You need to have technology that is easily accessible for everyone. The easier it is for people to login to your event, the most success you will have. For our South Lake Business Awards we did a premiere on Facebook and YouTube. The week leading up to the event we encouraged everyone to join us at a designated time at these locations and all they had to do was sit back and watch.
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 Amanda Nethero.
Amanda Nethero serves as the Marketing, Communication and Events Director for the South Lake Chamber of Commerce, located in Clermont, Florida. Amanda joins the Chamber with more than 10 years of marketing and public relations experience in both corporate and nonprofit markets throughout the Central Florida area. Her focus is on social media, event planning, event marketing and media relations. Outside of her work within the Chamber, Amanda serves on the board of directors for the Central Florida Dreamplex and We Care of Lake County.
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 the suburbs of Chicago as the youngest of six kids. From an earlier age I developed a love of writing and reading. I remember when my parents bought a Word Processor (oh my, I’m really aging myself here) and I would spend hours in the basement writing stories and dreaming of far-off places. I also had a love of all things Disney as it was my parents favorite place to vacation, so when the opportunity to participate in the Walt Disney World College Program presented itself to me in my sophomore year of college, I jumped at the chance to spend eight months in Orlando. That was in 2003 and I’m still in the Orlando area loving the sunshine but missing the amazing Chicago food.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Honestly, I ended up in the events industry by chance. I have a degree in Marketing and Public Relations and always thought I would end up working for a large PR firm. Instead, I ended up working in nonprofits in the marketing and communication departments. As we know, most nonprofits have small staffs, so you have to become a jack of all trades and handle just about anything thrown at you. I ended up loving the events side of my job and really worked to hone my skill set and take our events to the next level.
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?
Now, any boss I have had will tell you I am not to be trusted with basic math or standard measurements. Catering math? I can do that in my sleep. Number of people per city block for density? Easy! What size step and repeat banner should we order to best suit the event? Well, this one I learned the hard way. Let’s just say the first banner I ever ordered would have been perfect if it was only for preschool children to use. I may or may not keep a measuring tape in my desk now to avoid mistakes like this.
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 have a tradition of reading the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley before any event or any race I run. There is something so incredibly calming about the words and it just puts me in the mindset I need to conquer what lies before me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Your best teacher is your last mistake. It’s important to remember that nothing in life is perfect, especially events, and the only way to move forward and improve is to learn from your past mistakes. During events I make notes of things that need improvement. The majority of the time they are scribbled on whatever paper I have on my clipboard, or a quick text note, but they are important to notate so the following year those mistakes don’t happen.
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?
The very first event I planned was our College of Communication Open House at Illinois State University. I was the PR Director for the student run radio station and sat on the planning committee, but it wasn’t until I started working for the University of Central Florida that I really fell in love with events. The school I worked for held an annual conference and that was the event that let me stretch my creativity and master some basic event skills, including what to do if all of your break rooms randomly fill with smoke (pro tip: have the building manager’s contact information and thank your lucky stars that the conference being held above you is for firefighters). Since then, I’ve planned events as small as a board retreat all the way to a 6,000 person street festival. Each event has its own personality and nuance, but I absolutely love it.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Before COVID-19 I did not have a lot of experience with virtual events. I attended webinars in the past, but never put them on, nor did I have to plan a completely virtual option for a live event. Once we realized that the two-week stay at home order was going to be much longer, we at the South Lake Chamber of Commerce had to quickly learn the ins and outs of Zoom to keep our members engaged and to be able to give them relevant information.
We started hosting weekly Zoom calls called “Coffee with the Chamber” to allow our members to network and to share local updates regarding closures, PPP efforts and any other helpful information we could pass on. We then began hosting webinars that covered a variety of topics from applying for PPP funding to setting up your remote workplace. All of these were well received and have kept our members engaged in a meaningful way.
We also had to rework our signature events. These events included our South Lake Business Awards, Teacher Appreciation Breakfast, Hob Nob and Taste of South Lake. Each had its own challenges, but ultimately were successful events.
Our South Lake Business Awards is normally a dinner event where we honor the “Best of South Lake” as voted by the residents of South Lake and award three signature awards to members of the community. The event was originally going to be held in April but was then pushed back to October. With rising numbers and limitations on venues we made the decision to turn the dinner into a virtual event. We partnered with southlake.tv to broadcast our awards on YouTube and Facebook. The virtual event was a huge success and had a larger than anticipated reach within the community.
Our Teacher Appreciation Breakfast is normally a two-day event where we serve our local teachers’ breakfast and raffle off door prizes. Since an in-person event was not possible, we visited each school with a check for $500 (made possible by a generous donation from CEMEX) that they could use to serve breakfast or lunch to their teachers and an assortment of door prizes. We also passed along a digital message from our sponsors and the school district. The highlight of our annual event is a school spirit contest and our schools came up with creative ways to virtually show their spirit this year. Our winning school did a play on the Brady Bunch and it was simply amazing!
Our Hob Nob event is traditionally an expo style meet and greet between political candidates and members of the public. This event was by far our most challenging to plan. We did not want to host a traditional Zoom call because we did not feel it would benefit our candidates the way the expo has in the past. We were able to partner with EventHub to create a virtual expo hall where the public could meet with the candidates in a separate room and ask questions before and after the town hall discussion. The rooms also housed candidates’ platforms and contact information for members of the public to access before and after the event. This was our most challenging virtual event, but it was extremely successful and far exceeded our expectations.
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 am a member of the Florida Festivals and Events Association (FFEA) and they hosted a fantastic virtual and in-person conference this year. They did a socially distanced in-person event during the traditional time frame and then hosted a virtual session the following week. These sessions included some that were filmed at the in-person event as well as fresh content. If the session was prerecorded the speakers were available for questions at the virtual event. The amount of work and coordination that went into planning that event was immense, but it was completely seamless.
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?
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen with virtual events is not having a moderator to manage the room. If you are in a traditional Zoom people will frequently unmute themselves or jump in to make a comment. If you have someone monitoring this it helps immensely. Additionally, it’s a good idea to have someone monitoring the chat in case there are any questions or concerns that pop up during a presentation.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We have exclusively worked through Zoom for our virtual platform. We have the option to host a traditional call or use the webinar feature which eliminates the majority of the issues that I mentioned before. It also seems to be the main platform everyone is using and are most comfortable with. For a larger event though, I did enjoy working with EventHub. They are continually adding new features to their platform to adjust to the demands of virtual events and their staff is always there for a quick call or Zoom chat to work through problems.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Event organizers need to be plugged in to their local community and partner with fellow organizers. I cannot stress enough the value of connecting with people who are in the trenches alongside you. Through FFEA we have a community board that we can ask questions and look for feedback from fellow organizers. This is how I connected with EventHub and learned different strategies for our virtual events. It has been my experience that we as event organizers are here to support each other, we know how hard this industry is and if can help you succeed it only adds value to the industry.
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.)
- You need to have technology that is easily accessible for everyone. The easier it is for people to login to your event, the most success you will have. For our South Lake Business Awards we did a premiere on Facebook and YouTube. The week leading up to the event we encouraged everyone to join us at a designated time at these locations and all they had to do was sit back and watch.
- You need to make it engaging. This is a tricky one because as you mentioned, the screen just doesn’t have the same electric energy as in-person events. Dynamic speakers and roundtable discussions keep events lively and encourage audience participation. In the webinar format it is not as engaging, but if you have a solid moderator, they can make the Q&A session extremely engaging. We like to prepare some general questions ahead of the Q&A session as well that help encourage our participants to chime in and offer opinions or follow-up questions.
- Test, test and test again. Our Hob Nob event was hands down the most stressful of our virtual events. We had a dozen moving parts and candidates that were not familiar with the platform. The week prior to the event we hosted a test session with EventHub to allow our candidates a chance to familiarize themselves with the platform and ask any questions they may have about the individual booths. This not only eliminated potential issues on event night, it also relieved the stress the majority of the candidates were feeling about participating in a virtual event.
- Roll with the punches. There will always be a glitch when it comes to technology. No matter how many times you test it, something will inevitably go wrong. Here’s an example, remember all the testing I mentioned above? Well, even with all of that testing wires were still crossed at our Hob Nob event and candidates somehow ended up in incorrect rooms. Thankfully it was something that we could remedy quickly, but it goes to show that no matter how many times you test, technology will always throw a curve ball.
- Make it fun! We happen to have a member that loves to keep our coffee meetings fun, he always wears a different hat to each session. This has since trickled down to other members and even our Chamber President. It’s something that people look forward to each week and really helps keep engagement with our participants.
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?
Do your research on your target market. I think many of us are pushing virtual events for the sake of having an event and losing sight of the reality of Zoom fatigue. For many of us virtual options are the only option and by midday the last thing we want to do is continue to stare at a screen. You have to make sure that your event is something that will make people want to attend, even with Zoom fatigue. The easiest way to do this is have a rock star speaker that will draw the attention of your target market and keep them engaged throughout. You also want to make sure that the platform you are using is the ideal one for your event. If it is more of a webinar, you want to make sure you are using a webinar platform and not a traditional Zoom. If you need expo space, you want a platform that can give your sponsors the necessary breakout rooms. In some ways, I think virtual events a more challenging that in-person, but it can be done in a fun and engaging way.
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.
Honestly, volunteerism in general. I think it is extremely important to give back within your local community and not just financially. A few years ago I made it a priority to do a service project with my children over their holiday break. The first year we volunteered at a local school for children with special needs. Our one day of service turned into multiple days over the week not only because my children were having a total blast playing with other children, but because they saw the value in serving the community. It opened them to a different side of the world and taught them a level of compassion they would not gain any other way. If everyone took a few days a year to volunteer in an area they are not familiar with, I think it would make a huge impact on society.
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.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to attend a conference where Arianna Huffington was the keynote speaker. She was only onstage for maybe 45 minutes, but she made such an impact on the audience. I would love the opportunity to sit and pick her brain.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.