Rachel Smith of The California Mermaid Convention: “Push Boundaries”

Push Boundaries: I have to admit, an online convention seemed far-fetched, difficult and unappealing to plan and execute. But with encouragement, inspiration, and a lot of hope, it became one of the most fulfilling things I have accomplished. The concepts were difficult for some to grasp, even our team had a hard time wrapping their […]

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Push Boundaries: I have to admit, an online convention seemed far-fetched, difficult and unappealing to plan and execute. But with encouragement, inspiration, and a lot of hope, it became one of the most fulfilling things I have accomplished. The concepts were difficult for some to grasp, even our team had a hard time wrapping their head around how exactly to showcase and celebrate our community on a virtual platform. We planned hard, took a chance, and had a jubilant, triumphant and successful convention. Our leap of faith paid off in more ways than one; those who believed in us, and gambled on trying something new, found so much joy and fun.

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 Rachel Smith.

Rachel Smith is the Head Mermaid at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, CA where she performs, trains and oversees a team of merfolk who swim in a 40ft saltwater aquarium every night. She also owns and operates her LLC Mermaid and Mom with her mother, Laurie Smith. Mermaid and Mom specializes in live mermaid events, costuming and art. Rachel also is the co-owner and organizer of the California Mermaid Convention, with her business partner, Ashley Rastad. Rachel is an illustrator, with several children’s books, and novel covers on the market, and a professional Hula and Tahitian Ori dancer.

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 grew up in a family of artists. My grandfather is a visual artist, and I went to the same art college that both he and my mother attended to get my degree in Illustration — California College of Arts and Crafts. My grandparents on both sides became interested in Polynesian dance in the 1970s, so my parents actually met through dancing hula. Coming from both a visual and performing arts background gave me a lot of real-life experience on stage, both performing in and helping to produce shows.

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

Like so many women of my generation, I grew up watching movies and TV shows that featured mermaids. The Little Mermaid Disney film, and especially the TV show (Ariel actually gets to be a mermaid the whole time) were a big influence on me. I also loved movies that had mermaid cameos like Hook. And of course Splash was the peak mermaid influence for most of us. Later on in life, I was fortunate enough to meet, and become good friends with Academy Award Winning FX Artist Robert Short, who made Madison the Mermaid’s tail in Splash! When I was in high school, I got the crazy idea that I wanted to make a mermaid costume I could swim in. My mother, who is a seamstress, was convinced I would drown, but she indulged me. Once I proved I wasn’t going to die with my legs tired together, we took the mermaid tail on several vacations, where I was able to get some photos with my point and shoot camera — which should date my story for most readers… As I was graduating college, a friend showed me an online add looking for women to become mermaids at a new bar opening in Sacramento, California. I was able to apply with a mermaid resume and tail swimming experience! The week Dive Bar opened in 2011, the original Head Mermaid was let go, and I was asked to be Head Mermaid. I’ve been extremely lucky, and learning lessons in leadership, patience and compassion ever since!

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?

Those first years of working at Dive Bar were really flying by the seat of our pants…or flukes of our tails. We had a professional mermaid and freediver, Linden Wolbert of Los Angeles, train us for two days before the bar opened. Linden still remains a great resource for us, and mermaids across the country, but in those early days we were really learning as we went. Costume issues, how to repair tails, what makeup works underwater, keeping the tank clean…. there were few establishments available to learn from. In many ways, we forged our own way in a very new industry. The funniest mistake I probably made was accidentally ‘falling’ into the tank before I was ready to be in front of our audience. That taught me to expect the unexpected, and get a really good underwater ‘poker’ face when things went sideways.

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?

As I mentioned, Splash is a huge influence. Daryl Hannah as Madison is the perfect combination of awkward, endearing, curious and engaging. Another big influence on me was a book I received as a child through the Scholastic book fair called Mermaid Stories Around the World by Mary Pope Osborne. Not only did this book feature beautiful illustrations, but opened my eyes to an entire world of mermaid possibilities. There were more mermaids in the world than those that looked like Madison, or Ariel. I still have my battered old copy and treasure it dearly.

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

I love to read and watch films, so it’s hard to choose just one! Even song lyrics can be particularly inspiring for certain situations. Right now Sam’s quote from The Two Towers really resonates with me — “That there’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.” In these past few years of so much trauma and darkness, that quote reminds me to keep that little flame of hope burning.

I could always quote Dory of Finding Nemo and say “Just Keep Swimming”….

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?

Working at Dive Bar, I helped to organize and plan in-house events, as well as events featuring our mermaids that don’t take place at our physical location. Through Mermaid and Mom I run the mermaid performer team at the Northern California Pirate Festival, Washington Renaissance Fair, and other fairs around the state. The largest event I help put on is The California Mermaid Convention, which is a three-day celebration of everything Merfolk. We have workshops, swim meet ups, a river clean up, a parade, costume contests, a ball, photo shoots, vendors and more. All in all, I’ve had over a decade of helping to plan and organize events; I started very small, and our events built organically to the large scale extravaganzas they are now. I learned so many lessons along the way, and am grateful that I have always had a strong team working alongside me to make them successful.

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

When the pandemic hit us last year, we were devastated to know that we needed to not host our physical convention for the safety of our guests and staff. Merman Jax, who is instrumental in the convention planning and promoting, suggested a virtual event. My fiance (who happens to be, among other things, a professional pirate who works under the name of Captain Angus) also encouraged me to keep the convention going virtually in 2020. It was a hard pivot to change up our programming, learn the new online platforms, and incorporate contests, live performances, lectures and panels, but we knew we wanted to offer the mermaid community something to look forward to in a year of so much loss. It turned out to be a wonderful, three-day event that connected mermaids across the globe. Because of our virtual platform, community members that may not have been able to attend a physical event were able to participate and attend.

I also organized and helped to produce a virtual hula show for my hula halau (dance company) Na Mamo No’eau, which is run by my kumu (teacher) and father, Richard Smith. We worked together to bring our audience a combination of pre-recorded and live dancing content. 2020 was full of technical surprises and roadblocks, but organizing these events kept me together during a time that my industries (performing arts, nightlife, private parties and events) had all dried up.

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?

When planning the digital convention, I participated in a few online activities to get a feel for what would work and what wouldn’t. I enjoyed the content put out by Dapper Day, who did ‘Dapper Day at Home’ this year. But I wanted a bit more interactive content for our guests. And I enjoyed the Dickens Christmas Faire, and the content they shared through prerecorded video, and at home cooking and craft projects. The variety that both of these events had was encouraging; and I enjoyed seeing how they used their websites, or Zoom or social media platforms to host their event.

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?

Choppy video and bad sound is just an ongoing issue for some of these events. We had our share of unforeseen technical issues at our event; but found that if our guests were pre-warned that there was a possibility of problems, they were more amenable and understanding. It is also helpful to remind folks a week, and then the day before their event so they remember to attend! Email communication is important.

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

Zoom became a default for us as the most easily accessible platform, and the platform our guests were most familiar and comfortable with, though it of course has its challenges and limitations. We also have had great success with our Youtube Channel, where we have held premieres of our video content, and Instagram and Facebook live videos. Our website was a great place to host contests, and content that would need to stick around for an extended period of time, like our online Vendor Hall, or Sand Castle Contest.

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

I am lucky that I have a background in Illustration, and am able to design our flyers, and website in house. I think good design is a must for events, especially online events that need an extra push to catch everyone’s attention. Have great infographics, flyers and photos! Pay artists to make them for you! Learn and play with, and test any software and platforms you are going to be running during your live event beforehand — dress and tech rehearsals for online events are a must!

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. Build and Train an Informed, Helpful Volunteer Team: When it became time to host our online event we knew we couldn’t handle every meeting alone. Our volunteer team of moderators was integral in making sure the tech ran as it should, helped to support our speakers and presenters, and were another resource for questions from our guests. Having our moderators assigned and scheduled, with a clear list of duties made every meeting run more smoothly. Our volunteers went above and beyond, even setting up tech rehearsals with speakers on their own time. Make sure your volunteer team is appreciated, knows how to answer any questions guests may have, and is compensated for their time in the form of tickets, merch or other incentive. Volunteers are invaluable!

2. Have a Sleek and Easily Navigated Website: While social media is invaluable, making sure you have a website that looks professional, is full of information, and easy to navigate is so important. A website should be the main hub of information for your guests, and social media the branches to communicate and promote that info. Relying solely on a Facebook page becoming confusing, and difficult to track for an audience. And a website can be beautifully designed, and feature art and photos that make your virtual event feel alive and vibrant. Make sure as you update your site and post new info, you have others proofread your info and give feedback on what makes sense and what doesn’t. A few eyes on the page is never a bad thing… I have accidentally made some embarrassing errors on our website in the past; luckily my proofreaders have been able to catch them before we went live.

3. Use a Variety of Platforms to Host your Activities: The convention runs content on our website, through Facebook and Instagram Lives, on Youtube and through Zoom. We wanted to make sure we had something for everyone — ‘live’ interactive events, contests, and content you could do or watch on your own schedule. While our Zoom meetings were set for a certain time and date, we also had activities like our virtual River Clean Up; our guests were encouraged to clean up waterways or parks near their own neighborhood, then post a photo of them cleaning on social media, and use our hashtag to enter a contest for fun mermaid prizes. Because everyone could do this activity in their own space, during a time that worked for them, we had a large turnout! Our Youtube content is also available year-round for merfolk to enjoy. Because of the large selection of activities and events, and different ways to participate, we had over 800 participants at our virtual event!

4. Make Interaction a Large Component of the Virtual Event: Because your event is held online, it is very tricky to incorporate a human element, and life into your events. We found that giving our guests a chance to interact not only with our speakers, panelists and presenters, but with each other, kept up the energy and excitement. Nearly every one of our events had an element of interaction, whether that was asking panelists questions, children’s performers encouraging kids to get up and move their bodies, leaving live comments on a video premiere, or building a sand castle across the country. One of the most successful interactive activities we hosted was our Bubble Ball; a digital event where guests were encouraged to dress up in their merfolk best, complete with sing-alongs, raffles, live performances, and dancing. Though each guest was at home, our participants had time to chat and interact, show off their costumes and connect to some much needed community. I think we were all surprised at what a blast we had.

5. Push Boundaries: I have to admit, an online convention seemed far-fetched, difficult and unappealing to plan and execute. But with encouragement, inspiration, and a lot of hope, it became one of the most fulfilling things I have accomplished. The concepts were difficult for some to grasp, even our team had a hard time wrapping their head around how exactly to showcase and celebrate our community on a virtual platform. We planned hard, took a chance, and had a jubilant, triumphant and successful convention. Our leap of faith paid off in more ways than one; those who believed in us, and gambled on trying something new, found so much joy and fun.

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?

I would research similar events and see what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. When we were building our in-person convention, we attended many other conventions to get a feel for work flow, venue space, volunteer training, panel content and more. We also spoke to others in our industry that had worked at, or helped to organize similar conventions across the state, or around the world. There are so many resources out there, sometimes all one has to do is ask! Also it’s important to think of what unique quality or content you are going to be sharing with your event. How is it different from what people have done before? What is the exciting ‘hook’ that will make your guests excited to attend?

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.

There are two movements that are worked into the very bones of The California Mermaid Convention. That of inclusion, and that of environmental conservation. We always want our event to be a safe place of welcome for everyone. We want our guests to be seen, heard and feel as though they are part of a community that understands, loves and values them. Every year, we host a Representation Panel, to showcase minority voices in our community; their particular experiences, struggles and triumphs. We also host a River Clean Up to promote the idea that mermaids are stewards of our waterways and oceans. There is a sad trend to armchair activism in the mermaid community, but we are proud to take direct action and make a difference in our local Sacramento rivers. We also collect and donate to several local charities like The Sisters of Nia, Black Womxn United and the American River Parkway Foundation.

If making a change in the world includes grabbing attention by putting on a mermaid tail, or teaching children to care for the environment through play, or letting minorities know that they are valued and heard even in this small mermaid community, we have done our job right. This fantasy world of mermaids should, and can, have a huge influence on our ‘real world’ experiences and actions.

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.

My first instinct would be to say Esther Williams — water ballet pioneer and movie star. I would love to hear the stories first-hand of someone who was a groundbreaking influence in my industry. And talk ‘shop’ with her. Because Ms. Williams is sadly no longer with us, I would dearly love to chat with any of the women who worked as mermaids at Weeki Wachee in Florida, during their golden era of the 50s and 60s. And of course, I could never say no to Cher or Dolly Parton. They are LEGENDS. Funny, smart, talented and each have a long and successful career that I admire so very much.

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

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