on for attendees. Now this does entirely depend on the type of event you’re hosting but there is nothing better than engaging with attendees. This is an opportunity for people to connect with one another. Perhaps you allocated a four-minute social block where you create breakout groups for attendees to turn on their cameras and microphones and converse with each other. As a reminder, it is always helpful to provide an icebreaker in these situations to spark the conversation.

Active Engagement. Whether it be through the chat, Q&A or poll feature the most engaging and memorable virtual events have activity. People are asking questions, sharing experiences or advice with other attendees. If you can create an environment where attendees feel comfortable connecting with one another, then you’re on the right track.

Have a clear objective. There is nothing worse than signing up to a virtual event and when you tune in, it doesn’t represent what it advertised. Time is precious. People want value from virtual events and you have to give it to them.

Feedback. Once your event is over you need to understand what went well and what didn’t go as well. The only way to figure that out is to ask attendees. This can be done via a quick survey or a three-minute phone call. Taking that feedback and applying it to your next event is a crucial part of the process.

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?

  1. Sketch out the event agenda with start times, talent, etc., once you have it down visually, it gives you the ability to see what is technically required to make the event happen.
  2. What is the event objective? What are you looking to accomplish? Does your event successfully meet that objective? There is a lot of noise in the virtual event space so you need to have a clear message and point of view to stand out.
  3. It is important to consider how you will market the event. What will you do to get people interested in your event? Once you get a few ideas down you will be able to map out a marketing timeline.

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 value education, and I don’t believe that learning should stop when you leave school. I recently read a report that said to remain relevant in the workforce and your job, you need to be learning and developing new skills at least every four years. This creates one of those challenges that I’d like to help solve, starting with Ten Spot’s customers.

Going back to school is expensive, and it usually doesn’t keep someone in the job market while attending, meaning learning and skill development needs to either occur on the job or with your employer’s support.

We are in the process of rolling out peer-to-peer mentoring on Ten Spot’s platform but envision it going beyond mentoring and expanding into important skills training. This can start with live sessions that are ultimately recorded and archived for use by new employees or anyone needing a refresher course.

I feel if we can help companies do this across the board, we’re helping make education more accessible. Employees can then learn and develop new skills without sacrificing their jobs and without their employers losing them.

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.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, the CEO of The Black Swan Group and the co-author of “Never Split the Difference.” I thoroughly enjoyed his book and still find myself referencing it consistently. He has had such an interesting career, and I would love to learn more about his experiences (and practice my negotiation skills to see who foots the bill!).

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

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