Heather Odendaal of WNORTH: “It’s time to stop hosting FREE events”

It’s time to stop hosting FREE events: As I mentioned above, only half of attendees will show up for an event if they didn’t pay for it. At the beginning of the pandemic, so many businesses (including my own) wanted to support people as much as they could with free content. The truth is, that […]

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It’s time to stop hosting FREE events: As I mentioned above, only half of attendees will show up for an event if they didn’t pay for it. At the beginning of the pandemic, so many businesses (including my own) wanted to support people as much as they could with free content. The truth is, that the events industry is one of the HARDEST hit industries and it’s time that we start to value our efforts by charging, even if only nominal or by donation.

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 Heather Odendaal.

Heather Odendaal is an accomplished Canadian entrepreneur, brand builder and event producer whose experience in corporate environments inspired her to create and co-found WNORTH, a global organization dedicated to the development of women mid-career on a trajectory towards senior executive leadership.

What originally started off as an annual conference in 2015, WNORTH now connects top female business leaders in corporate, public and entrepreneurial sectors through The Members’ Club which provides a 100% virtual forum of online content and development opportunities including workshops, leadership masterminds, events and courses and more.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Heather and her team quickly pivoted to create virtual experiences for their members and conference attendees. They are hard at work highlighting and solving the problem of the insufficient support structures in North America for women in the workforce, which was even more pronounced in the last 12 months.

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”?

Despite growing up in Ontario, Canada, few people know that I was actually born in Sydney, Australia. My dad worked in the Mining Industry and was posted there for a number of years. I racked up the frequent flyer points before I even started Kindergarten as my parents flew back and forth. I spent all of my school years in Oakville, Ontario, before packing up and moving out west for University and I never looked back. I was hired for my dream events job in Whistler, British Columbia, and have lived here 17 years now!

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

In 2010, just after I completed a contract with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, I started my own event management company. I worked to support many large scale events, and shortly thereafter I landed a new remote role for a Fortune 500 Company in the wine industry. I had big dreams and a vision for my career in corporate, yet I couldn’t find a path forward, and being a remote employee made it even more difficult to “get ahead.” In 2015 I saw an opportunity to build the WNORTH Conference and community that connected like-minded women on their path to senior executive leadership.

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?

At our very first WNORTH Conference, I had an idea of what I wanted the “Gift Bags” to look like. We were a small team and we definitely underestimated the amount of work a conference was to organize. To top it off, we had sent out some Gift Bag proposals with a typo for “15” items instead of “150” so when it came time to unpack the courier boxes and stuff the gift bags, we were short a bunch of items! We always laugh about “the time our gift bags had a bag of chips and a water bottle.” This reminds us all of the time to stay humble, laugh a little and remind us of how far we have come.

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 book that made a significant impact on me was written by one of my role models, Sallie Krawcheck. In her book “Own It: The Power of Women at Work”, Sallie talks about building a new way of work that is supportive of women. She provides actionable ways that we can embrace and invest in our feminine strengths to create the change we wish to see. Sallie’s dedication to closing the 7 Gaps for women is an inspiration for my work at WNorth.

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

One of my all time favorite quotes is from esteemed business coach Marie Forleo “The Key to Success is to start before you are ready.” The reason this quote resonates with me is that I have never felt ready for any of the successful ventures in my career, circumstances thrust me in a certain direction. I often call myself an accidental entrepreneur, but I am grateful for that.

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?

I’ve always been fascinated with the business behind events, for the first 10 years of my career, I specialized in Sponsorship Sales and Revenue Generation. In the first few years of starting my business, I consulted as a third party for many large festivals and conferences, yet shortly thereafter I was frustrated by not having financial control over the events themselves and had seen other producers make decisions that I didn’t agree with. That was a key driver in giving me the confidence to start my own event, which I did with the WNORTH Conference.

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

After 3 years of producing our in-person WNORTH Conference, in 2018 I sensed that our community wanted to stay connected throughout the year. They were spread out across North America so we started The Members Club at WNORTH with virtual events a few times a month. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were able to adapt extremely well as we had been producing virtual events for a few years already. The most interesting thing about the last year, in my opinion, is how quickly technology has adapted in the virtual events space. We have partnered with an event software called Bizzabo for over 6 years now, just weeks into the lockdown they happened to launch a virtual software and it turned out to be an amazing partnership that we were happy to have in our back pocket!

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?

Lesbians Who Tech is an event that I have been extremely impressed with. They are a smaller team, like ours, yet they built one of the most impressive lineups of any conference I saw in 2020! They had Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Kara Swisher and Arlan Hamilton as Keynotes, and the content and themes were relevant to so many different and diverse audiences.

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?

My number one complaint in virtual events is I see so many organizations who are not investing in the right software or delivering the right medium for their conference or event. So many times I have seen “Networking” seminars hosted on Zoom Webinar where you can’t even see the other participants. A piece of advice that I share is to survey your audience prior to the event or conference about some of their key objectives for attending the conference, this should help you decide the right software and format to deliver the virtual event.

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

This is a tricky question as there are so many good ones out there, some of my favorites include Bizzabo, Zoom Meetings, Hopin and Venue. The most cost effective way to select your virtual platform is to do your research, pick one and stick with it! You will want to give your teams plenty of time to practice with and learn the new technology.

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

Streamyard Digital Studio is an amazing tool for virtual event producers, it saves your hundreds or thousands of dollars on live editing with its branding features and easily live streams to dozens of platforms including YouTube, FacebookLive and many others.

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. Bring the Experience to their Door: Consider putting together a Gift Box or ship a Present to your Attendee/Staff. I love the new company Unwrap It, they create virtual gift experiences for event organizers. Outsourcing the gifting element is a must as it is a big undertaking.
  2. Create Community Among Attendees: Whether it is through Facebook Group, or other online communities, provide a space where attendees can connect with each other.
  3. Don’t run the event ALL day: The Zoom Burnout is real. Consider stopping early in the afternoon or spreading your content over a couple of days. Survey your attendees in advance to determine the optimal time to run your event.
  4. Replays are KEY: Only 50% of attendees who sign up for a free event, actually attend it live. The rest, you guessed it, expect the replay! So make sure you get the replays sent out in a timely manner to keep your attendees happy.
  5. It’s time to stop hosting FREE events: As I mentioned above, only half of attendees will show up for an event if they didn’t pay for it. At the beginning of the pandemic, so many businesses (including my own) wanted to support people as much as they could with free content. The truth is, that the events industry is one of the HARDEST hit industries and it’s time that we start to value our efforts by charging, even if only nominal or by donation.

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?

Developing a following on the topic, whether that is through LinkedIn, Instagram or otherwise, having an initial audience to market your event and have as early adopters is key!

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 have always wanted to bring together a global set of leaders who are making great change in the lives of women and girls around the world. Two years ago, I found that space in an event called Women Deliver. Next goal is to be a speaker at Women Deliver!

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.

Following along to my experience at Women Deliver, I had a chance meeting with Melinda Gates as I picked up my 5 month old daughter from the Dignitaries entrance at the Conference so I could breastfeed her. I only had a few moments to meet Melinda, but I would love to one day have Melinda speak at the WNORTH Conference in Whistler. What Melinda has done to transform lives for women and girls around the world is truly inspiring and I would love to share her message with the Philanthropists of the future at WNORTH.

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