It’s been a while since the industry made a tectonic shift to virtual events, and so far, we have covered the topic from nearly every angle imaginable. From choosing the right platform to delivering the best virtual content, we always first need to think about what kind of an experience we are providing for our virtual attendees. And who better to talk about experiential virtual events than today’s event icon, AJ Williams from AJ Events who has been in the industry for over 25 years!
Join Sarah and our lovely guest in a delightful conversation about elevating virtual and hybrid events to the next level. They focus on three types of events: fundraising events, weddings, and corporate events. Spoiler alert: the episode includes awesome party in a box ideas and a shoutout to the roaring twenties!
Pivoting To Experiential Virtual Events
First, AJ talks about how they handled the dreaded year of the pandemic, 2020. “At the beginning of the year, it looked like a really promising year. Then, March was such a scary moment for everyone in the hospitality industry, so we pivoted to the virtual event realm. We watched a lot of virtual events, especially for our non-profits. We championed for them, wanting to make sure that we were still fundraising for them and keeping them relevant and engaged with sponsors and donors.” Knowing what it takes to raise a lot of money for non-profit, AJ decided to take her virtual events to a different level. “Last year, I assumed a different event planner role, which was a TV producer role. It was kind of crazy, but we were one of the few event planners across the country that actually produced a live auction in real time live,” she says.
Virtual audience engagement is key for every virtual and hybrid event, and it’s even more decisive when it comes to fundraising. “If you’re not engaging right there live and in the moment, your fundraising decreases. Because our non-profit clients were suffering so much last year, we wanted to make sure that we were fundraising a lot before the event. We provided a resource where we had tons of engagement and tons of interactivity for the guests in order to sell live auction packages. Our appeal to raise more dollars for our nonprofit was super successful. We produced 18 events between September and mid-November,” adds AJ.
Experiential Virtual Events: Party In A Box!
Next up, Sarah and AJ take the conversation about experiential virtual events to what makes them different from a mere “exchange on computer screens”, as Sarah calls it.
“Last year, we had all of our non-profit events ticketed. Unless we were streaming live via Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, we didn’t provide any free tickets,” replies AJ. “We sent our tickets to parties of two, six and ten in your home. Also, we delivered these gala-in-a-boxes to these house parties. That way, we could provide engagement in their home and provide an immersive experience when they were watching the event online.”
“What we are going to be planning a little bit more of is live entertainment. We livestreamed a couple of live band entertainment performances into our events. The rest of them were basically DJs where the attendees could chat directly with our DJ and request a song. So this year, we’re going to just take music for virtual events to the next level.”
From Streamers To Three Course Meals: People Loved It!
We’ve covered some great party ideas for virtual events during the holiday season, and AJ testifies to their success. “The best thing about live experiences is that you make your attendees focus on your content and on your event. When you do house parties, you encourage your guests to host parties in their home to watch your nonprofit or to watch your event. For our first set of events, we just sent regular party in the boxes with no branding. We had branded masks and streamers that we sent to them. So we could see their level of support and their excitement during the event. That was their way to engage. So we’re just going to add something popping up when they open the box.”
AJ elaborates. “Other items that were in the box were a glass of wine or champagne or on the rocks cocktail. We also had some branded materials from our nonprofit organizations. We had a program book just like you would at a normal event, thanking our sponsors and giving more information about the cause. Then, there were personalized messages and little other gifts that people could use and keep. People loved the party in the boxes! In addition to that, we also sent dinner: a three or two course meal delivered to their home on the day of the event with instructions on how to reheat that meal.”
Experiential Virtual Events In 2021
Sarah then asks AJ what are some other ways that she’s looking to elevate in 2021. “We livestream the larger parties through the event. Our live MC would livestream into somebody’s home into a party of 10 or 14, while the rest of the audience could see what they were doing. The MC would ask them a couple of questions about what they liked about the event or how they were doing to provide further engagement. What we’re trying to do now is livestream in some celebrities or celebrity DJs, just to enhance that experience,” AJ explains.
She says that her wedding clients are now turning their weddings into hybrid event venues. “We’re going to be featuring a branded streaming virtual component for weddings. So at one part of their event, they can basically talk to anywhere from six to nine participants that couldn’t be there at their wedding. It’s a 360 degree experience where they can see what’s going on and they can interact with the bride and groom.” Ensuring quality interactions between the in-person audience and the virtual attendees at hybrid events is no easy task, but AJ is definitely up to the challenge.
The Success Story Of Hybrid Events
As far as AJ is considered, all of her company’s events last year were hybrid. “We had up to 25 people in the audience, which were the speakers, the MC, the auctioneer, the client, and maybe a couple of members of the board,” she says. This year, she’s planning on opening it up to VIPs or high-level sponsors. “I hope that we can have eight tables of six or eight sprinkled in the audience and provide them with an opportunity to watch the event live and then have a roaming camera show the audience that is in the studio, while the virtual attendees are looking in,” she adds.
Sarah asks whether AJ is considering anything else when planning hybrid experiences. “You have to do it with experienced staff. Make sure that you have extra hands on board to foresee anything that comes up within the event. It takes running multiple platforms to run this successfully. Make sure you have a solid audio-visual partner, so everything runs smoothly,” she says.
What To Do: Embrace Hybrid Or Postpone?
“What would you say to those who are fearful of the virtual or hybrid experience and just want to postpone their event until 2022?”, asks Sarah. The answer depends on who the client is.
“For nonprofit clients, I would say definitely don’t postpone. Sometimes, events provide up to 50% of the nonprofit organizations’ overall budget. So, don’t stop fundraising, ever. No matter what crisis. If you did postpone last year, definitely have an event this year because you want to stay relevant and you want to raise dollars for your nonprofit and create that additional exposure for corporate clients who are planning milestone events. We have several contracted clients who were actually waiting until April 1st to decide whether or not they’d be moving forward to plan their event because they really want that 500 or 800 person event to celebrate 30 years or 50 years of being in business, for example,” AJ says.
Wedding clients, on the other hand, are a different matter. “To them, I’d say wait until the times are open for you to do so. The good thing about that is you could plan more and you can budget more. We’re in Boston and we are seeing a trend with some of our bridal clients that want to host a micro wedding this year or they’re doing a destination wedding. They’re going to the Caribbean or they’re having an event on a remote island or they’re doing something small in Newport. And then next year, they’re going to throw a big bash and a full reception event for everybody. So we’re seeing a big trend in that too.”
It really is going to be the roaring twenties after all of this,” says Sarah. AJ confirms that that’s actually the biggest theme for decor right now!
As usual, before today’s event icon and Sarah say their goodbyes, AJ gives some advice about planning experiential virtual events. “It helps to have a planner that is very experienced in the area of virtual events. Make sure that you hit all the right key components. It’s making sure that you’re showing off your brand and that you get your content across with your event. And for our non-profits, making sure that you’re providing an inclusive, interactive experience for your attendees, so they show up focused and ready to give.”