David Sarfati of the Israel Ministry of Tourism: “Be engaging!”

Be engaging! This almost goes without saying, yet I find myself more often than not, staring at the screen in disbelief. I know how hard it is to book interesting speakers, I have first-hand experience with that, but I can’t stress enough the impact of that to whether or not your event is going to […]

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Be engaging! This almost goes without saying, yet I find myself more often than not, staring at the screen in disbelief. I know how hard it is to book interesting speakers, I have first-hand experience with that, but I can’t stress enough the impact of that to whether or not your event is going to be remembered.

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 David Sarfati.

David Sarfati has served as the Director of Marketing for the Israel Ministry of Tourism Western Region since 2016. He has worked with different influencers, media companies and travel trade media to help establish Israel’s growing brand as an emerging, diverse and eclectic destination. David has an extensive background in Film and Television; A Tel-Aviv University Steve Tisch School of Film and Television alum, he has served as a producer for several television and film projects and served as a writer for entertainment media in Israel.

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”?

Of course! I was born in the south of France, in Toulouse, to be exact. When I was about a year old, my parents wanted to fulfill their Zionist dream, so they moved us to Israel, where I grew up. My mom, daughter to Holocaust survivors, wanted us to experience our Jewish heritage from a place of power, and both of my parents wanted to raise us in a country they’ve always loved and believed in even from afar.

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

I always loved watching television as a child. Growing up I watched so many American shows, from classic ones like Bewitched, to 90’s sitcoms like, Growing Pains and Full House, all the way through the “Spelling school” of juicy TV-hits like Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills 90210, and Charmed. I always had an affinity to TV and used to dream of one day making my own show, then writing, producing, and directing it. As I grew older, it was clear to everyone that I would be going to film school, which I did. It was a great experience where I met so many people who share my passion for the arts. When I had the opportunity to work for the state of Israel, promoting it as a tourism brand through my producing experience, it seemed like a no-brainer.

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?

Working for a government, after years in the private sector, means getting used to a different work pace and a different type of budgeting. Coming into this job I wasn’t really aware of how much of a balancing act it was to execute projects when your headquarters are in Jerusalem, and your partners in Los Angeles or New York. it took me a while to get the sense of timing right. It was a challenge definitely a challenge, to explain to our partners why some things took longer than other, that’s what you get when you only share three business days with your own HQ. I know how to communicate with them better now.

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?

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers, which I highly recommend (the audio version is excellent as well). In his book, Gladwell demonstrates the importance of clear communication, but also reviews the different ways culture impacts our understanding of cultural codes. He reviews Chamberlain’s relationship with Hitler, the Amanda Knox trial in Italy, and the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, to explain the various ways in which we code behavior, without even thinking about it. Gladwell compels us to become aware of our biases and see those around us with more humility and thoughtfulness.

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

As a child, whenever I had fears about doing something, my mom would always say, “What’s the worst that can happen- you’ll succeed?”. It serves as a constant reminder for me to not be paralyzed by fears or anxieties when going into a new project or unknown territory. I know if I do my best, I’ll succeed.

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 a producer, I’ve had a lot of experience creating and managing events from start to finish. From my time being a part of the Tel-Aviv University Student Film Festival and making short films, I learned early on what it takes to coordinate events that involve dealing with a lot of people with different, sometimes conflicting, schedules. Working for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, I took that experience to the next level. Managing group projects in an international landscape means juggling different time zones, communicating with professionals from other cultures and languages, all while committing your heart and soul to produce the highest caliber of events, no matter how tight the deadline is.

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

With Covid-19, the entire world had to learn how to re-program their workplans to suit the virtual landscape. During that time, the North American offices of the Israel Ministry of Tourism became industry leaders in producing virtual events for the travel trade industry. During this freeze on travel, we’ve produced over 30 educational webinars, live panels, conferences, round table discussions, and even Instagram Lives. We’ve definitely done a lot through simple trial and error, but our commitment to improvement through honest evaluation has led us to an understanding of what it takes to make an event work, and how easy it is for them to tank.

Early on, we had some technical difficulties regarding the “breakout rooms” on Zoom. In all our events, both in person and virtual, we strive to really hear our vendors and guests and take the time to learn about their unique situations, particularly since the pandemic hit. We initially thought the intimacy of the breakout rooms would facilitate those goals, but the feature proved to be a little difficult to get just right when we were trying to manage over 200 guests at our events. Although it didn’t work as intentioned, the experience created a really interesting internal discussion about the Zoom platform and the way we could and should utilize it to engage with our guests in a forward-thinking way.

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?

Conde Nast has been doing great virtual events around their different magazines and products, consistently bringing in high quality guests from different domains. What I love about their virtual events is the look and feel- I always tell my team “presentation is everything”. If things don’t look and sound great, your audience is going to check out; this is true for a live event, even more so for virtual events. Over the past year, we’ve become so sensitive to bad backgrounds and audio glitches, many, including myself, find it unforgivable if your AV quality doesn’t meet the basic standard we’ve come to accept. Aesthetics matter both for branding and engagement.

The other thing I liked about Conde Nast’s virtual events is that they keep the show going- another essential quality after all these months of going to webinars. I can’t stress enough how important pacing is for virtual events, and it’s important to keep your guests’ interest. You can lose someone’s attention at the blink of an eye if you seem unprepared or unenthusiastic, a natural assumption on the part of guests if the flow starts and stops too much.

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 most common mistake, as I mentioned, is having a horrid background, where the person is half-blended into some flat image with really bad quality. If the green screen effect isn’t working, just turn it off, please. The other huge mistake I still see being made constantly is not making sure your guest-speakers have permission to screenshare and know how to do so. As an event organizer, it is unforgivable to not ensure your key speakers are prepared for an event, be it live or virtual, and the blame for these incidents rests with no one but the person who failed to confirm the processes.

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

The Zoom Webinar platform is great. It allows your audience to be focused on the presenter screen instead of looking at their self-view window or other guests’ windows.

I also love StreamYard- it’s an affordable streaming service that allows you to create amazing virtual events, using creative designs, multi-speaker modes, screen sharing and more. It looks sophisticated like a TV broadcast and I’ve enjoyed seeing it used in different ways over the past year.

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

Excel never fails! It’s a great tool to help lay down all the information you gather and organize it in a clear fashion. I get why it’s annoying for some people, but my advice would be to just use whatever tools they need to help them simplify the task ahead of them.

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. Write a script! The first thing I learned working at a studio was that there’s no place for spontaneity when creating art. While it’s not always true, I think it’s great advice meant to get you to be as prepared as you can be. While I understand it can sound like a hassle, this is a real time saver. A lot of speakers have the tendency to get carried away while speaking, and while we love passionate speakers, we are in the business of keeping people engaged. Sticking to a script, even if it’s a bullet point one, will help you form an interesting event, and might open your eyes to things that your event is missing.
    – Remember, philosopher Aristotle stated, “A story that is whole has a beginning, middle and an end.” Your virtual event is no different. Make sure to introduce the subject, explain why you’re asking your guests to give you their time, make sure the subject is talked about concisely with an interesting angle, and don’t forget to summarize what your guests have just heard. You can also refer them to learn more outside of the virtual event in the form of well-organized resources.
  2. Do a run through the day before the event and the day of the event. This is the one thing I see event producers skim over and to me it’s just as important as booking the right speakers for your events. You want to make sure every speaker knows how to operate the technology (whether it’s Zoom or another platform), that their camera and audio work properly, and that their presentation hit the marks you set for the event. Just as important, make sure there’s a designated person in charge of operating the technological side of things, so that you have time to tend to any other issues that might rise.
  3. Be engaging! This almost goes without saying, yet I find myself more often than not, staring at the screen in disbelief. I know how hard it is to book interesting speakers, I have first-hand experience with that, but I can’t stress enough the impact of that to whether or not your event is going to be remembered.
    – Moreover, you must remember, this is a visual medium. You want to stimulate your audience’s eyes. Get beautiful imagery and videos to create memorable visuals that will leave your guests with something to think and fantasize about.
  4. Know your audience. This is another important part of the equation. Your audience might come from different backgrounds and be interested in different areas. Don’t hesitate to survey your audience, inquire about their interests, and create engaging events accordingly. It’s actually going to make your events memorable, and your targeted audience will feel a deeper, more meaningful connection to your brand.
  5. Keep the show going! Having said all of that, we’re still in a virtual space, depending on so many different variables to work on demand. Be prepared for technical difficulties and glitches — it happens! Just make sure to have a plan b at the ready and be prepared to shuffle the order of things to keep the show going.

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 two important ones — First, define what is the message of your event. Why are you creating the event? What are you trying to demonstrate or sell?

The second one, find your audience, whether it’s on social media, your company’s database, or by running ads. You want your event to be attended and viewed. And if it still wasn’t well attended? That’s the great thing about virtual events, you can always post the event online and grant access to those who missed the live version of it.

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 are in the business of bringing people together and that is and has always been my mission. I want people to see other people for what they are, not through any bias or with assumptions. I want people to be guided by love and not fear. I want to leave people thinking about all the things they have in common and not what sets them apart.

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 TV writer/producer Damon Lindelof, creator of two of my favorite shows of the last decade: The Leftovers and Watchmen. He has a way of creating impactful projects guided by love, that have deeply influenced the way I see the world and understand it.

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

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