I sat down in front of my laptop for what was my Thanksgiving lunch and my parents’ Thanksgiving dinner. They live overseas, with a six-hour time difference, so we’ve grown accustomed to the oddly timed family FaceTime.
The stress of life under COVID-19 has increased the desire for closeness as a family, as is true for many families across the globe. This past holiday weekend we were lucky to have time to spend with each other, practice gratitude, and, of course, field the age-old question:
What is it you do again?
My mom asked me as I picked at my pie crust, hoping to have room for just one more bite. In the background, my dad resigned himself to his traditional post-Thanksgiving nap, while my mom pressed on.
Mom: I’m just curious, honey. I just don’t get it.
I let slip a “here we go again” eye-roll that luckily got lost in the camera lag before my mom could catch it. I recently rejoined the Castle Events team, and this line of questioning has become the canon of our weekly family check-ins. This time, however, I had the time (and sweet-potato-fueled energy) to explain exactly what we’re doing at Castle these days.
I’m sharing our conversation as an opportunity to clear the air for all the confused parents, friends and people out there. Virtual events are not just Zoom!
Me: Events, Mom. I plan events.
Mom: Events? Are those still happening? How can you have an event when you can’t even have 10 people in the same room together?
Me: Well, COVID has put a hold on large gatherings, conferences and celebrations, but events are still happening. I mean, companies are still looking for ways to connect and engage. But most events have gone straight up virtual or hybrid.
Mom: What’s hybrid?
Me: A hybrid event is hosted primarily on a virtual platform, but also has an in-person component for smaller groups of individuals to meet safely.
Mom: And virtual?
Me: Virtual events are entirely online.
Mom: So, you just send out a Zoom?
Me: No, Mom, it’s not just Zoom. And nobody calls it “a Zoom.”
Mom: Ha. Ha. I’m old, I get it. But what do you do if not Zoom?
Me: We plan and execute events on a virtual platform, which has a variety of components, depending on which platform we use.
Mom: I’ve got to stop you already. What’s a platform?
Me: A platform is essentially a venue. It’s where the event takes place.
Mom: Why can’t you do that on Zoom or, like, Facebook live?
Me: Well, that wouldn’t be very different from things we do in day-to-day life now. And what we’re trying to do is to create events that feel special, and, real— that bring people together in unique and engaging ways. With a platform, there’s so much more you can offer. You can design the site to create ‘ambiance.’ There are platforms that let you build virtual convention centers, too. For example, we just did a virtual conference that used the platform to showcase information on speakers, sponsors and attendees; engage attendees in the social feed; conduct product demos at exhibitor booths; and, of course, stream the event itself.
Mom: So how do you get people engaged?
Me: Largely through the social feed, we pose questions or send out push notifications to get the conversation going. It’s like Facebook, but specific to the event. Some of our clients host contests where attendees who interact the most can win prizes (like a gift card or even an iPad).
Mom: How do you judge who interacted the most?
Me: The platform tracks audience engagement for us, which is another great way they come in handy. Each type of interaction is given a different point value. So, let’s say liking a post is one point, chatting with another attendee is two, joining a breakout session or networking is three and so on. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.
Mom: Breakout session?
Me: Yea! That’s one of the ways we do integrate Zoom. It has a great feature that allows smaller groups to meet aside from the main event.
Mom: Okay, so you do use Zoom. I’m not completely out of touch.
Me: Yeah, we do. It’s a great technology, but it’s just one piece of the pie.
My dad awakens from his stuffing-stupor at the word “pie” and disappears from the screen to get himself another piece.
Mom: And you can use it to network?
Dad: Hey, networking!
My dad re-enters the frame, mid-bite, then waits a few beats to finish chewing.
Dad: You know, Kenna, I’ve been telling you, you need to network more. I know it’s awkward, but that’s how it goes these days. That’s how you get ahead.
Another conversation we’ve had a million times.
Me: I know, I know. Actually, networking at a virtual event is a lot less awkward than in person. If you see someone you want to talk to, all you need to do is shoot them a message or schedule a time to connect. No more hovering over shoulders and laughing at punchlines that you didn’t hear the setup for. The schedule will usually allow time before or after the main program for networking. Whether in breakout sessions, one-on-one calls or instant messaging.
Mom: And the main program is?
Me: Usually some form of video, either live, preproduced or a little bit of both. Sometimes the main program redirects you to a Zoom meeting. But it can be a slide presentation, interview, webinar, really anything you can think of.
Mom: Ha! Zoom again!
Me: I never said we didn’t use Zoom. I said that it’s not just Zoom, Mom.
Mom: But it must be easier to plan than a live event, right?
Me: Not at all. Virtual events can require even more pre-planning, actually, in terms of organizing the speaking program. We need to conduct a lot more training, rehearsals and technological troubleshooting. We need to make sure everyone is prepared and on the same page before the event even starts. Unlike with live events, where speakers could show up day-of with a flash drive.
Mom: Sounds like a bit of a pain in the—
The line goes silent and I can’t tell if she’s frozen or saving face.
Me: Yeah, sure. Pain in the pie.
My dad holds up a forkful of his as if to cheers to the sentiment.
Me: But I really do love it. It’s challenging, of course, figuring out how to engage people and predict and problem-solve tech issues without being live. But it does feel good to bring people together and make something special, especially during this time when we need it most.
Dad: Well, you’re special to us. I’m glad you’re still getting to share everything we love about you with the rest of the world.
Mom: Of course, sweetie, so thankful.
My mom catches my eye-roll this time but doesn’t say anything, and we switch back into cherishing our time together mode. We watch my dad’s favorite Christmas movie, load up on a few more helpings of pumpkin pie, and get a little too competitive over online Pictionary. Even through the computer screen, I can’t help but be thankful for the time we do have together, and how my virtual event savvy helped make it a little more special—and run a little more smoothly, and how, despite my mom’s confusion, our virtual Thanksgiving, was also more than just Zoom.