You need an event planner who fully understands virtual events. Just because someone has hosted a Zoom meeting before or other video conference with multiple people in attendance does not mean they are prepared to create a virtual event. There is a lot more behind-the-scenes knowledge and creativity that’s required to both get people to log onto the event AND keep them there when there is so much at home to distract them elsewhere. Event planners, we know how to do this. We know how to create EXPERIENCES, not just events.
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 Valerie Bihet.
Valerie Bihet has more than 20 years of experience in the management, design and production of special events that communicate and achieve her client’s objectives. In 2004 Bihet founded VIBE, an event design and destination management company, in Miami. Since then, she has grown the company to nine employees, more than $7 million in revenue in 2019 and produced more than 1,100 events throughout the United States, Europe, Mexico, East Asia and South America.
Valerie travels the US and internationally planning company trainings, incentive trips, launch parties, sales conferences, and other corporate events. Her clients include Hermes, Dior, Estee Lauder, BlackBerry and more. She and VIBE have received various recognitions by industry publications including being named one of the 2020 Must-Know Event Pros in the U.S. by BizBash, 2018 Planner of the Year by SmartMeetings magazine, Top 50 Special Events Company by Special Events magazine, and 2007 Event Planner of the Year by BizBash, among others.
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 really good childhood in Paris. My mother was a doctor and my father worked for a pharmaceutical company. Because of the nature of my mother’s work, she was always at the hospital taking care of other people, which meant she wasn’t around as much. I definitely think I get my work ethic from her, both for the positive and negative effects it can have. (I am constantly trying to get better at having a work-life balance.)
I also have two younger brothers, both who still live in France.
Another thing that really helped shape me into who I am now was my time as a Girl Scout. I really loved it because I got to travel and learn how to do things on my own. It provided the opportunity to meet people all the time, which I really love.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
When I was at university in France, I started pursuing a financial degree. Time came for me to do an internship and I got one in New York with a mergers and acquisitions firm. The owner and his wife took me to parties and events at night because they knew how much I loved meeting people.
At the end of my internship, he sat me down and said, “Valerie, you are doing your job here, but I don’t think you are doing it with passion. You are like a sunflower. When you are here, you have your head down and you do your job, then you get to an event and you open up and shine. You are much more a communication and marketing person than a financial one.”
So I took his advice. I switched my studies to marketing and communications and then eventually started a staffing agency for the event industry when I was just 22. This eventually led me to work at Disney in PR & Events, then Club Med France, then Club Med U.S. and eventually to start VIBE.
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?
(Last interview mentioned the Vizcaya event where it rained AFTER the event — all luck)
Not quite a mistake but definitely a funny timing kind of story. When I started my staffing agency, the investing partner I had kept telling me, “You know sometimes things happen in life at a certain level: company president to company president, VP to VP… you are too young to go after some things.” (This is when I was 22 or so.)
One day I went to a big event and at the press conference, I decided to meet a lot of people. Because this guy was trying to get me to put my head down, I decided to bring him a business card of a CEO, and it would be the CEO of Disney at the time. I walked right up to introduce myself as a fellow partner on the event (I did staffing, he was host) and I told him, “I think you’ll need me and you don’t know it yet.” Then I walked away.
I worked at the event (with my staff) and he saw me. He came back to me before leaving and asked for my business card. I gave it to him and he mentioned my name to someone on his team. They ended up hiring me full time. Sometimes if you surprise people you can have a good outcome.
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 a girl, I loved The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry. There is something mysterious about the little prince who looks at the world through the eyes of a child but articulates his observations like a wise man. Chapter by chapter, the prince touches on friendship, love, technological progress, consumption and the decay of modern society. All elements of which are still relevant today
The movie “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith was so inspiring for me. She looked chichi and very feminine but she was very good at her work. She really embodied the principle that if you want something to happen you have to be determined to go for it.
In regard to books, I am currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and it is a really interesting study in human behavior. It’s all about the fact that people are systematically irrational sometimes in our behavior and the way we make decisions. He explains the hidden forces that drive how we make decisions and point out that it’s far less rational than we think, but at the same time can help us to stay on top of finances and interact better with each other.
The more we know about people the better we can interact with them in life and that’s true for how we do business and how we are socially with people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Sooner or later, those who win are those who think they can.” — Paul Tournier
This really has resonated with me because I think that if you have the mindset to fight for what you want and work hard with a little bit of luck added in, you can succeed. That is a message I try to model for my team everyday.
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?
As I touched on earlier, Disney hired me for my first event-related job. For them, I worked at Disneyland Paris for five years where I led the teams putting on some of the park’s biggest events, including Disney’s 5th Anniversary Celebration in 1998. I left Disney for Club Med Paris where I continued working on large events for them like Club the 50th Anniversary Celebration and the world-renowned Tour de France.
That eventually led to the opportunity to move to the Miami office in 2000 and I jumped at it! As the Communication, Public Relation and Partnership Director, I produced events and managed large production teams for the brand’s high profile events as well as being responsible for all marketing and press events.
Then in 2004, I branched out on my own launching VIBE Agency, which pre-pandemic, grew to more than $7 million in revenue exclusively through designing, producing and executing conferences, exhibits, sales retreats, and MICE events for international luxury brands with offices in the U.S.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Sure. Most of our virtual events have been the same events we would normally produce, just in a virtual format rather than in-person. For example, Hermes has an annual meeting for their Latin American distributors to tell them about the new products coming up, the marketing and sales strategy for the next year and a full recap of where the company stands across departments. Porsche and L’Occitane also did this same thing this year with us. We’ve also done a lot of virtual team building events with teams at Estee Lauder and L’Oreal, two other regular clients of ours.
The part I really love is the emotion we get to see. We started doing YouTube videos of the events so others could see just how we’re able to get people emotionally engaged with the content being shared. Whether it is the message from the president, a presentation from the sales department or a game we’ve incorporated, we want them paying attention and really feeling a connection to the brand they are working for. It’s been really moving to be a part of. great.
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?
One of the biggest things I have seen is people setting up a webinar with hosts and calling it a virtual event. A webinar and a virtual event are not the same things. Virtual events require engagement so even if the panelists are engaging with each other, if they are not engaging with the audience, you have a webinar, not a virtual event.
Virtual events require a live chat feature, a call to action on the screen, speaking TO the audience (not just in front of them) and multiple opportunities for engagement, engagement, engagement — with others attending and the brand itself.
The biggest way to fix this is to think about your virtual event like you are producing a broadcast TV show and remember the audience in all aspects of design & execution. There are people on the other side of the camera or screen who are looking for ways to engage with each other AND with the hosts/panelist/entertainment. And that’s another point, you cannot forget the entertainment. If you want people to stick around the whole time and have a positive feeling after they leave, you need to have them entertained, not just staring at a screen and listening.
Engage all the senses.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We did demos with SpotMe, Evently and all the big names who are promoting themselves as virtual platforms and then I realized I wanted to be more custom in my approach. Each demo showed something I didn’t like in the design so I worked with a developer to create a platform that I really like. The API allows me to then integrate it where I need to and this way my clients have a more custom experience than the other platforms have provided from my research.
From the ones out there though, I personally like AllSeated for a virtual expo or conference, and Bizzabo or Vimeo Live for broadcasting. These are all good options we’ve worked with as well when clients request a specific branded platform. We’ve found some of the larger ones need to get their legal departments to approve all the software they use for security and information sharing purposes so we’ve worked within those parameters when needed and still been able to execute a great event.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Broadcasting software, event ticket & management, and fundraising platforms (if that is part of why the event is being held) are at the top of the list. Then you need to look at stream services and the bandwidth for all of the entertainment and back-end AV setup that you are using so the user has a seamless experience without interruptions or wifi connectivity issues by the hosts and/or presenters.
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.)
- Zoom is not the platform for virtual events. It’s great for webinars, but a true event needs more than that offers and that is where it leads me into step 2 of what you need.
- You need an event planner who fully understands virtual events. Just because someone has hosted a Zoom meeting before or other video conferences with multiple people in attendance does not mean they are prepared to create a virtual event. There is a lot more behind-the-scenes knowledge and creativity that’s required to both get people to log onto the event AND keep them there when there is so much at home to distract them elsewhere. Event planners, we know how to do this. We know how to create EXPERIENCES, not just events.
- The amount of time it takes to plan a virtual event is the SAME it takes to plan a live in-person event. You need to approach both of them from the same perspective if you want a true experience, not just a webinar.
- The time is not the only investment that’s the same. Financially it is nearly the same too. You are just moving funds from the venue costs (of in-person) to the A/V line item and from catering to the engagement boxes you send to attendees pre-event. The same amount of money, just a different avenue it’s being used on.
- You have to tell a story the same way a TV show does. It’s not just people looking at the screen. You need to get them engaged over all the other distractions they have in their house. Keeping them focused is key and that requires a storyline with breaks and entertainment.
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?
Call VIBE! Haha Seriously though, they need to think about the same things they would normally do for an in-person event:
- A clear purpose & objective
- Who is the target audience?
- What do they like? (i.e. What will keep them engaged with the event?)
- How will you determine a successful event? What are we measuring?
Start interviewing partners who understand VIRTUAL and in-person experiences. Not just the logistics of events, but really understanding how to tap into the five senses.
For example, I hosted a couple of virtual events early in the pandemic to show my clients how it’s done and that we were prepared to make the change from live to virtual. We had one installment in French for our clients based in France and another in the U.S. For each, we sent a goody box to the registrants with items they would use at various points during the event. The elements tapped in each sense:
- Smell: a candle we all lit at the same time creating a community experience even though we were in separate locations
- Taste: fun champagne gummy bears for a post-event “toast” of sorts
- Touch: a folding papercraft that turned into a booklet we used during one of the sessions
- See: we provided emoji signs on Popsicle sticks so people could hold them up at different points in the event to show their feelings & reactions to others on the event. (We asked them to turn on cameras for the platform to really connect with each other and with our speakers.) It created a real sense of community and a shared experience despite physical limitations.
And for “hear” we had a DJ performing live from New York at the beginning as people joined and had some musical breaks built in for fun and stretching opportunities.
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.
Anything around diversity & inclusion. It’s so important to me as a woman, an immigrant to both feel included and welcome as someone who knows what she is talking about and has something to offer others. Women need a seat at the table. As a mom, I want my girls (ages 11 and 8) to feel included here and see a good example that you can have what you want in life if you work hard.
Sadly it’s not just all hard work though and having the opportunity to work is what really matters too. I realize not everyone has that and we still have battles to overcome in that way. I want that to be easier for my daughters.
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.
Easy: Richard Branson or Meg Whitman (President of ebay). I find them both very inspiring in the way they do business and how they give back to society and their communities. It would be so wonderful to meet them and discuss business with either — or both!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.