Avoid Having Virtual Attendees Feel Like Second Class Citizens. Every experience should be available to all attendees, whether in-person or at home, so planning these out for virtual guests is important. One program that I’ve seen showed in-person guests the hotel staff in a pre-recorded segment explaining all of the food and beverage items that they were about to have and the safety protocols involved in the service. This same program sent virtual attendees UberEats gift certificates to use at home while in-person attendees were at lunch, creating an event-wide lunch experience.
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 Joe Schwinger.
Joe Schwinger is the Co-Founder and CEO of MeetingPlay, an award-winning technology company forging meaningful connections at in-person, virtual, and hybrid events for Fortune 500 companies including Marriott, PepsiCo, Databricks, and many more. With a background in e-commerce, he has extensive experience providing customer facing solutions on a global scale.
A seasoned entrepreneur, before co-founding MeetingPlay in 2011 and beginning to serve as its CEO, Schwinger built and led several successful business initiatives. Prior to his entrepreneurial experiences, he was key to developing global e-commerce solutions with individual properties for Marriott International. First, he built the e-commerce organization for the Eastern Region at Marriott, which involved dedicated plans for all full-service hotels in the region. Then, he oversaw e-commerce for North America during a reorganization to help build the foundation of eCommerce at Marriott globally. Through his experiences at Marriott, Schwinger saw what the future of meetings could look like and how event technology was going to play a huge role. He wanted to be at the forefront of the event technology movement and launched MeetingPlay in 2011.
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”?
This is an interesting one, and it’s a bit of a funny story. From a young age I’ve always had entrepreneurial spirit and a fire inside me to create. It all started when I was about 12/13 years old my uncle hired me to mow his lawn. After a few weeks, his neighbors started asking me to mow their lawns and the next thing I knew I was using my uncle’s equipment to service 45 of his neighbors. That was the first business that I ever ran. That gave me the foundation of understanding what it took from a passion standpoint, as well as to understand the workload of starting something new. It was that feeling that I had of being successful during that summer that really propelled me in life to want to create my own business, develop new things for people and continually strive for success. One of the best moments of my life was when MeetingPlay became a success and I was able to send my uncle a brand new lawn mower, thanking him for being a part of my success story.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
It’s interesting in that I had a programmer technology background, which allowed me my first big career move to work with Marriott International. It was back when they didn’t have any tech people for their hotels. I was one of the first e-commerce focused individuals at the company, and successfully I harnessed my entrepreneurial spirit to bring solutions to the table for their properties. I had a hand in building the e-commerce organization for Marriott’s Eastern Region, which involved dedicated plans for all full-service hotels within the region. Then, I oversaw e-commerce for North America during a reorganization to help build the foundation of e-commerce at Marriott globally.
Over time I rose through the ranks as e-commerce became more important to the organization, which then led to me being a part of an initiative called the “Future of Meetings.” I had no idea what the future was going to look like as it related to meetings, but I was happy to be part of the best in class group that was put together to help shape that narrative. That was when the fire inside me really took over because it opened my eyes to a huge opportunity on how event technology was going to play a role in meetings in the future. I took a leap with the knowledge that I was gaining and thought, “We are going to be a part of this movement in the event tech industry.” That’s how my company, MeetingPlay, was born.
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?
I don’t know if I would say the funniest mistake but I will tell you one of the biggest stumbling blocks that we paid for dearly. It happened early on in the pandemic and it’s something that every meeting planner can relate to.
We had just closed our first big contract for a convention where we were not only the mobile technology partner, but we were also the check-in and badge printing provider. We had approvals on all of the pre-printed badge material, and went to work printing 10,000 badges with the company’s name on them. At 9pm the night before the event we realized that we misspelled the organization’s name on all of the pre-printed badges! There we were, me and my team, in the middle of a ballroom looking at each other trying to figure out what to do as we were hours away from 10,000 people showing up for the event.
My team and I pulled an overnight session to re-print the backs of all the badges, the client never knew that there was ever an issue and the event was a success! I don’t know if I would attribute the tears to the situation being funny or tears of joy that we were able to accomplish what we did.
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 few years back Will Ferrell gave the University of Southern California commence speech, and that struck me so hard. The advice that he was giving to future individuals in the workforce about teamwork, about drive, about charting your own story, that really resonated with me and it’s part of the foundation that I used to build MeetingPlay. I even went as far as to find the transcribed notes from his speech and include it in our company’s mission statement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.” This was part of Will Ferrell’s speech and I often think about it and apply it to my daily life. Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. There are a lot of parts in the process of developing your own company that can make you throw in the towel and give up, but you have to stay the course, do what you feel in your gut, and not let the critics bring you down.
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 mentioned, I worked for Marriott International at the start of my career. In that role I was on the back-end of meeting planning, working to find innovative solutions for planners using technology. This is what really ignited my desire to be at the forefront of the meeting and event industry, as I saw an opportunity to use technology in a bigger, more effective way. This propelled me to start my own event technology company, and my experience was of great help since knew what planners were seeking.
In my current role, I have a hand in planning meetings every day and push the tech limits in order to help planners run successful meetings and events. Developing from a personalized mobile event app to an all-encompassing virtual event platform provider, we at MeetingPlay have learned how to be a strategic partner to accomplish goals using technology. We remain results-driven and success-oriented to contribute to the overall success of the meeting or event.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Last year, the industry had to rewrite what events were going to look like and there was a rush for solutions and a cobbling of all kinds of tools to pull together a comprehensive virtual experience. For the past nine years my team and I have been in the attendee engagement arena, organizing both in-person events and virtual experiences. This experience made the transition to live virtual events easier, which was hugely beneficial as the shift had to happen fast. We learned quickly that being a trusted partner and educating our meeting & event planner clients is sometimes more important than the technology itself. When you reduce the stress and the barriers of the unknowns and calm the uneasiness of your clients, they become a true partner. This allows them to focus on the main goals of their event and leave the technology management to us.
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?
A company that we admire for continuing to push the envelope in the realm of virtual engagement is Databricks. For every event that they execute they are determined to deliver a new and exciting experience for attendees. Recently, at one of their company kick-offs, they wanted to build upon the success of gamification that they saw at one of their recent conferences, and bring it to the forefront in a fun, intuitive and quirky way. To do this they produced caricatures of their leadership team for a “Where’s Waldo” type scavenger hunt across the platform. Attendees had to find the CEO, the CFO, and the CMO, and once found answer quizzes on how they manage their day-to-day life. I give you this example because here you have a company that is so technology focused and forward thinking, yet they took something simple — gamification — and implemented it to resonate with their users. This added some humanity to the conference while offering an engaging activity.
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?
Giving themselves ample time to actually create the event. Due to the fact that live virtual events are a new concept and there is still a lot to be figured out, we see clients do an abundance of research for the right tech partner to run their event. Don’t get me wrong, researching is needed in order to find a company that aligns with your goals, however it should be kept targeted. For example, look at two to three companies instead of three to five as to not let the research phase run too long. If too much time is spent in this initial phase then the timeline to plan the event is contracted, ultimately making it more difficult for the technology partner.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
The best partner for a virtual event or a hybrid experience, is the one that can see the end goal of what the planner is trying to accomplish. Your partner should be able to adapt the technology to meet the planner’s needs and ultimately their goals, versus modifying the goals for the technology that is being provided.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I think that meeting planners should be asking about the tools behind the curtain. Reliability and stability are paramount when thinking about the attendee experience. They should be asking things like, “What is powering the live streaming” and “What is your redundancy practice?” If neither of those things work then there won’t be an event. Today, we see that the fundamentals of providing the attendee experience, such as delivering content, is not necessarily the first question. It’s all about features. You have to have a solid foundation before you can proceed with all of those special components.
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.)
- Keep the Element of Surprise at the Forefront. Tease to the group that the session or event will end with something spontaneous and fun to encourage attendance and interaction throughout the event. Then, give them a surprise! At the close of the 2020 BizBash Style Awards attendees were surprised with a live concert by the Spazmatics, presented by About Entertainment. The playlist was crowdsourced, which created a connection among everyone who was watching live, thereby raising engagement levels.
- Avoid Having Virtual Attendees Feel Like Second Class Citizens. Every experience should be available to all attendees, whether in-person or at home, so planning these out for virtual guests is important. One program that I’ve seen showed in-person guests the hotel staff in a pre-recorded segment explaining all of the food and beverage items that they were about to have and the safety protocols involved in the service. This same program sent virtual attendees UberEats gift certificates to use at home while in-person attendees were at lunch, creating an event-wide lunch experience.
- Think About What Engagement Tactics Can Be Used. Creativity is what keeps audiences engaged. Using communication channels such as chats and emoticons will give attendees the opportunity to chat both publicly and also privately with fellow attendees. The use of interactive emoticons helps attendees express their feelings and also gives planners insights into what wowed them during the presentation.
- Gamification Keeps Things Fun. In addition to helping planners create successful events, gamification creates a fun environment and keeps your attendees engaged from the first day to the last. While event gamification apps can and should be customized to fit any situation, common activities include answering questions, completing challenges, connecting with colleagues and visiting sponsors. Attendees can interact and work together on team-based activities, even during a hybrid event.
- Exhibitors Are Still Relevant, So Incorporate The For All Participants. People buy into experiences and most importantly, they buy from people. Identify new ways to connect virtual attendees directly with exhibitors that will help them make face-to-face connections that are missing from many virtual events. Offer live office hours, one-on-one appointments or live product training sessions.
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 first step is to put pen to paper and develop your key performance indicators. This will help you identify what you want to accomplish, and dictate which tools in your toolbox you will use as those will directly impact the vendors that you select to execute your vision. Some of those tools may be amplified or minimized. For example, the production value of the message that you are trying to get across may be minimal and more of an effort will be put into the networking component to get people talking to each other on the platform.
The second and equally important step should be to choose a partner based on evaluating the level of service that is needed to reach the goals of the meeting or event. For example, if my predictable outcome is 70,000 people on a platform, then the level of vendor that I need to service that infrastructure is different and I would need to partner with a reliable, well-known, provable solution.
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.
Keep things simple. They were simple before Covid-19, and they should remain simple in new ways. I wish that every event producer or meeting planner knew that they were successful in this industry before virtual events for a reason. Last year they adapted to heightened event technology and virtual environments and it has shown that they are the most resilient professionals in the world. Now, they must reinvent themselves all over again in a hybrid environment, and it can be done.
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.
Unfortunately, I missed my opportunity for this. Although I didn’t get to work closely with this individual, he had a huge impact on the industry that will never be forgotten. Arne Sorenson was one of the most open, thoughtful, leaders and when I think about the people that impact our industry, it’s not necessarily the tech leaders, but it’s those that can connect the human element to the product. Arne was that individual, which is why he was so highly respected. If I could go back in time, I would donate any amount for just 10 minutes with Arne. I’d love to be able to get insight from him on how he grew a brand like Marriott International to be such a global force, using hospitality as the backbone message.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.