In April 2020, our subcommittee of AAF-ND began to meet to discuss the 2021 American Advertising Awards Show. Despite being a month into a pandemic at the time, we were feeling optimistic for a couple of reasons: (a) we were planning an event ten months in advance and were ahead of schedule, and (b) we thought there was no chance we’d have to have a virtual event at the end of February 2021. But if the live events world has taught me anything over the years, it’s this: nothing ever goes as planned.
By mid-November, it became pretty clear that our event would not be safely done in-person, and we made the tough choice of switching it to a virtual format. It involved us discarding old ideas for themes, canceling travel plans for our out-of-state judges, and making amendment upon amendment to our budget document. The most pressing question became: “how can we still pull off an engaging event worth attending in a virtual format?”
With our virtual awards show taking place on February 26, we’re in the home stretch of our planning, and I thought it would be a wonderful time to provide guidance for how to organize a virtual event through five pieces of advice we learned along the way.
1. Lean on a team for support
We’re fortunate to have a subcommittee of six individuals who have been with us all the way, even back when we thought it was going to be an in-person show. I’ve also solicited advice from past showrunners and frequent show attendees to get their opinion on how we can keep the event engaging, and what they would like to see. Involving others in the process of your virtual event planning helps relinquish some of the burden you may feel, while also getting diverse perspectives that will mold your event for the better.
2. Find partners that roll with the punches.
I’m refraining from using the word ‘pivot’ here, because I know you’ve heard it enough. Find partners that will move in a different direction with you. We have been blessed with a great cast of characters (from our production company, Livewire, to our emcee, Zuel, to our event sponsor, Avalon) who have all rolled with our punches and made adjustments to help turn our in-person event into a virtual one. Make sure to communicate with your vendors early & often so they’re in-the-loop on any necessary changes or hesitations so they can be a part of the process with you.
3. Identify ways to still make it engaging.
Your event doesn’t need to be a pinned screen on Zoom. You can find ways to tie in fun & engaging games, chat rooms, social hours and other ways to still increase the amount of connectivity that someone feels at a virtual event. I won’t give away too many of the secrets of what’s to come for our event, but look into games and offerings from Crowdpurr and Jackbox to get people engaged, and consider making breakout rooms at the beginning (or end) of your event to facilitate conversation.
4. Provide a keepsake.
Since we aren’t able to do meals in the same fashion we ordinarily have at this year’s event, we’ve been ideating a “supplies box” to provide that goes along with the show and offers some keepsakes for our attendees. This allows us a branding opportunity for our American Advertising Federation club, while also being able to still provide an experience to attendees that may make the ticket price even more worth it.
5. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel – create a new one.
At first, it was hard to escape from feeling like we needed to pull off our traditional event in a virtual environment. Same scripts, same bells and whistles, same feel. Once we started to embrace the notion that this was a year that allowed us to be fully creative with the event, and we could shape it however we wanted, the ideas started flowing. I’d encourage you to not worry too much about your virtual event replacing your in-person event, but see it as an opportunity to try out a variety of new things that you’ve thought of but never implemented.
One of the most important things to remember is that everybody has had to adapt in some way or another due to the pandemic. You want to pull off a great event, but you also need to understand that people will be extending their grace during this time, given the context. As long as you approach the event planning in an intentional way, your hard work is bound to pay off. If you’d like to see how we do with our 2021 American Advertising Awards show, feel free to sign up or follow along at aaf-nd.org/american-advertising-awards/.