Featured Photo Courtesy Becky Church Photography
As COVID restrictions are lifted and people begin to gather again, we wanted to reflect on the whirlwind of the past 16 months – specifically when it comes to events. What did we learn? How will this affect events moving forward?
We posed those questions and more to three of our clients that had major events this past year:
- Chris Jones, marketing and communications director at The Loft Literary Center, producers of the Wordplay book festival;
- Maureen Bausch, chief business development officer at GENYOUth, producer of Taste of the NFL;
- Theresa Reps, agricultural affairs manager at Midwest Dairy; organizers of the Princess Kay of the Milky Way program.
Take a look at what they had to say below when it comes to flexibility, the future of virtual elements in events, the value of listening and the “Show Must Go On” mentality.
What did your event/program look like in 2020? What did/will it look like in 2021? Plans for 2022 yet?
Chris Jones: We shifted our 2020 Wordplay event right as the pandemic was developing. We made the decision in March to go entirely virtual for an early-May street festival event. Instead of a one-day event, with multiple stages and venues, we shifted to a five-week livestreamed festival. The Loft was one of the first book festivals in the country to attempt this model, so we had to invent everything as we went. In 2021, we returned with a similar but more compact model, shifting to one week versus five. Both events drew large numbers of people from around the country and world.
Maureen Bausch: Taste of the NFL, a long-standing NFL “party with a purpose” that helps tackle food insecurity, is held each year at the Super Bowl to generate funds for GENYOUth, a nonprofit dedicated to creating healthier school communities. The event typically attracts local residents and fans attending the Super Bowl who enjoy the opportunity to indulge in delicious foods, mingle with NFL players and see great entertainment. Due to the pandemic, GENYOUth seized the opportunity to create the first-ever virtual Taste of the NFL @ Home experience. It was a delicious success as celebrity chefs Carla Hall, Andrew Zimmern, Tim Love and Lasheeda Perry created game day recipes while thousands of participants cooked virtually with them. Plus, there was a virtual “Chalk Talk” hosted by CBS Sports and GENYOUth Board Member James “JB” Brown which featured sports greats including Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and Claressa Shields. The best part of all is that through the generosity of sponsors and participants, over 50 million school meal deliveries were made possible!
Theresa Reps: Our program looked entirely different in 2020 without the Minnesota State Fair and having to make everything virtual. It all started in May when we selected our finalists for Princess Kay of the Milky Way (the young women who get their likeness sculpted out of butter). We typically select those candidates at an in-person leadership/judging event, but instead, they were selected and announced virtually. Then, the real planning began as we determined how to continue with the rich tradition of Princess Kay while keeping everyone safe. We were able to make butter sculpting happen, just without the crowds. A select number of family members were able to be present, and we adapted the butter booth to allow for social distancing and masks were worn. We livestreamed throughout each day so fans could still enjoy watching the sculptures come to life. Additionally, we usually have a large crowd for the crowning of Princess Kay, and in 2020 we instead had a small private banquet that was also livestreamed to the public. For 2021, we are planning to do coronation in-person again and butter sculpting is scheduled to return to normal.
How has the pandemic affected how you’ll run your event/program in the future? (If at all?)
Chris Jones: We’re very much planning to return to a live event in 2022, but we’ve learned some lessons along the way around delivering virtual content. There are potential audience members we reached that would never be able to make a live event in Minneapolis. We’re evaluating our options and costs to try to deliver more hybrid programming (part live/part virtual), and we hope to build that into the next version of Wordplay.
Maureen Bausch: For Taste of the NFL 2022 in Los Angeles we are planning a one-two punch with a live event on Saturday, Feb. 12, and then the second edition of Taste of the NFL @ Home on Sunday, Feb. 13. First, we are creating a true culinary joyride with a live event set for Saturday, Feb. 12. at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The event will be hosted by returning chefs Carla, Andrew, Tim, Lasheeda and a few of their friends and feature NFL greats, entertainment, food, drink and even a James Bond car exhibit at the museum. Then on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 13, we will once again host the Taste of the NFL @Home event as a virtual opportunity for home cooks and football fans everywhere to tune in and “home gate” to prep their Super Bowl Sunday tailgate foods and snacks. And, once again, there will be a Chalk Talk with top athletes and surprise special guests.
Theresa Reps: Because of the pandemic, we learned that we can do things virtually. We are planning on implementing more virtual elements to our program as we move forward. For our judging event in May 2021, we had a hybrid in-person judging but virtual leadership sessions. This made the sessions more accessible for those interested, which is a great byproduct of switching gears in 2020. We are continuing to explore virtual options where it makes sense, and we wouldn’t have done that as willingly if it weren’t for the pandemic.
What have you learned about event planning over the last 16 months? What was your biggest “lesson learned” moment?
Chris Jones: I think the biggest lesson was that old adage of “the show must go on” is really true. We could’ve easily decided to just cancel Wordplay amidst all the challenges, but instead we built something pretty special for the moment. This helped establish Wordplay as innovative, adaptable, and something that continues to build in our community. We would’ve lost all that if we’d cancelled. So, I think the biggest lesson is that even when challenges come up, you can do it—you just need to find a way.
Maureen Bausch: Nimbleness has always been a key asset when planning events – large or small. The biggest lesson we learned was the value of listening…listening to the priorities of our sponsors, the recommendations of our chefs, the news environment, the NFL safety protocols and the vibe of the nation.
Theresa Reps: There is value in gathering in-person and virtually. There is a place for both in the events we plan, and we need to be strategic on when to use both.
The pandemic forced these event planners to think on their feet and come up alternative plans. Turns out, some of these “alternative” plans may have some staying power for years to come.