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Samantha Wilcox of Northcentral University: “Build a team”

Build a team. Having a team that is ready to take on the work of a live virtual event will make or break your outcome. Communications, marketing, engagement, production, and execution are just a few areas where support is necessary. Build your team to own and execute each area as you bring the event together. […]

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Build a team. Having a team that is ready to take on the work of a live virtual event will make or break your outcome. Communications, marketing, engagement, production, and execution are just a few areas where support is necessary. Build your team to own and execute each area as you bring the event together.


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 Samantha Wilcox

Samantha has worked in the higher education space for over a decade. From Business Development to Marketing, she has a wide range of industry knowledge. Samantha is currently the Director of Community Relations and Events and works within the Office of Communications and Advancement at Northcentral University. In her role, she oversees University-wide events, community relations, and works hand-in-hand with other stakeholders in the areas of advancement and communications. Samantha has a passion for community and bringing people together, both virtually and in person.


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”?

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you! I am a Midwest girl at heart. Born and raised in Wisconsin, I moved to Arizona when I was in Elementary school. Transitioning to a new state with no family or friends at the age of ten can be difficult. I think that is when my love for events began, in a roundabout way. I had to create a new community through building relationships and events, mostly in the form of “playdates” way back when. I remember helping my dad set up for business meetings and having a deep love for bringing people together, no matter the occasion.

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

Absolutely. I knew early on Marketing and Hospitality was an area I loved. I spent my years in High School taking every Marketing, Tourism, and Business class offered. I led clubs, special events, and began new programs for other students to jump in and serve our community. After Bible College, I began my career in Higher Education assisting working professionals to pursue continuing education. An opportunity for a role in Business Development eventually led me to the Marketing team at Northcentral University. During that time, I was given responsibility for our University Commencement and settled into my unnamed role of our University event expert. As we shifted to a nonprofit, we built a University Communications and Advancement team within the Office of the President and I assumed the official title of Director of Community Relations and Events.

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?

Years ago, we held our annual commencement ceremony in Downtown Phoenix. As we were wrapping up a day of events, I noticed something unexpected happening between floors. What I didn’t realize until that very moment was the Phoenix Comicon event was holding some of their events in the very same hotel. We had students in their doctoral regalia riding the escalator with those dressed in their best Comicon costume! On the third floor was a reception for recent graduates and on the second a ballroom dedicated to the Comicon’s very own speed dating event. It made for the absolute best memory! We learned very quickly to double check what other events book space during our event.

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 am a self-proclaimed knowledge junkie. Books and podcasts rotate through my library frequently. One author that comes to mind is Jon Acuff. He wrote a book named Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, it quickly became one of my favorites. I think those in the event industry tend to really love “perfect.” Acuff says, “If you want to finish, you’ve got to do all that you can to get rid of your perfectionism right out of the gate.” I’ve learned things don’t always go as planned and that is okay, sometimes they turn out even better. During nearly every event I have experienced some sort of snag, almost completely unknown to the attendees. I’ve allowed myself the grace to not be perfect while doing this job and I am a better leader and colleague because of it.

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

When I was around 18 a mentor of mine told me, “Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” I recite that quote more often than I ever expected. Especially while running events, flexibility and the ability to pivot is vital. I build this mindset into every event I plan.

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?

Absolutely. As I mentioned, I began planning small scale events in High School but really started diving into the field in Bible College. I spent 3 years on a team that put together an annual conference for around 6,000 attendees. We managed the programming, transportation, breakout sessions, and even some merchandising. Each year, I found myself completely energized by the sleepless nights and constant flow of people. We hosted smaller events throughout the year and even traveled to speak around the country. Over the years, I’ve helped lead women’s events, community outreaches, and youth gatherings for our local young people. At Northcentral, I’ve overseen our Annual Commencement Ceremony for the past five years along with ancillary events throughout the year. I work with our Edu-Tourism team, Alumni Association, Academic Partnership team, and other University departments as they plan and host virtual and in-person events as well.

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

Northcentral University is a nonprofit, graduate-focused, online institution. We were built for the virtual environment. 2020 brought many new experiences for us all, for NCU that included our very first virtual commencement. Our students work for years to complete their degrees and to completely cancel commencement due to gathering restrictions didn’t seem like the right answer. Due to our online nature, commencement is the one time our students are able to see their peers and Northcentral faculty and staff in person. We are passionate about our NCU community and wanted to do everything possible to bring some joy into an otherwise hard season. So, we pivoted. With six weeks to commencement, we worked fast, learned a lot, and produced a beautiful event. We used both live and pre-produced elements, sent surprises to our graduate’s homes, and even got their friends and family involved. There were happy tears, not only from our students but from our faculty and staff too.

Last year we also launched The Center for the Advancement of Virtual Organizations (CAVO). CAVO hosted our first virtual conference focused on the Considerations for Virtual Work and we just announced our 2021 event. Our organization has hosted and continues to host, frequent webinars for our students, alumni, faculty, and staff as well.

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?

There are quite a few really great live event examples out there today. One I really enjoyed is Cvent. As a past attendee of their live event, I had an expectation of sorts going into their virtual offering. They made great use of technology in order to keep attendees engaged throughout the virtual event and kept the entertainment element to keep the fun. I think we need to push ourselves to think outside the box and take some risks. Let’s be the first to do something.

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?

This is a great question. I think it’s a lot like early on in 2020 institutions had to quickly take on virtual learning out of necessity. Some organizations have just taken their in-person content and thrown it on a virtual platform. I’ve seen what could be incredible talks fall flat because engagement was missing. Channels for live communication, entertaining surprises, elements of the unexpected — all ways we can flip the script in the world of virtual events.

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

We’ve used a variety of platforms to engage virtually with our attendees. Zoom webinar has some great tools as well as the Vimeo platform, on which we produced our annual commencement. I’m looking forward to dabbling in the new Cvent offerings in the coming months as well.

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

I’ve found it really helpful to have production support. We leaned heavily on our production team to pre-record really fun elements and produce the live-streamed portions. This is not necessary for all events but it worked well for us. I’d tell planners to find a platform that fits their needs. Dig in and get comfortable with it!

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 a team. | Having a team that is ready to take on the work of a live virtual event will make or break your outcome. Communications, marketing, engagement, production, and execution are just a few areas where support is necessary. Build your team to own and execute each area as you bring the event together.

2. Make a plan and then add in extra time. | We had about six weeks to plan and execute our live virtual commencement last year. Although unavoidable during that time, I would plan for at least six months if possible. Due to issues in the printing industry, a portion of our graduate gifts was delayed by weeks. A heartbreaking detail for our team and those graduates who had to wait a bit longer for their surprise.

3. Create points of engagement. | We’ve mentioned this quite a few times because of its importance. One thing we did during our event was encouraged our faculty and staff to be active in the live stream comment section. Graduates heard directly from their professors, who they care for deeply. The conversation that happened was nothing short of extraordinary. We had family, friends, and faculty of our students send in videos of congratulations prior to the event and made a video of heartfelt shout outs. When launching this project, we expected to have a 5-minute video upon completion, we were blown away when the final project was nearly two and half hours. Que the tears.

4. Have fun. | Enjoy the experience. Challenge yourself and your team to do something amazing. Be flexible and be ready to adjust and adapt as you walk through the process.

5. Learn from feedback. | Feedback makes us better — ask for it. Survey your attendees immediately following your event. Hold debriefs with your team and ask them to share their pain points and the things that really worked. When you do this, take really good notes. Our organization makes many decisions based on what the data tells us. It can help your future events more than you will ever know.

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 love this question. First, I would say map it out. We are big fans of post-its and whiteboards, but you do what works best. Dream big. Put down all your best ideas and go from there. After I have spent some time daydreaming I start to operationalize. Build your team, your budget, your timeline, and get to work.

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 would encourage us all to be of service. Whatever industry you are in or event you are planning you are serving a population of attendees. Events, in their very nature, serve a purpose to inform, entertain, sell, or connect. If we take the position of truly serving others in our daily work, and the world for that matter, imagine what kind of a place we could create.

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.

This may be your toughest question yet! I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Dave and Rachel Hollis. I am a big fan of beginnings and watching people’s dreams become reality. I’ve seen that as I’ve followed along with the Hollis story for years. They both, in their own right, have done incredible things in the corporate world, marketing, events, and so many other areas.

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

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