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Pivoting an In-Person Event to a Virtual Festival – and Attracting Four Times as Many Attendees in the Process

When Min­neso­ta start­ed shut­ting down in March due to COVID-19, clo­sures and can­cel­la­tions seemed to be com­ing in every minute, and the Loft Lit­er­ary Center’s sec­ond annu­al Word­play book fes­ti­val was in lim­bo. But instead of can­cel­ing or post­pon­ing the May 9 event, the orga­niz­ers real­ized that going vir­tu­al could be an option – as a way to still sup­port the near­ly 100 authors sched­uled to attend and pro­mote the books they worked so hard to write, as well as give book enthu­si­asts an activ­i­ty to do while in quarantine.

Our team helped the Loft get the word out – quick­ly draft­ing a press release announc­ing the can­cel­la­tion of the in-per­son event, but also unveil­ing a brand-new, vir­tu­al event series that would still pro­vide con­ver­sa­tions, read­ings, hap­py hours, etc. and bring peo­ple togeth­er, even while apart.

The fes­ti­val kicked off April 7 with a live dis­cus­sion and work­out with Min­neso­ta Olympian Jessie Dig­gins. Since then, there have been more than 50 vir­tu­al ses­sions (all archived on the Loft’s web­site if you want to watch any of them!), 95 par­tic­i­pat­ing authors and more than 40,000 peo­ple tun­ing in from all over the world. For frame of ref­er­ence, last year’s inau­gur­al two-day event brought 10,000 peo­ple to Minneapolis.

“It’s dif­fer­ent to count in-per­son atten­dees and vir­tu­al atten­dees, but 40,000 atten­dees was a goal we had in our 5- to 10-year plan,” said Steph Opitz, found­ing direc­tor of Word­play. “See­ing that many peo­ple come togeth­er to sup­port these authors dur­ing this time was remark­able, and we’re look­ing into options to incor­po­rate vir­tu­al ele­ments into future events – to con­tin­ue reach­ing a broad­er audience.”

Since the vir­tu­al struc­ture was unprece­dent­ed for the Loft – this was only the sec­ond year of the fes­ti­val, after all – it was a week-by-week effort. We worked close­ly with the Word­play team to share with media the upcom­ing week’s ses­sions, result­ing in top-tier local cov­er­age in the Star Tri­bune, Pio­neer Press, Min­neso­ta Month­ly, Min­nPost and more. The cre­ative piv­ot also scored some nation­al atten­tion.

With the fes­ti­val now wrapped up, we’re wist­ful that we weren’t there for the hus­tle and bus­tle of an in-per­son event, but thank­ful that we could help play a part in this inno­v­a­tive fes­ti­val that brought not only Minnesota’s lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er, but the world’s.

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