Joined by Melissa Patruno, Bishop-McCann’s virtual superstar and executive producer, we discuss virtual events. Tune in to learn everything from platform selection to how to engage attendees. Topics include:
- Virtual event platform considerations and challenges
- Virtual meeting trends and how they’ve shifted
- Longevity of virtual events
- Attendee engagement virtually
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Hi, and welcome to The Events Experience, where we take a deep dive into everything event planning. I work for Bishop-McCann, an agency devoted to creating JOY through meetings, incentives, and events for big name brands. On this podcast, myself and our company's experts will discuss all things events, so keep listening to hear all about the latest tips and trends for virtual, live, and hybrid events.
Hi, everybody! Today I am joined by one of Bishop-McCann's fantastic executive producers, Melissa Patruno. Melissa is an experienced event producer with more than 10 years in the industry. She has spearheaded and overseen domestic and international programs for a wide variety of verticals, as well as Fortune 500 companies. I'm so excited that you're able to join for today's episode, Melissa!
Thanks, Brenna! I'm excited to be here.
Yeah, thanks for being here. Today, we're going to be talking about virtual trends and how virtual events have evolved. So, Melissa, when you came to Bishop-McCann, you joined as our virtual events expert, and you were tasked with the difficult decision of what platforms were best to host our events on. I know that that was a huge undertaking for you. Can you describe the process that you went through and what you were looking for in a platform?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think this has been the the big question for all of us. As the pandemic hit, it was just like, "Ok, what are we going to do now?" And we saw the world pivoting so, so quickly. I'm glad that I was able to see that happening and just be like, "All right, let's get on the bandwagon here." We need to figure this out because this isn't just going to be a trend of needing to do some virtual shows while we're all in quarantine. We live in a digital world. We need to be able to create a digital strategy, and that's what we did here at Bishop-McCann. We looked at, all right, we need to find the right platform as a long-term partnership that's going to be able to support us as we move into this digital world, this virtual events world. So we really weren't project focused in our search. We were more wanting to find that long-term partner. So we created a hit list with a lot of different capabilities that we were looking for, and then just completed a broad search on dozens of virtual event platforms. I had our "must-haves," our "nice-to-haves," and a "wish list" in mind as we vetted these various platforms. I thought maybe I could just kind of go through what those were, so if other people are looking at what it is that you need to be looking for.
Yeah, that would be great!
Awesome. So for our "must-haves," registration is such a key component to what we do here at Bishop-McCann. We are Cvent users, and that has been how we've powered registration for thousands of events - live events, right? So when we were looking at virtual event platforms, we knew we needed to have either a very robust native registration or somehow the ability to integrate with Cvent Flex (or Cvent also has their virtual event platform). So that was kind of one of the major "must-haves" when we were looking at platforms - like, what is registration going to look like? Another big one was security. We work with some very big brands, and we needed to make sure that they are going to have secure content that's gated and locked down on these virtual event platforms. We don't want to getting into the wrong hands, so things like two-factor authentication or single sign on, very important. So definitely a "must-have." Then another one was mobile friendly. You know, we have to meet our attendees where they're at, and we're no longer just sitting, you know, like you and I aren't going into the office anymore.
Right! We need to be able to meet them on the go, so mobile friendly was really important, too. Another one is we like to look at this as a content-driven experience. Some platforms have other experiences, like a a 3D experience, has been some of those big names out there. And while there are some really great platforms, that just really wasn't what spoke to us as an agency and what we felt would be best for our clients. A few others were attendee engagement. That's another hot topic. Each platform has a little different and unique features, which is cool to see what's out there. Then there's the normal stuff, like polling or Q&A, chat. We know about those. Of course, expo sponsor capabilities. Needs to be customizable. You know, we can make it look like the brands that we are going to be bringing to those platforms. Then I would say the last one is just user friendly, and it's probably the most important. If we can't use it as a producer to build it, and then we our attendees can't navigate it...
That's a problem!
It's a problem. So, yeah, those are some big ones. Then just to tick down the list, because I said, we had "must-haves" and we had some "nice-to-haves." I would say a "nice-to-have" was native video conferencing. You know, Zoom is great, and it is actually sometimes something we still need to use in these virtual event platforms, but it's nice to have the option to not have to leave the platform. Because once you go into Zoom, right, it's like, "Squirrel!" Like email, what else do I have to look at on my desktop or wherever I am? So it's nice to keep them like it plugged into that platform, but it wasn't like a "must-have" on our list. Then another "nice-to-have" was on-demand content that's easily digestible. That is proving to actually become, I think, a little bit more important, but it wasn't like an end-all be-all. But we did want to make sure there was like an on-demand catalog or library that's easy and accessible. And then the last one for the "wish list" was gamification. I didn't think it was a "must-have" or a "nice-to-have." I think it is something that not every client is going to use. Sometimes it is important. So it's just nice to know who out there does that and does it well.
Mm hmm. So as we just discussed, you faced the challenge of all of those platform considerations, which I can't even imagine how overwhelming that was. But when we were very first shifting over to virtual events, what were some of the other major obstacles that you faced, and how were you able to overcome those challenges to get to where we are today?
That's a great question. Yeah, there was a lot that was thrown at us, and I think one of the big ones is that we got new job titles. We went from being planners to being producers. What changed was the medium in which we were producing these shows. So what used to be the stage, you know, as the place where the content was delivered, it now became our screen. So that's a pretty big change!
And when you were sharing content from a stage and now you're using a web player, it really means that our shows have turned into TV-like programs. So everything in the production to the way you're formatting the content is completely different. There's this big gap in what we did one way to now doing something a very different way. And for me, what I found as a way to overcome this challenge was I had to go from planner to producer, and I needed to reskill in order to do that. So I personally took the program through PCMA. They have a Digital Event Strategist (DES) course. It's awesome. I highly recommend it if anybody is looking to get into production. Or just that they realize that while they are still doing logistics, operational things, and work streams, but they're also now being asked to be a virtual event producer and do broadcast-like TV shows. Of course, PCMA's DES is great, and it's something that you can do also while you're working full time (so it's not going to take over your world). There's another one; MPI has one. I mean, there's a ton out there, but those are the two organizations that I think are really top notch. MPI has a Virtual Event and Meeting Management course, too. So I just think these are invaluable tools. They keep you current with what's going on in our industry, and it helps you up level and just learn more skill sets.
Right. It's clear that not only you from taking these courses, but also just us as a company (as a whole), we've learned so much since the switch to virtual. So I'm wondering, what trends did we see at the start of the pandemic that we're not seeing now?
Yeah, I mean, there have been a lot of shifts. I think even just what we used to get away with in March of last year for a virtual show is probably not what you would be able to get away with now. A trend that I saw at the beginning of the pandemic that I really don't think that we should be actually doing. So, it's a trend I don't agree with, and I'm glad that it's kind of going away is that agencies, planners, and producers, they were all saying they were platform agnostic. I mean, how many times did we all hear that right?
So I just felt that that was saying that you're not an expert on any specific platform. When a client comes to an event agency like Bishop-McCann, they're looking to us to be the expert. We needed to do our research. We needed to then conscientiously select platforms or multiple platforms that are hitting those capability goals and all those hit lists that I shared earlier, and then master it. Become the expert in that platform, and that's what we did here. So that was a trend that I definitely thought needed to go away, and I don't hear it as much anymore. But a few others, you know, I said earlier that we like a content-driven experience. So I do think it was a trend that while there still some big names out there, I just think that more of the platforms that you're seeing that are the "now" leaders, they're not 3D. I just think content needs to drive the engagement, not a 3D experience. And that other one, I had it on our wish list list, was gamification, which I kind of have mixed feelings about because I think that there's some ways to be able to incorporate that. But I think if you incorporate it, you're almost trying to incentivize your call to action. So you can create a leaderboard, and you know, people like to be competitive. So I think that that's how you can use it. But I think at the beginning, everybody just talked about gamifying their virtual events, and it was like, "Well, what are we doing? Are we creating like a Nintendo game?" You know, sometimes I saw stuff that I was like, "Is that really what they're here for?" I don't know. So, yeah, those might be some of them.
So after the global pandemic, what sorts of trends do you think we'll be seeing in virtual programs?
Yeah. Well, I think this is one while we're not out of the pandemic, certainly not yet. I think we're already starting to see what's going to be moving us forward after we get past this, which is going to be hybrid. Everyone's talking about it. It's the "it" trend right now. Some people are calling it "blended." I was even reading a blog post the other day where another agency was calling it "flex." So I think we're going to have different ways that we brand it, and we make it unique to our specific agencies, which is great. I think that's always really good. But with hybrid, what is so great about it is that you are able to increase your reach, and by increasing reach, you're just adding so much value. Additionally, what I feel like is so good about hybrid and why I think maybe it's going to be a trend - but I personally think it's going to be just the wave of the future (not every show, but I just think this is what we're going to see more and more of) - is that with hybrid, you are able to make a huge game changer with how you're personalizing and customizing the experience for the attendee. You're reducing the barrier to entry. So if somebody doesn't want to travel because of COVID, the cost, or family obligations, we've all now seen how we can work from home. So traveling to shows, programs, and conferences is going to become maybe less appealing, or people are just going to be like, "Why? Why do I have to do that? I can do this virtually."
So you're providing accessible attendance options for anyone and all that are interested in attending. Then you're able to connect with a larger audience; you're just going on a more global scale. And I think this will have another really great kind of like on-the-side impact that is going to be huge, which is our carbon footprint. You don't have to have everybody in an airplane to get to your event anymore, and that trickle-down effect is going to be really, really big on the environment as we see climate change is something that's another thing we need to really focus on. So those are some things that I think are going to be, in regards to hybrid, really important, and why I think hybrid is here to stay. A few other things that I've seen that have been really cool are that once we pivoted to virtual, we saw that we need to have shorter, more concise, to-the-point sessions. I don't think that's going to go away, even for live. I think people's ability to be focused for that long is just diminishing.
Here at Bishop-McCann, we've seen that with virtual, 12 to 15 minutes is kind of an ideal amount for a main stage presentation, and with live, I think 30 minutes for a breakout and 45 minutes tops for a keynote. But even shorter there, too, is going to be important. And just a few others - because I feel like there's actually quite a few trends here that I really think this is stuff in which we have changed the industry and what people are now used to expecting - so a few others are broadcast-quality video content. This is super important now for virtual, hybrid, and even live. We need to use really high-quality, compelling videos. It's now going to be expected, and people love that. You know like TikTok, why is that like the rage right now? People like that video content. On the same token or same note is making that content then available as on demand. You know who doesn't like to binge watch their favorite Netflix show? Right?
We all like to sit down at our convenience and watch something. That's why I was saying earlier that on-demand catalog is important because it's just giving more flexibility to your attendees on when they want to consume content, and it's adding to that personalized experience. So I don't know; those are some top ones. I think there's a lot that's going to have changed in such a short period of time, you know?
Yeah, so quickly. It's crazy to see how the industry has evolved and how it's just continuing to do that. But we've been talking about virtual events this whole time, so I'm going to bring up this topic that many people in the industry have been discussing and some even arguing about. That is if virtual events are here to stay or if their surge in popularity is limited to the circumstances presented by the pandemic. So, I'm curious, how long do you think that virtual meetings will be around?
I think they're here to stay, personally. I think everything I was just sharing are some main reasons why. While I don't think every show is going to be virtual, I do think some are going to say, "Ok, we're so happy to go back to live." But I think then they're going to start looking at, "Well, should we be hybrid?" It'll be interesting to see if it's just the larger shows that do that, and what will smaller, more company-wide conferences and programs will do. But I think it's not like it's just going to go away completely. I think it will, of course, be a case-by-case, by-company, and what type of shows they're doing. It'll differ from different programs to different program. So, yeah, I think that they're here to stay.
Yeah, and just to wrap up this episode, what are some of your favorite ways to keep attendees engaged throughout a virtual program?
Another hot topic! All these are such good questions. Well, I think keeping somebody engaged is making sure that you're engaging the whole body, right? Like all of the senses. You know, sensory experience is limited for a virtual event, so attendees are only relying on what they can see and hear. So how do we heighten those senses? And I talked about it earlier: really amazing video content that's going to break up that monotony of the talking head. It's fun to watch a high-energy and well-done video. But there's other senses, too. You know, it's not just what we see and what we hear. So, at Bishop-McCann, we started during the pandemic a gifting company called Eventure. I love it because we can do for virtual or hybrid shows things that are going to heighten those other senses. We can send gifts that are food, so it's taste, or it's things that you can play with. Like, there was this really fun putty that I know we sent out on a show, and you're using your hands. It's so interesting how just playing with something in your hands can really keep you that much more engaged. So those are some.
You know, I think with engagement, it's all the normal stuff, right? We want our virtual attendees to do chat, Q&A, and polling, things like that. But I think we elevate the virtual experience the more that we can have it be driven by the attendees and not just by us, the planners. So what I've seen in some platforms that are really cool is having the ability to have more open conversations and collaboration by smaller interactive sessions. These are by creating a topic that is of interest, and people coming together as a small cohort and being able to discuss in a kind of brainstorming session. So I think that's going to be really cool to see are some of these more unique ways certain platforms are going to leverage engagement in that way. Then the last thing I will say - that I just think is so important to stress - is make sure if you have a virtual event, it is mobile friendly. It's crazy to me how there are platforms out there that are not completely mobile accessible. You know, you have to meet your attendee where they're at. I know I said that earlier, and I think it's so important. I can't stress it enough. If you're going to do a virtual event, you need to be making sure that it's virtually available and accessible to attendees wherever Wi-Fi is, and Wi-Fi is everywhere!
It only makes sense! Yeah.
We can get on our email anywhere. Why can't I be able to watch this? Because if you can't engage them by being able to meet them where they are at, then they're not able to connect; they're not able to access the content, and you've lost that person. I go on walks all the time, and I want to watch something or listen to it, you know?
Anyway, so I just think that's really important, too.
I totally agree with that. You're losing them if you're not going where they are, like you said. So, yeah, that's so important. Also, like you said, getting their other senses engaged when they're virtual because they aren't there live; that's just so important. Those are great points. I just want to thank you so much for talking with me today, Melissa, and for sharing all of that great information on virtual events.
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Events Experience. Don't forget to subscribe to our podcast and create JOY wherever you go!