BY DAVID JAMES GROUP

Virtual Events in 2020: The Ultimate Guide

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As most associations explore and attend online events this year, we offer up this podcast as a reminder to ensure that virtual events are part of your meeting and event program moving forward. Chris Cherek, Owner and President at CMC Communications/Events/Meetings, discusses with DJG what he has seen this year and helps us all come to the realization that virtual events are here to stay: and they’re a digital channel.
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    Drew Navolio: Hello, and welcome to Stir and Tell, the podcast from the David James Group. I am your host, Drew Navolio. I am the VP of Client Services here at DJG and I am excited to have our guest today. His name is Chris Cherek. He has been in the events and event production business industry for quite some time. He has covered the gamut in terms of his roles and the teams he has been on, everything from director of sales to choreographer, so a Renaissance man, a jack of all trades, if you will. DJG has been working with Chris this past year with some of our clients extensively on their virtual events and conference offerings. And today we’re going to talk a little bit about that, how we thought this year went through the eyes of an expert like Chris and what people should expect to see, or what’s going to be the attendee experience if you will in 2021. So welcome, Chris. Thanks for being on the podcast.

    Chris Cherek: Hey, thank you, sir. I appreciate it, Drew. I’m excited to be here. This’ll be fun.

    Drew Navolio: So you’ve been in the industry a while. I mentioned a few things, but to kind of give people your perspective when we say event production, you’ve worked on our virtual conferences through associations, but you’re more varied than that in terms of how you come at the events industry.

    Chris Cherek: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I can trace it all back to being in high school, and I joke that I’m actually… I’m part of a family of 11 kids. So shoot, even producing dinner was a production much less any holidays. You can imagine. So working with large groups became second nature, but my original real first, I’m doing air quotes, job in production was I produced all of the one-day and four-day seminars for Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker. And that started originally when it was like Tony who? And cut my teeth on things like coming into a town like Chicago, who’s known for Chicago fire and saying to the hotelier and the fire marshall, “Yeah. We want to do a firewalk where people are actually going to go out and walk on fire,” and finding out a way for them to say yes and then producing it appropriately.

    So, yeah. Yeah. But all kinds of weird stuff. I took over Good Morning America studio once to do an experiential campaign about the relaunch of a new formulation of Cottonelle. We had the screens in Times Square tied into that so you could have your picture on Times Square. I’ve done pharma projects as varied as the ten-year global relaunch of Prozac or a launch of an oncolytic drug that’s going to save lives or something is crazy as the launch of Cialis, which was also very interesting. I can tell you that [inaudible 00:03:14] me and things like the stuff that I’d done for your clients both live and virtual. So yeah, yeah. Been around the pipe a little bit.

    Drew Navolio: And it’s been an interesting year for events because it’s been very philosophical about what they mean, not just obviously they have a significance, for our clients, which are predominantly associations, their bottom line.

    Chris Cherek: Right.

    Drew Navolio: But there’s just that, the pining for new experiences and the connecting with people, all of that, this year, without needing to be recognized probably for the millionth time, has been really put to the test, but kind of why you’re here today is, what has been your thought in terms of how did the world handle the virtual event tidal wave that happened in 2020?

    Chris Cherek: I mean, first of all, I think that historians will view this year as just a massive study on human reaction to stress and to forced change. We all like changes that we can predict. “Hey, I’m buying a new house.” That’s exciting. We don’t like changes that are forced on us like, “Wow, I’m evicted from my house.” And that’s happened for some people unfortunately. I think that the pivot to virtual was there’s a lyric in a song that I’ve heard once that says that cities are proof that people need to be together. We are social beings, we’re social animals. It’s part of the reason why meetings and events happen. Let’s face it, networking is one of the highest values of trade shows and events and that type of thing. So we needed to do that. How we were able to do that was a real question. And I’ll tell you that the people in my industry were dumbfounded. I saw the ubiquitous memes and Facebook posts from people in the business where like we’re the first to go and the last to come back.

    Well, yes and no. I mean, yes, we were the first to go because God forbid you didn’t want to get together in a large group, but in the same respect, there’s a number of us that have been able to figure out by, in some senses, whether persistence or dumb luck, how to help people and help people get together. Certainly your clients have had the desire to want to get together. And it’s born out in the virtual platforms that are out there as well as how to make those virtual platforms, how do I say it, viewable, tolerable.

    Drew Navolio: Right.

    Chris Cherek: We all have Zoom fatigue. I mean, anybody who’s even listening to this podcast is like, “Okay, I’ll listen to another podcast,” but you want to also be able to have somebody that’s at the helm in developing your virtual content so it’s interesting, so there’s a switch, so there’s something that keeps your audience engaged regularly. I’ve talked with, there’s probably a group of about 40 or 45 of us in the industry that got together, believe it or not, for a Zoom call every Tuesday at nine in the morning and we shared kind of what’s going on. And one of the things we very quickly realized is, yeah, you got to keep it interesting. You have to be able to change that. What are the techniques to be able to do that? Because the desire is very high and at the same respect, what happened initially was the bar for us to be able to produce something was very low.

    Drew Navolio: Right. But nobody knew anything. I mean, when you mentioned previously about the study, I mean, you take some of the projects we worked on and you’re talking about bringing a 20,000 person event virtual and the thought of how do you condense that down and still deliver something that people actually want to sit through?

    Chris Cherek: Right. Well, and you heard me say when we started working on that and talking about video times, I mean, we would do an acceptance speech for kind of your highest award as a 15 minute speech. And I’m like, “Oh my God, no.”

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. Right. And all those little nuance changes that people were forced to address.

    Chris Cherek: Right.

    Drew Navolio:

    So do you think, I mean, I feel like the transition was made and we all, at least speaking from the association industry, we all got by okay. I think some groups did it better than others. Some put a bigger emphasis on it, delivering something worthwhile or taking the perspective of if whatever I do this year there’s a good chance I’m going to have to do something or some of it next year. Do you see, I mean, hybrid, again, that’ll probably be the buzzword next year. I mean, it was on the tip of people’s tongues this year, but that was probably more wishful thinking, but the hybrid event becomes more of a reality next year and I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think’s going to stick? Because some of the things I’ve seen now that they are digital, the benefit is there’s a lot of frameworks set up, so you can still offer more. And for those that maybe didn’t have a robust digital offering, they may have it now.

    Chris Cherek: Well, yeah. I think that you’ve touched on a couple of points. I mean, first of all, there are more people that know more about and will accept a virtual component of a program, both from the production side, A, can we do it, should we do it, and also from the attendee side. Let’s face it. I mean, I think that hybrid is going to be something that’s going to be part of live events ad infinitum. It’s just going to be there. It kind of was in some cases before, because there were portions of a lot of conferences that were streamed, but you did that kind of like a that’s a nice to have.

    Drew Navolio: Yeah.

    Chris Cherek: Now it’s going to be in the must list because, well, let’s talk about it. The whole buzz of the news right now is we just had a third company say that their vaccine is 90% effective, which is heads and above what our average flu vaccine, I heard an epidemiologist say this morning that their flu vaccine is 50%. So that’s great, but there’s still is going to be people that either can’t get to the conference or won’t for health reasons, for whatever God forbid anti-vaxxers who, however we track that, or people who maybe there’s just a medical condition why you can’t get vaccinated, but they still want to get the content. So now I think as an association or anybody who’s developing content it’s incumbent upon you to share it that way, number one, and number two, I think we’re going to figure out better ways to make that an ongoing revenue stream, because what happens then, it can be held in servers for forever.

    Drew Navolio: Right.

    Chris Cherek: And viewable.

    Drew Navolio: I’m interested to see, and this probably gets to the behavior part though. I feel like hybrid is going to represent more of a tug and pull for the attendee, because you’re going to know, to your point, there’s a million reasons why someone may not want to or is able to attend an industry event or a conference or something like that next year, but they’re going to see it. And what are organizations’ tendency going to be? Are you going to over plan the in-person experience? And this year was all one thing. We all had to figure out how to enjoy and live in a virtual world. Hybrid sort of to me it’s like you’ve got feet in two sides of the pond there and some things will stick, but it’s like some groups you can’t sort of half do something, right? You can’t necessarily scale up so that you could maybe offer the same level of virtual experience you had this year, in addition to providing the same in-person event you may have offered prior to COVID.

    Chris Cherek: Yeah. Yeah. I understand what you’re saying and you’re right. I think part of it is just as humans who learn to iterate, we will figure that out as we go. I heard somebody say in another one of the blogs saying that you should have, if you’re going to do a hybrid, and by the way, I don’t think that hybrid is going to be coming in the next six months. The logistics of vaccinations are just going to be tough enough where we won’t be able to do that. I think we’re still looking at probably another nine months to a year of largely virtual conferences. That being said, we’re also going to get smarter at how to script and direct conferences, events, even trade show floors, where we can build it for the virtual appetite and yet now we’re going to be able to tease people with these great little things like, “If you’re here live.”

    We’re almost going to have to ask people to come live versus before when we had to ask people to be there virtually. So, but I also think that you’re going to see keynotes and awards programs and other things that are often longer, we’re going to learn how to do those quicker. Let’s face it. We’re taught to digest a sitcom in 30 minutes and that’s including commercials.

    Drew Navolio: Right.

    Chris Cherek: When it’s like 22 minutes of real TV. So we’re going to learn how to do that in associations and corporates. So we can build our content, make it appealing, appetizing and digestible, but to do that in a way where people who are sitting there live are like, “Wow, that was really cool and I get to talk to the author, the expert that whatever afterwards,” which is kind of the appeal of ive, meanwhile, the virtual group can say, “Wow, I got to see Jane and Julie and James get their awards. And how cool was that? I can also send them a note of congratulation now off of my keyboard now that I saw that they won,” so everybody kind of gets to play within the pond, no matter if you’re live or virtual.

    Drew Navolio: Right. It definitely expands an audience. It makes groups more accessible outside the United States for those that have an international component to their mission. So there’s a ton of, I just think aside from the tragedy that was COVID on a more macro scale, from an industry standpoint, it seems like at least associations had to at least make some hard decisions. And that requires you to kind of look at your offerings to begin with. So I think there’s silver lining there in terms of things that will kind of carry over into the next year, but what do you think probably is there? How would you make the assessment to what degree as a production person, because you’re looking at some of the events we did and you’re trying to produce a hybrid and a live. I mean, there’s only so much you can stream and some staffs are only so big.

    I mean, what do you promise and what do you deliver, as you’ve been saying for both? I think that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge. I think that will be and moving fully virtual was this year’s challenge, but now delivering enough in both capacities is going to be the challenge for 2021.

    Chris Cherek: Yeah. You’re right. And that even goes into the things like more of the touch and feel where I physically have to be there to really experience the programs.

    Drew Navolio: Right. And making it worth for people to go, right?

    Chris Cherek: Yeah.

    Drew Navolio: You can’t do something halfway in person because you’re needing to sell people to get there like you said.

    Chris Cherek: Well, yeah. And that also speaks to production value as we go up. I mean, as I said, audiences initially were pretty, pretty forgiving if a presentation froze in the middle or had a dropout for whatever, people were like, “Oh yeah, well, that happens to my Zoom call.” And I say Zoom because it’s kind of the Kleenex for all the other services that are out there, it’s the most expensive. But if something, for lack of a better term, crapped out during your Zoom call, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s the same thing that happens with my family. I get it. That’s okay.” I think audience will be less tolerant of that.

    Drew Navolio: Right.

    Chris Cherek: And the onus then goes on association and event kind of planners to say, “How can I both prevent from a cyber security standpoint?” because [inaudible 00:16:43] as well as from an overall quality standpoint. I view the way that I produce things is it’s a mini TV show. It’s not the Emmys, but right now, any kid with an iPhone and the edit capability that comes out of Mac and now on PCs can put together a pretty compelling, and I think we’ve seen that, mini movies and stuff like that. Pretty cool. So if your teenagers in your house can do that, if you’re paying somebody thousands of dollars and a significant part of your budget to make this happen, it better be good.

    Drew Navolio: Right. Yeah.

    Chris Cherek: So that expectation is definitely going to be there. And that’s something that, that I think will raise as time goes on. And you hit on it before the onus upon us to create something that’s going to be amenable to live and virtual audiences simultaneously and or do you take what was live, edit it into something that’s worthwhile for a virtual audience to see?

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. Do you feel you personally, having gone through this, that production of, I know you’ve done some recent work with TEDx and they’ve moved obviously a lot of their stuff virtual. Do you see yourself as a producer? Going forward do you think you’ll work on more virtual events or live events?

    Chris Cherek: Let’s face it. My heart is in live and I think I can speak for anybody who’s listening. Why did we get into this crazy business where we fly to some remote location that, I mean, I’ve been in more glorious spots where people like, “Wow, you’re in XYZ.” I’m like, “Yeah, I saw the ballroom and the fluorescent glow of the light, but-”

    Drew Navolio: I was like a bat in the cave for a week.

    Chris Cherek: Right. Right.

    Drew Navolio: Which is the same thing stuck up in a studio. It’s like the life of a event production person. You could be anywhere really. You could be doing a virtual event like this year. You don’t go very far. You’re pretty much in the same space.

    Chris Cherek: Yeah. I mean, you can look at, and I’ll tell you right now, @cmcherek is my Instagram. You’ll see a post, as well as I think it’s on my LinkedIn, that shows where I have screens up where I’m doing a virtual conference. And yet I say, “Here I am, I’ve got a thousand people on screen. And yet I made my own coffee in my own kitchen this morning.” So there’s a benefit to that. Okay, great. Virtual is cool. And I think it is going to be there forever. We’re always going to do something hybrid. I can’t wait to get out as I think most, if not all, people to get out there, hug somebody, shake their hands, be in the same room with them, all that kind of thing.

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. The glut, the demand glut is there. And I think my hope is that you’ll see that over the next two years. You’ll have your more gung ho people who, if what I was reading this morning, they’re thinking, at least coming out of DC, is that if all goes according to plan, which is a gamble in and of itself, you’re looking at 70% vaccinated by May of next year. So as you get into the fall and all of that, yeah, but I would imagine next year even our business as an agency, from what we’re seeing probably still 50% of event focused items now at a minimum are going to be still virtual, if not 75%.

    Chris Cherek: I agree. I would say it’s even higher than that. Just because let’s face it as an association or a corporation, it’s not like a family wedding. You have a liability issue that’s out there that needs to be protected. And whether people are 70% vaccinated or not or what, and also I think it’s going to come with comfort levels. How many people now choose to, or not now, but in the future, choose to go to their local restaurant and sit inside? How many people choose to go to their local church and sit in a pew with 10, 15 other people around them? All of those kind of things. Yes. There is going to be the leading edge, like there is in anything. There’s going to be early adopters, but data will also prove out how effective our vaccinations and then our acceptance of doing things publicly will affect our behavior. That’s just it.

    So it is a great unknown. I think it’s kind of like watching a sunset. The sky is now kind of that deep purple to pink, the sun isn’t up yet, but it’s coming, and once we know, and it’s going to happen, when you feel those nice warm rays and we all feel good, we’ll know because all of a sudden we’ll be having largely live conferences. I can’t wait for that.

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. I mean, and part of this you had mentioned too, kind of our pre convo on this is that how technology, Zoom withstood it and everyone sort of had their own platform for the virtual experience. Do you see more coming out? Because you had mentioned some surveys of the industry that a good majority don’t trust or have a whole lot of faith in the current virtual tech being offered, that we all kind of got by. And this gets to your point about glitches and things that people will become less and less tolerant of. I mean, how do you see that changing? Because by the time they kind of all rush to make something new, the pendulum probably is going to swing back and we’ll be back to majority live again.

    Chris Cherek: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah, there was one thing that I saw in an industry magazine that said something like 58% of event planners are uncomfortable with virtual technology and that’s not, that’s just the nature of the beast because I was kidding with a friend of mine who wants me to help them with a conference they have in January. And I’m like, “Look, I understand you can, you can negotiate room contracts and airline deals and all that kind of stuff and say, “I’m not going to pay 120 bucks for a gallon of coffee. I’ll pay 85,” and they end up at 95, just all of that kind of stuff. And those are details that escape most people, but planners know that stuff, but they don’t even know necessarily. What do you mean? How are you using? What’s your platform? Not all platforms even handle streaming, a studio streaming service.

    Meanwhile, convention centers and hotels are building, some of them are building their own virtual studios so they can accept and do a live conference with a virtual studio right there. So the senior vice president of XYZ or the CEO or executive director of this association can be there live and also broadcast the same respect. [crosstalk 00:23:58]

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. That’s interesting. Yeah, I mean, it would make sense to me that you see some of these more major hubs, like the city we were supposed to go to with one of our events, New Orleans. That city tourism’s huge and the conferences I see as part of that, but their facility is not in a place to do anything like that right now. And seeing that sort of infrastructure change, is that going to happen? And how far do people go down it or do we get to a point where people do look back in five years and they’re like, “Remember all that virtual stuff we had to do?” But interesting. Kind of to maybe close out here on one point. You made some great recommendations this year to our clients. And I think, if I’m making a recommendation as a person and director of marketing and to the associations and organizations listening to this is to get yourself a Chris or to get yourself that production person who’s not your conference planner, or maybe they work with your conference planner, but if you didn’t take your in person-

    I feel digital has helped people look at the quality of the production overall. And maybe the, because we always used to do that, which is rampant in associations because that’s how we always used to do it, has definitely changed as far as their events are concerned. So my suggestion to them is that Chris, you speak widely of, is don’t be afraid to spend on talent. So even if it’s live and lots of people, the concept of a host seems frivolous and seems more obvious, I think, for live, but the notion of doing it virtually, I mean, it’s such a difference in terms of the flow and people’s ease of the experience when you have someone who’s comfortable, regardless of the environment, being in front of camera and sort of bringing people along a journey or helping bring them into an event and making them feel that they get something out of it. Do you think enough groups do that? Should more? Do you see a change on that front in terms of out-of-pocket spends on talent that they normally wouldn’t have gone for?

    Chris Cherek: I do. I do see a change and I know it mostly because of the talent that are MCs and hosts and that type of thing are getting more booked, which is nice. Now that tends to be higher end organizations, but I strongly recommend it. I mean, the simple thing is, like if you want to do something, you want to install new closet doors at your house. Okay. Well, a lot of people can do that, but it’s going to be arduous, painful and maybe it isn’t going to look too good. Well, then get somebody who’s experienced at it. Same thing with having your company or a corporation or association executive stare a camera down for a virtual thing and try to be compelling the whole time or offload some of that issue and share it with a professional MC or host where they can interject enough energy to keep things flowing, keep things exciting. And man, and I think people are getting that.

    Kind of to my point about production value. That’s one of those things where it increases the production value. It makes it more like a TV show rather than a corporate address, that type of thing. And people watch more. And that’s what you want. If you’re going to spend the money to create something virtual or live, make it appealing, make it worthwhile.

    Drew Navolio: Yeah. Spend up because one of our executive directors, she said, “I want to make something that people are like, ‘I have to do this again next year. I want to go.’ Or they’ll go or they’ll go for part of it.” But if it’s like your standard lunch and learn webinar, you’re going to take it. People will decline and wait till next year. But if your conference is as important as it is for many associations, there may not be a next year if too many people decide to take a year off.

    Chris Cherek: And we did that, too, with other segments of one of the clients that I worked with you on, one of your clients where we created, we really put together two whole segments of their keynotes and their awards into a portion that it was really people watched and people came back to. And if I’m not mistaken, I think you told me that some of the data on the kind of the permanency enduring content that’s there, that we got from revamping those areas really keeps on paying its dividends, not only to the association, but to the sponsors, which means the sponsors are going to want to come back. People are going to want to come back, but it’s just rethinking how you take those tried and true segments of your association meeting in that and how do we make them so people like it and people want to come back?

    Drew Navolio: Yeah, there’s definitely been-

    Chris Cherek: That’s kind of the truth for me.

    Drew Navolio: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s great. And yeah, for us as an agency, there’s definitely been products and services that have emerged from this that we’re seeing, as things that people are now becoming interested in doing themselves, but there’s also trickle down, for some of our bigger groups that have smaller events throughout the year, you’re seeing some of the digital assets we’ve created now will get used. And that’s the stuff I’m assuming and seeing these things might be around for a while, which is great. I think that’s good that there’s been new life bred into this. Well, great having you, Chris. I appreciate the talk. I don’t think this conversation topic’s going to go away anytime soon. It seems still pretty red hot. If you’re interested, for those listening, and you’d like to discuss further kind of what you’re doing with events, we here at the David James Group would love to talk to you.

    We work with Chris. He himself, his information will be on our website. You can also reach out to him directly if you’re interested in just having someone look at what you’re offering or bringing us in to help make your event better than it was last year. So Chris, any parting thoughts, any suggestions for our listeners before we head out?

    Chris Cherek: I think the biggest thing is just learn and learn a little bit more and also be willing. It’s kind of one of those great lessons about life. If you’re willing to be a little bit vulnerable, I think you’re going to be a lot more rewarded in the interactions you have and the experiences you have. So admit what you don’t know. People in my position are always happy to chat. You can’t just do like, “Well, how would you do this whole show?” Well, sorry, that’s me working. But if you want my opinion or possibility, I’m more than happy to interact. But the biggest thing is just ask. If you have a question, if you’re unsure or “Gosh, we did it this way and it didn’t quite work out well. Do you know a better way?” Yeah, sure. We’re all about meetings and events and the industry alive. Let’s work together to do that.

    Drew Navolio: Yep. A lot of trial and error by a lot of people in this last year and to stick with it because I don’t see in the short term, people are going to have to keep making hard decisions. So stay committed, seek the resources. And I think things hopefully will be getting better soon. So Chris, thanks so much. We appreciate it. Maybe in six months we’ll bring you back and we’ll talk about state of the world then. And hopefully things are on the upswing.

    Chris Cherek: Boy. Wouldn’t that be nice? I hope so, too. Yeah. Thanks.

    Drew Navolio: Thanks again, Chris.

    Chris Cherek: You betcha.


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