ILEA Hosts Expert Panel: “The New Normal: The Virtues of Going Virtual” – November 17, 2020

Earlier in November, President Anna Marie Rembold, CSEP, CMP, was featured as an industry expert panelist at the November 2020 event “The New Normal: The Virtues of Going Virtual” hosted by the International Live Events Association (ILEA), Northern California Chapter. Anna was joined by panelists Vincent Padua, VP of Client Services at AV Images and by Alexandra (Alex) Carvalho, CMP, VEMM, Senior Events/Meeting Planner Specialist at Kaiser Permanente. The panel discussion was hosted on AME Live, the new virtual events software platform launched by Anna Marie Events in May 2020.

Kelsey Linden, Director of Events for ILEA NCC moderated the expert panel. Below is a synopsis of Anna Rembold’s perspective about the future of virtual and hybrid events within the corporate events industry:

What has your experience been with going virtual this year, both in the events you’ve planned or produced, and as an attendee?

When COVID-19 hit, our team at Anna Marie Events paused to consider where the market for corporate events would be in five years. We believed we were at a point of fundamental change in the market.  By the end of May, we had an operational product prototype of our new virtual events platform, AME Live, which we are using to host today’s event. Our revolutionary cloud-software solution has already been used to host and produce several virtual events this summer and fall including a product launch, conference and teambuilding experience.

What challenges are you still trying to solve for when moving events, that would be traditionally held in-person, to a virtual format?

We see two distinct hurdles when moving from in-person to virtual events.

First, convincing traditional event producers that virtual is as effective as live events from a sales and marketing perspective.  Actually, virtual events, if designed carefully – for example using venues with lots of brand messaging, built out exhibitor booths with calls to action and engaging, interactive features – deliver sales leads quite effectively. And they can capture much more engagement data about those leads which can then be leveraged by a sales team. And the cost savings versus in-person events can, of course, be compelling. I spoke with a client recently who shared that they were able to reduce their lead capture cost by 85%, just by going virtual.  I think we’ll find hosting virtual versus in-person events to be an ongoing debate within Event Marketing and Field Marketing teams going forward.

The second challenge I see when going virtual is how to create meaningful connections between attendees in the virtual environment. You really have to think through the essence of what people are intending to do at a live event and recreate and enhance this in the virtual world. The core focus of AME Live is facilitating meaningful engagement, and for customer events, to ultimately drive leads that will convert to sales. We know how to build highly successful corporate events and when we built our solution, we leveraged that knowledge to focus, first and foremost, on engagement. We raised the bar on increasing the frequency and impact of virtual connections between attendees, speakers and exhibitors.

How do you approach crafting a budget for a virtual event?

Developing a budget for a virtual event starts the same way we would for an in-person event, by making sure you understand the strategy and purpose of the event for the client.  Once we understand that, we can advise a client where and how to best use their dollars to deliver on that promise.

There is such a wide range of possibilities when it comes to virtual event production. You can, on a more limited budget, keep production formats simpler with live-streamed content and less customization of venues or can you go for higher-end production values with lots of slick visuals, more pre-recorded content, and live broadcasts if your budget affords that level of buildout.

We are excited to be on the AME LIVE platform for this event today! Anna, what gap did you see in the virtual landscape that made you decide to dive into that world and create your own?

Thank you!  We’re really excited for the opportunity to share AME Live in action with you all.

Back in March when the pandemic hit, we started looking at the virtual event solutions on the market. While there were over about 60 ways to host a virtual event even then, what we saw was that all of these were missing two things that we thought were critical for success, experiential, highly engaging and visually powerful environments and cloud-based software that the customer could leverage to deliver high- impact events, on their own.

At our core, Anna Marie Events is a design-driven agency that focuses on bringing brand stories to life via corporate events. With AME Live, we wanted to give the industry a new virtual and hybrid events solution that delivered a deeper, virtual experience for attendees and enabled companies to create their own online branded channel for hosting a wide range of events. With their own customized visuals and Live! Control Center, companies can champion their unique brand messages and culture via their brand channel, a channel they can control at their own fingertips, without waiting for a third-party to customize graphics and features – weeks (or months) later.

How is the ROI measured for virtual events and are you seeing ROI from your virtual events? What data and metrics on engagement are your tracking?

Ideally the ROI from a virtual event is measured by attendee engagement levels and (for customer-based events) by lead capture and conversion tracking. Ideally, you start by setting event goals and targets.  After the event, you can leverage the data to ensure goals and targets were hit.  For instance, compare the cost of a live event versus the cost of virtual against and the relative ROI for each event format based on the criteria for “event success” you establish before the event.

ROI is so much easier to track with virtual events because we can capture so much data; engagement data, connection data, lead capture data, and eventually sales conversions as AME Live data flows directly into company CRM databases via APIs.

With events hosted on AME Live, we are able to tell exactly who engaged with different elements of your keynotes, breakouts, networking opportunities and the duration of each engagement.  Companies can then use this intelligence to tweak event environments, content and conference agendas, on both the experience and content side, to improve engagement levels for future events.

As planners, we all know that an unforeseen challenge is almost always going to pop-up on an event day and it is our job to troubleshoot it before the attendees even know it happened. How is day-of troubleshooting different when you are in a virtual environment? How do you plan rehearsals and make back-up plans to minimize day-of blunders?

We’ve found it’s best to give yourself at least one full day to rehearse your event with all the key players, and ideally more if time and budget allows. Practice, practice, practice and you will be able to debug “day of” hiccups in advance of the event.

“Backstage” communications are also going to be one of your first and biggest challenges when running day-of production with dispersed teams.  It’s imperative that you keep an open “room” and channel for communicating with your company-agency production team.

After nearly 9 months of “going virtual”, what have been your biggest successes in the virtual events hosted via AME Live?

We’ve gotten really helpful feedback from our clients using the AME Live platform on so many levels. As we test new event venue formats with our clients, we continue to pioneer new creative concepts. The positive reaction we got from our client using our rainforest concept, for example, was very cool.  She said, “It’s just so relaxing!”.  That’s exactly what we were going for, a full transport to another dimension and a much-needed, emotional reaction missing from most virtual events right now.

I’m sure we all wish we had a crystal ball to see the future of events. What is your prediction as to when live events will come back? What are you seeing in the industry when looking ahead to 2021?

I hate to say this, but I think 2021 will largely mimic 2020 – with some in-person/hybrid micro-events but primarily virtual gatherings. We’re positioning Anna Marie Events to continue to capture that opportunity and when we return to hybrid events, brands will be able to easily incorporate their AME Live virtual hosting right into their in-person events.

When we eventually transition back to live events, there will still be a virtual component, right?  What do event planners need to consider when planning for a hybrid event?

I think with hybrid events, it is so important to evaluate and select the right platform for your specific needs. Companies will need to integrate streaming of live content seamlessly to their virtual attendees from the live in-person experience. And the virtual event, ideally, will need to have the same experiential layer as the live event; virtual events should be an extension of the overall, global experiential design. Finally, capturing all the rich engagement data will become paramount. Comparing what works in the live environment versus virtually will enable companies to refine their approaches to delivering even more effective and successful events in the future. For our team at Anna Marie Events, that is truly, “the holy grail”!