Editor’s note: The series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed. Read the first installment on the San Francisco Ballet.
Entering 2020, two entrepreneurs peered into the crystal ball of virtual business meetings. Suddenly, the virtual became the new reality, exclusively — the only hope to keeping their event-planning businesses alive.
While the pandemic has hurt almost all business sectors, the event-planning industry is among the most severely decimated. The estimates on the carnage vary, partially because event planning involves a myriad of jobs, from photographers to caterers to equipment rentals. One industry analyst said event planners lost “conservatively” 90% of their business after the COVID-19 shutdown hit in March. Eventmanager.com estimated that 22 million event industry employees have lost their jobs.
Two women who founded disparate events-driven businesses — Autumn Rich of Austin, Tex.-based Panacea Collective and Shelley Young of Chicago-based Chopping Block — shared with WorldatWork how they redirected their companies to bounce back.
The Panacea Collective
In early 2020, Rich’s life turned into what could be another verse of the blues song, “If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck, I’d Have No Luck at All.” Then, a growing political movement vaulted her business into a virtual-event success story.
The Panacea Collective, which she co-founded with fellow veteran event planner Lisa Hickey in 2014, enjoyed a great 2019. It was involved in more than 250 events, including 38 related to Austin’s iconic South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music festival and a “living presidents” event at the LBJ Library.
“2020 was on track to be our biggest year and then everything canceled,” Rich said.
That wasn’t the only challenge she had to face. “I was in between houses, my son was moving back from college because of the pandemic, then I contracted COVID-19 plus I was closing down the company,” she recalled.
“I had to accept the situation. What else could I do? You need to give yourself time to grieve what was, feel it and react to it and dig deep with whatever you have.”
The Panacea Collective went from 12 employees to four, including Rich and Hickey, who quit taking salaries. They cut spending, taking such actions as renegotiating rents.
And, they started building their virtual business.
That change of fortune came in August. They had been hired by The 19th, which describes itself as a nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy, for its August grand-opening event in Philadelphia. “We decided to take it online and virtual,” said Rich, who put her background as a political TV show producer to work.
The event was moved to Zoom, with three-hour shows for five straight days.
August may seem like a long time ago on the COVID-19 calendar but try to remember the hot political climate at the time. An increasingly strong women’s movement was part of the pre-election summer of political and social activism and unrest. The 19th event had lined up such speakers as Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and now-Vice President Kamala Harris, who gave her first post-nomination interview during The 19th event.
Going in, organizers expected 10,000 viewers during the five days. They wound up with about 200,000.
But those numbers didn’t magically appear. The organizers had to coordinate and integrate all the players, including the audience, speakers, panelists and sponsors, for the five days of live streaming.
The Panacea Collective hired experts for key functions, most notably technical producers to record and edit Zoom calls, instead of trying to learn those skills on the fly.
“We pivoted to growing industries,” Rich said. “Events people need to be good at PR, people and content creation. This gave us a good introduction to TV.”
The Panacea Collective is building back its business with mostly virtual events as well as working other parts of the company, including a furniture rental operation that’s been hired by small, socially-distanced events.
“A lot of it has been going from huge events to smaller scale,” Rich said.
She reports that three big clients have signed up for live events in 2021, quickly adding “virtual events aren’t going away.”
Her business’s rebound has been “a matter of luck, perseverance, the women’s movement and political climate,” Rich said.
In the case of Rich’s business, Panacea Collective clearly made its own luck.
The Chopping Block
CEO and Founder Shelley Young laughs when she remembers starting The Chopping Block in 1997 in Chicago.
“My business model of recreational cooking was met with ‘Huh?’ It’s a very niche market but people understand a recreational cooking school a lot better today.”
With small onsite recreational cooking classes and retail outlets, The Chopping Block has built its business around corporate events. Before the pandemic, it attracted about 85,000 to 100,000 students per year with 350 to 400 events per month, said Young, adding that monthly volume is about what similar businesses do in a year.
Fortune 500 companies provide the bulk of the clients. The typical event can have hundreds of people cooking at the same time, but averages more intimate groups of 25 people cooking together.
“It’s a business-, team-building event,” Young said. “It’s relaxing, designed to promote a business, brand, product launch or team-bonding experience. What the client wants is varied. What we provide is fairly consistent — (teaching cooking to) a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily foodies.”
(Talking with Young, you can easily envision her charming the most uptight corporate drone to loosen the tie and don the apron.)
Pre-pandemic, Young had been looking at virtual classes as one way to grow her business.
“One of the strategic goals for 2020 was to build the business outside four walls,” she said. “To build a brand nationally, you need to launch a book or TV show or have a virtual presence. It’s been on my radar, but I never felt the market was there.
“Suddenly, the appetite for virtual events and classes was available to us.”
Facilities that Young had been planning on a Michigan micro-farm for years, including a 4,000-square-foot R&D cooking laboratory with video capability that opened in 2017, have served The Chopping Block well. “We were ready to pounce in when the pandemic hit,” she said.
Plus, Young and her artist partner love the rural environment, which is only a one-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago.
The Chopping Block now shoots virtual classes and events from there, as well as from one of its Chicago facilities and an employee’s house.
Young sees the virtual classes as a permanent part of the business. “We are in it for the long haul,” she said. “Our recreational classes can hit audiences that we could never reach before,” she said. “This is an opportunity to reach national and international markets. The events are growing but the concept of a virtual cooking event is a lot for people to wrap their heads around and it is hard for people to imagine the intimacy that is possible.”
People also struggle to understand the perceived value of a virtual event, Young added. “They have an executive chef or the owner and a moderator all to themselves for the night. Each and every time, our guests are amazed at how connected they feel with their team. Recent feedback we received from a client said that we created an environment just as intimate as an in-person event.”
Virtual classes do have their challenges, such as ensuring the participants have the necessary equipment and ingredients. “We try to align resources, such as Instacart, with clients. It would be too hard and expensive for us (to provide supplies). We try to use ingredients they can get at the local market.”
She recently faced a supply challenge herself on the Michigan farm when she couldn’t get an Asian pear that a recipe called for. That’s where substitutions come in.
Young is the first to admit she doesn’t know what the future holds. “Virtual events are growing but we are faced with people being tired of being on Zoom,” she said. “When the quarantine is over, there may be a spike in classes. But when live events happen again, will people be hesitant to cook with strangers and eat their food?
“We want to keep the company afloat and have the right people in place for whatever we can resurrect.”– Shelley Young, CEO and founder of The Chopping Block
“Although we have stabilized the physical locations, largely because of the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding we have received and anticipate receiving, the structure of in-person classes and events will need to be reinvented and we do not fully understand how the consumer will respond to that.”
Young is confident about the future of virtual classes and events. “I believe there is a permanent shift in the appetite for virtual programming,” she said, adding that she recently secured an investment banking group to assist in identifying potential investors and partners for The Chopping Block’s virtual businesses.
The Chopping Block, whose workforce has been sliced from 85 to 10, has retained its key people to give itself the best chance of surviving, Young said.
“We kept the most tenured, experienced managers, including the leadership team such as the heads of HR and events, the CFO and executive chef,” she said. “We are still paying them their full-time salaries. We want to keep them happy. They are able to take care of things, they make me sane and they will be key to reopening operations.
“We want to keep the company afloat and have the right people in place for whatever we can resurrect.”
Total Rewards Conference Morphs into Total Resilience Virtual (TRV)
Like countless other organizations, WorldatWork’s annual capstone event got kneecapped by the pandemic.
Preparations for the June 2020 Total Rewards Conference were coming together when everything shut down in March. As it became obvious the live event wasn’t going to happen in Minneapolis, the question hanging over WorldatWork’s geographically dispersed remote workforce was: “How can we do TR online?”
First came a new name — the Total Rewards Conference became Total Resilience Virtual (TRV).
“We went with the resilience theme and TRV to play off the TR Conference,” said Alicia Scott-Wears, WorldatWork content director, adding that resilience followed a theme of the #KeeptheWorldatWork campaign.
But the new name was just one step in retooling TRV for the virtual world. Providing a virtual alternative wasn’t the end goal. TRV needed to provide relevant information for members, emphasized Ceré Netters, director of events.
“We didn’t want to focus on just the right now. We wanted to provide takeaways for six or nine months out,” she said.
“We took a tactical approach. We wanted to get people together and have them not feel alone. We had to figure out how to create a sense of connection, togetherness. We had to get in front of our audience and ask how we can still help our partners out there.”
While staging a major event virtually was a brave new world, it also was a competitive one.
“There were a lot of virtual events going on out there,” Netters said. “One of our questions had to be, ‘How is this going to be different from our competitors?’”
It was a case of not knowing what you don’t know.
“As an event planner, virtual events were nice to have before the pandemic,” Netters said. “We have all done things such as webinars but nothing to this extent. We didn’t understand the level of effort it would take. It took just as much staff as an in-person event. We planned the virtual event to be simple and easy to navigate, but we wound up getting at least 25 people involved.”
It was decided that TRV would consist of nine weekly Wednesday sessions. Spreading out those sessions gave WorldatWork organizers time for adjustments. There were major tweaks between each of the sessions. For example, diversity, equity and inclusion-based sessions were added along the way in light of the racial injustice issues sweeping the country and the workforce.
TRV attendance was comparable or maybe a bit higher than the traditional in-person event, Netters said. About 1,500 people participated in the nine weekly sessions. However, that number is an estimate because it’s impossible to know how many people watched from one sign-on.
Netters listed some of the key performance indicators (KPIs) for TRV:
- Attendee and exhibitor/sponsor satisfaction
- Number of countries (more than 20) that participated
- Average amount of time for an attendee in the platform
- Level of engagement (virtual networking, amount of chats during sessions, participation in our virtual breaks, etc.)
- Number of live viewers vs. sessions watched on demand.
TRV contributed to one of WorldatWork’s continuous goals — building a larger international footprint as it was obviously easier for international members to participate virtually than to travel to a foreign conference site. “We are hearing that they thought this was fantastic events-wise,” Scott-Wears said.
“We took a tactical approach. We wanted to get people together and have them not feel alone. We had to figure out how to create a sense of connection, togetherness. We had to get in front of our audience and ask how we can still help our partners out there.”– Ceré Netters, director of events at WorldatWork
TRV taught a plethora of lessons.
“We had only eight weeks of planning for a nine-week event,” Netters said. “We didn’t get to do a lot of research. We needed more crowdsourcing — asking members, exhibitors and sponsors what they were looking for. We had to go with it — we didn’t have a large enough window to think through it and discuss options like a normal planning process.”
One main lesson for event planners is the loss of control that comes with virtual planning. “There is a different level of control in-person than there is virtually,” Netters said. “Virtually there are a lot of factors — such as technical difficulties or a speaker (who doesn’t show) — that you can’t control.”
WorldatWork has used those TRV lessons in events such as the Spotlight on Sales Compensation and has shared them with local WorldatWork networks.
“TRV was awesome,” Scott-Wears concluded. “TRV practiced what we have been preaching. We were constantly pivoting with something to tweak every week. We were building out structures that allow flexibility. We were living resiliency.”
About the Author
Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.