Pat Owens of The New York Choral Society: “Allow for some audience/attendee participation”

Make sure your program is no more than 45 to 60 minutes! And be sure your event format is structured as a series of segments. A single 60-minute panel discussion may not hold attendee interest. Think about your virtual event as a series of experiences for attendees. As a part of our series about “5 […]

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Make sure your program is no more than 45 to 60 minutes! And be sure your event format is structured as a series of segments. A single 60-minute panel discussion may not hold attendee interest. Think about your virtual event as a series of experiences for attendees.

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 Pat Owens.

Pat Owens joined The New York Choral Society (“NYCHORAL”) in 2017 as its first full-time professional Executive Director. Since his arrival, Pat has led New York’s premiere symphonic chorus in a new era of its 60-year performing history with wide-ranging repertory, innovative collaborations and exceptional artistry. Prior to joining NYCHORAL, Pat enjoyed a successful career in banking during which he launched and managed capital markets, banking and business development divisions for a number of large international banks. He also serves on the Board of Visual AIDS, the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS awareness and creating dialogue around HIV issues.

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 had a fairly typical suburban experience. From a very early age, I was very sure I wanted to be an architect. In grade school, I spent hours reading about famous architects and later took drafting classes in high school. I got lost in the process of finding out how thinks got built. As it turns out, I have spent most of my career building businesses and organizations and just never got around to the design or construction of buildings! But even today I remain fascinated by discipline and creativity of architecture and design.

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

Well, my “career trajectory” is a bit unusual as I am leading a performing arts organization with no formal training in music, theatre or arts administration! Throughout my banking career, I owned a contemporary art gallery, sponsored art projects and served on boards of arts organizations. I wanted to pivot professionally by combining my finance and strategic planning skills with my passion for the arts and contribute to this sector in a more impactful way. That led me to advise a number of arts group and organizations on some of the more vexing challenges they were facing. It was during that period that a friend who sang in the chorus told me about their search for a new Executive Director and I thought “why not?” When I met the leadership, we hit it off and the rest, as they say, is “choral” history.

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 I joined the chorus, I made a lot of mistakes! The most memorable was my first few weeks of confusing our singers with one another. I was so eager to make a good impression and get to know every one of over 150 singers, that I had more than one conversation with someone thinking it was someone else. I would keep on talking until I get an odd look or hear “I think you have me confused with,,,,,,,” It was embarrassing at first, but, after a while it turned out to be kind of funny. My lesson: Slow down, it’s always OK that you haven’t remembered someone (or don’t know something) and be honest about it.

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?

Michael Kaiser’s The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations has been an invaluable resource. He distills his experience leading many well-known organizations including the Kennedy Center into 10 rules for success. His perspective is a wonderful combination of honesty, precision and passion. It continues to be my “go-to book”. Recently I have been listening to Russel Tovey’s and Robert Diament’s “talk Art” podcast. I always enjoy hearing artists talk about their work and these wide-ranging interviews don’t disappoint. Their episode with painter Katherine Bradford was really inspiring. It reminded me how being an artist is hard work, but tenacity + generosity of spirit can propel a career in so many ways! It reminded me of a really good studio visit with an artist after which you leave energized and in awe of the power of creativity.

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

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” — Robert Frost

This quote always reminds me that only constant in life is change and it is always better to make life happen than to simply let it happen to you. Or to put it more succinctly: Be the change!

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?

We are a performing arts organization that presents 3 to 4 concerts, an annual gala and various smaller events each season. So, planning and organizing our events entails just about everything — selection of venues, ticketing, rehearsals, coordinating with various artists, musicians and vendors, organizing the “front of the house” — the box office and our volunteer ushers- and, of course, marketing and promoting our events.

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

Like many other organizations, we had to adapt quickly to organizing virtual events. We began hosting weekly meet-ups on Zoom for members of our chorus that offered an opportunity to listen to recordings of past concerts and, importantly, to see one another. And we scheduled them at same time on Tuesday evening that we would usually be gathering for rehearsals. We were blown away by many of our singers attended and how everyone felt so connected to one another during these “Listening Sessions” The chat box was very busy! These weekly events gave us some room to experiment with format and frequency and, importantly, to help us understand why folks liked them so much.

We used this new-found knowledge to design a virtual gala in May that turned out to be a big success. We took elements of our member listening sessions, added a silent auction and included live interviews with American composer Frank Ticheli and singers Jarrett Ott and Brandon Cedel who sang with us over the years. Our attendees really loved the authenticity and energy of the event. And that energy resulted in donations and a successful silent auction.

During the summer, we created a program called “Summer at Your Place” that offered a subscription to a series of “master classes” with guest instructors offering short lessons on vocal technique and on alternate weeks we offered listening sessions. Singers and non-singers attended and really enjoyed them. This program was a great way for folks to connect with our chorus in manner that was unique to the virtual platform. In a way, if felt like being at one of our rehearsals.

We weren’t trying to replicate an in-person experience, but rather, we created programs and events that felt “native” to the Zoom platform. We continue to offer live Zoom preview events for our digital productions this season and expect to host a virtual gala in Spring 2021. And as we have gotten more comfortable with Zoom, we now feature breakout rooms to provide attendees with another way to connect with one another. In late summer, I hosted a personal gathering for friends that featured a recital by soprano Hannah Spierman from a small church just north of New York City. It was magical!

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?

“Live” when talking about virtual events is a term of art. Early in the pandemic, the Met Opera hosted a great virtual event with some live and some pre-recorded spots. And even though there were a few technical glitches, it was great. All of the performances were wonderful and the program was well paced. My big take-away from that was a better understanding of the enormous amount of planning that is needed for a successful event. Although most of us do not have the in-house technical know-how and large pool of talent at Met Opera, we can all use what we have to create memorable virtual events. Having a guest emcee is one idea. A short film of a performance is lovely. Don’t be afraid to mix pre-recorded with live segments. And be sure you are very detailed about the “Run of Show”. Find someone to help produce the event who is not a presenter. Having someone watch the clock to be sure no-one goes over their allotted speaking time is very important.

In terms of large, interactive virtual events, Chorus America hosted a virtual convention in June that was really great with lots of guest speakers, great content and opportunities to connect with other chorus leaders from around the United States. It was a 5-day program of events every afternoon using the HeySummit website. I was really impressed how Chorus America could coordinate a virtual convention with over 1,000 attendees. And all sessions were recorded. So, if two sessions you wanted to attend were in the same time slot, you could easily go back and view the one you missed! Brilliant!

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?

Unrealistic expectations about event attendance. Competition for attendance seems more heightened in our virtual world. Simply hosting an event does not ensure folks will attend. Be sure your event matters in terms of content and program. Provide opportunities for invitees to RSVP. Send a reminder email on the day of the event. If possible, use multiple platforms to promote your event — email, Facebook, Instagram.

Technical glitches! One can never predict what will go wrong (and something may go awry). So, don’t get upset when it happens. Everyone is used to surprises in our Zoom-focused world. For example, if you are planning a sequence of presenters and one of those presenters is unable to join at her/his time slot, just switch the lineup. Of course, you should have a few other presenters “on deck” for this.

Determine if a Zoom webinar format is more appropriate for your event vs. a Zoom meeting.

Make sure all of your presenters and performers are familiar with the technology and are prepared. Even with small events of less than 25 attendees, we ALWAYS do a run through with our hosts and presenters before the event to check internet connections (if we plan to stream something), microphones and how presenters look on cameral. Although everyone seems very conversant in “Zoom staging”, it’s always helpful to check lighting, background, what everyone is wearing, and to be sure a Zoom virtual background is not too crazy or distracting. Most event attendees want to see and hear hosts, performers and presenters. Ensuring your attendees feel connected to everyone who is on the screen makes for a memorable event.

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

Like so many, we have found Zoom to be the easiest. It’s not optimal for musical performances, but it works and everyone is familiar with it.

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

This may seem obvious, but the most essential tool for virtual events is Excel!! Mapping out the sequence of your event, time segments and who is responsible for what on an Excel spreadsheet is super helpful.

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. Make sure your program is no more than 45 to 60 minutes! And be sure your event format is structured as a series of segments. A single 60-minute panel discussion may not hold attendee interest. Think about your virtual event as a series of experiences for attendees.
  2. Be sure to announce the program format and what attendees can expect at the beginning of your event.
  3. Allow for some audience/attendee participation. Sitting for 45 plus minutes just watching or listening can get boring. Make sure attendees are encouraged to react or ask questions in chat. Determine if breakout rooms will be a fun or useful way for event attendees to connect with one another
  4. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Map out a “run of show” and share it will all of the event presenters, panelists and performers. If you plan to host a Q&A, provides panelists with questions a few days ahead of event day to give everyone time to provide thoughtful and/or insightful answers to questions.
  5. Provide some kind of feature to get folks interested in attending (and stay on during the event) If you are hosting a virtual fundraising event, be sure to have a special (or surprise) guest performer. If it’s a virtual membership event, there are some great engagement alternatives. For example, RezEvents offers “trivia-nights” and bingo that are a lot of fun. Or if you want to share what your company or organization is doing, a series of short pre-recorded videos from clients or employees are great.

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?

  • Understand why you are doing your event. Is it replacing an in-person concert or gala? Or is at an opportunity for members or clients to get updates about your organization or industry?
  • Have you thought about what makes your in-person events special? how you can bring that energy to a virtual event?
  • What is your goal for the event? Raise awareness of what your organization is doing? Provide information from industry leaders and experts? Entertain folks? Provide a platform for members of your community to connect? Raise money?

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.

Think every day about how you and your organization can lift people up. As we move ahead planning our seasons and events, we are always challenged to think about how we can use our platform as a chorus to lift people up. This extends to how we select repertoire, performance partners, venues, and vendors. A chorus must reflect and serve the community in which it performs.

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.

It’s a toss-up between Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama! Both of these leaders are role models who lead with empathy. And although each has been really forthcoming with strategies for life and leadership, I am sure I would have so much more to learn from their perspectives. Being impactful, empathic and graceful is hard work. They make it look so easy!

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

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