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Trevor Dunlap of Nuhop: “Think of the Live Virtual Event as a Live In-Person Event”

Think of the Live Virtual Event as a Live In-Person Event. The fundamentals are the same. The structure of planning either a live virtual event or an in-person event is very similar. Creating a space where people are willing to engage and connect is relevant in both spheres. One way to achieve this is to […]

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Think of the Live Virtual Event as a Live In-Person Event. The fundamentals are the same. The structure of planning either a live virtual event or an in-person event is very similar. Creating a space where people are willing to engage and connect is relevant in both spheres. One way to achieve this is to provide a space where people can access information at any given time. We have found that creating event-specific websites act as the virtual venue is an effective way to provide a similar environment. Using Google Sites is a simple and easy way to create a website quickly.


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 Trevor Dunlap.

Trevor Dunlap, CEO of Nuhop is passionate about experiential learning and loves fostering creative environments where people can succeed through self-discovery and teamwork. His high energy creates a contagious atmosphere of transforming fun where people can develop a new appreciation of themselves and their peers. Trevor is a facilitator, innovator, creator, and author. His new book to be available in March is called “Team Building from the Toy Aisle”. This book was authored with Matthew Broda Ph.D. and Michelle Cummings. You can learn more about Nuhop at www.nuhop.org.


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 raised in the small community of Ashland, Ohio. Ashland was one of those towns where everyone knew everyone. My parents were both educators in our city school district. My mother was a special education teacher at the primary level and my father a guidance counselor at the high school. My parents were pillars of the community and gave much of their time and effort to others in need. They also were progressive for their time when they started Camp Nuhop, a residential summer camp program for kids with special needs. Founded in 1974, this was right around the time that Public Law 94–142 (IDEA) came into play. In fact, Camp Nuhop was one of the first specialty camps of its kind in the U.S. Through their example, I learned about hard work, service to others, and what it means to be a change agent in the community. I truly was blessed to have had parents that were leaders and positive role models.

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

I earned degrees in special and elementary education from Wittenberg University and my first job out of college was teaching middle school in Colorado Springs, CO. After a few years out West, I moved back to Ohio and taught for an additional three years. While teaching, I started an experiential education consulting firm and helped my parents at the camp in the summers. Like my parents, I had many irons in the fire. As the consulting firm grew, I was also teaching. During the same period, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and that started a conversation about the future of Camp Nuhop. At a certain point, is was prudent for me to transition away from classroom teaching and meld my interests in experiential learning with the existing Camp Nuhop program. When my father died in 2008 I took over the reins of Nuhop and have been focused on growing, adapting, and creating new service streams for the organization 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?

I recall that while working with my Dad during the five years before he died that he would ask me if I was ready to take over the organization. Naively, I thought I was! I was young, overconfident, and thought I knew more than I did. What I learned was that I should listen more and that sometimes the best lessons are learned by doing. I had no choice but to get my hands dirty and realize that mistakes are what make you a better person and leader. It is when you take the time to reflect and learn from these things that you grow and improve.

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?

Years ago, I was introduced to the podcast “On Being,” by Krista Tippett, which covers a range of topics in the human experience from sociology and spirituality to community. During a recent episode, John Paul Lederach encouraged listeners to “remember that the person in front of you is a human first, and an opinion, second.” This got me thinking about the social and cultural issues we have been grappling with as a country recently and made me wonder: “Imagine if we all lead with the interest of understanding and humanity first, what kind of social change would ensue?” That’s the work we strive to do at the Nuhop Center.

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

“Choose life — only that and always, and at whatever risk. To let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to withhold giving it and spreading it is to choose nothing.” — Helen Kelley

In my early twenties, I was given the “Book of Readings” published by The North Carolina Outward Bound School. It is one of my cherished possessions. This quote was in this book and I have found it so relevant in my life. I have always approached life with exuberance. I strive to make the most of every day and every opportunity to connect, create, and serve others through my work and personal life. This quote is a great reminder of this gift we have, the gift of life!

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?

In my work, I am a facilitator, trainer, and consultant. Over the years, I have conducted countless workshops, trainings, and events for professionals, students, and other audiences numbering 5 to 1,500 participants. Like most of us in the experiential learning industry, the lion’s share of these programs has been live and in person. Of course, the pandemic has changed all of this, and my team and I adapted early on and created ways to engage others through virtual experiences.

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

Typical experiential learning events engage others through doing. For example: solving a puzzle, completing a physical challenge, or building something in three dimensions. This is obviously a lot easier in person than it is through a screen so the creation process to translate this physical experience to a virtual world was a challenge. We started with the basics of good learning pedagogy, starting with the hook necessary to engage the participant from the moment they clicked into the web portal.

One of my favorite experiences was creating a virtual onboarding session for a university client’s School of Rehabilitation and Health Services. With the client, we created a virtual escape room experience based on a patient’s medical chart, complete with a web portal, participant video feed, escape room components. This was a synchronous program for up to 600 students with live facilitation and interaction, while fully remote. Things got really interesting when Zoom went down. Try to overcome that one . . . well we did!

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?

Colleagues and I recently conducted a very successful 4-hour virtual session for the AEE (Association of Experiential Education) International Conference. A key to the success was the AEE spent time before the conference preparing presenters, volunteers, and attendees to use the technology. Given the advanced training, the session leaders were able to get right into the thick of things and interact collaboratively right from the start. I was impressed that they understood that spending time on the front end led to better participant engagement and learning. In order to replicate this, organizers should use a platform that is native to the end-users and provide training to session leaders in advance. In this case, the conference used a third-party system called Pheedloop.

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?

I have seen people open up the digital space and let people sit and look at each other with no real purpose. Often times, facilitators try to run the show themselves. A team is necessary to run an effective program. A team can help fill dead space and awkwardness. I have also seen event leaders become overwhelmed by the sheer number of virtual participants in one space. As a facilitator of live virtual events, it is necessary to be a moderator and you must have the confidence to run the show. To avoid these errors, I suggest three things:

  1. Always be Engaging. I highly suggest finding ways to engage participants from the moment they log in. Instead of having participants look at a PowerPoint slide show or a sea of faces in tiles, provide ways for participants to interact. Start with a survey with real-time results. If you create the right questions, you can take the temperature of the participants in the virtual room. Presenters who can quickly determine their audience’s frame of mind can make adjustments to their virtual event to lead to a more successful program. It’s just important that presenters have audience-dependent plans A and B.
  2. Practice makes Better. Always practice prior to hosting an event. Understand the technology that you are using. Gather some friends or colleagues together and run through your show flow and host the program live. In this process, you will find your blind spots and the clunky parts will show their weary head. Record it, watch it, and then make the adjustments you need to execute a live virtual event that people will be talking about for months to come.
  3. Roles, Responsibilities, and Accountabilities. I have found that it takes a village to run an excellent digital live experience. Our attention can only be halved so many times before things start to fall apart. Successful virtual events have speakers, facilitators, technology leads, back-stage managers, and organizers. These roles can be aligned with individual strengths and skills. The best part is even backstage roles can see participants’ positive responses in real-time.

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

Personally, I like Zoom. With all of their updates through the pandemic, the platform’s usability has really improved. Whenever hosting a live virtual event, I prefer the meeting format over the webinar. Zoom webinars are less interactive, whereas Zoom Meetings allow for breakout space and personal connectivity. The downside of Zoom meetings is participant management, which is another reason why it’s important that virtual events use a real team.

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

Google is great because it is free and provides many opportunities for synchronous engagement. I have found that the use of Google Slides is really effective particularly when paired with Zoom breakout rooms. I have also found Jamboard within Google as an effective tool to be used for a whiteboarding function.

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. Think of the Live Virtual Event as a Live In-Person Event. The fundamentals are the same.

The structure of planning either a live virtual event or an in-person event is very similar. Creating a space where people are willing to engage and connect is relevant in both spheres. One way to achieve this is to provide a space where people can access information at any given time. We have found that creating event-specific websites act as the virtual venue is an effective way to provide a similar environment. Using Google Sites is a simple and easy way to create a website quickly.

2. Get to Know the Technology you are using, and practice using it.

Early on in the pandemic, I decided to use Google Meets as I was presenting to an education group. I thought it would be similar to Zoom so I just went for it without practice. Boy did I fall on my face! I would have been so much more effective had I practiced first. Technology platforms are not all the same. Additionally, it is important that all attendees have the most updated version of the platform they are using. It is suggested that you request all participants to update prior to attending your event. This reminder can be done through pre-event communication.

3. Give Permission

I consider the act of giving permission to be a critical rule of engagement. In the in-person realm, we always start with sharing norms or expectations for how we are going to interact and engage with one another. This is no different in the digital sphere. So often in these spaces — even 10 months into the pandemic — we still don’t have universal rules for these types of sessions. We need to share with participants what is appropriate. Be specific and clear. For example, tell them what to expect and that it is okay to go turn off your screen to fetch a cup of Joe or to use the bathroom. We can create norms that make this space comfortable and give people permission to do what they would do in traditional sessions.

4. Go Big and Engage People Immediately.

I cannot stress this enough. It is so key to engage participants as soon as possible. In June I was doing a presentation for an environmental education group. To engage them, as they entered the screen, I had created a leaf themed sudoku gameboard that they were to complete before we started the session. Believe it or not, the participants not only completed the board but created a new iteration of the game by naming the genus and species of the plants I had selected. I did not intend for the second part to happen, but it is amazing what people will do given the opportunity to engage with each other.

5. Create a Change of Pace and Place

Successful events provide a change of both pace and place. This means that facilitators can modulate the tempo of the event, allow for movement, and create opportunities for participants to engage in different ways. Virtual events should account for changes in pace and place, too. Zoom fatigue is real — virtual programs should give people the opportunity to listen to presentations, engage in breakout rooms, participate in icebreakers, and move around in the virtual environment or in their work-space. For example, one of my favorite kinesthetic sessions is ask participants to draw a picture of the person below them on the screen. The challenge is that we also ask participants to not look at their paper while creating their portrait sketch. When the time is up, people share their drawings and laughter ensues. This simple activity can be modified in many ways according to group size or participant familiarity.

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?

First, articulate the goals and desired outcomes for the event. With the end goal in mind, I would ask organizers to think backward. What do they need to do to get there? Make a list and identify their needs and develop a plan to achieve the desired results. Other first steps include:

  • Determine the technology platform you want to use.
  • Think about engagement. How can you hook your participants to be vested in the process?
  • Involve others in the planning process, determine who will be on your team and what roles they will play to help execute an effective live virtual event.

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.

As I mentioned earlier, I learned a lot from my Father. He was a giver of his time and resources. He was also a planner. At his funeral, he had pre-written a letter to all of those who attended, and each letter contained a “Life is Good” sticker. He asked that people place this sticker in a place to remind them of what is good in the world and to practice random acts of kindness with others in order to share the goodness. I think about his message all the time and still, have my sticker posted where I see it every day. This question has sparked an idea . . . what if every person who reads this article followed my dad’s request: practice a random act of kindness today, and encourage another person in their orbit to do the same. What good could happen if kindness could be a catalyst for more kindness? It is a simple idea, but I think it could work. Anyone game?

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.

Bill McKibben. He is the founder of 350.org and a leader, author, and environmentalist. Mr. McKibben stands by his convictions and has spent his life and career focused on Climate Justice. I believe this is the most pressing issue of our time and we need more people like Mr. McKibben to help us think forward and affect positive change today!

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

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