Between crowded calendars and Zoom fatigue, the challenge of crafting a standout virtual event that will keep attendees engaged throughout is growing increasingly difficult for meeting planners.
"It's hard to find fun things to incorporate into our virtual events right now. It's like, how many wine tastings can we do?" said Katrina Kent, head of events for TD Ameritrade. "It's hard to keep people feeling like, 'Oh, I want to go to that virtual event. I'm looking forward to it.' It just always feels like a chore even when they're supposed to be fun and special."
But learning how to liven up digital meetings will be paramount for meeting planners in the coming months, as 67 percent say they do not plan to attend in-person meetings in 2020 and nearly 20 percent are not scheduling new face-to-face meetings until 2022 and beyond, according to research from Northstar Meetings Group.
"We're hearing a lot about Zoom fatigue at the moment. I equate it to email fatigue; it's not going anywhere for a while and you've got to work with it in a more productive and efficient way," said Andy Sharpe, founder and CEO of SongDivision, which offers interactive musical experiences for virtual and live events. "It's not Zoom itself that's the problem. It's what's being done on Zoom. We've got to get creative and we've got to be constantly changing up our events, so that people are surprised and delighted by what they've experienced."
Many meetings-industry suppliers have pivoted to deliver creative experiences online for virtual events. Here's how organizations are finding new ways to delight and engage attendees.
Add a Musical Component
Bringing music into an event doesn't just make it more fun; it can also help attendees get into the right mindset to strategize and think creatively, says Sharpe of SongDivision.
Since March, SongDivision has hosted more than 400 digital events, with attendance ranging from 15 people to 15,000. The company offers 10 options for virtual event engagement, including creating a team anthem with the help of expert songwriters, hosting a virtual happy hour with music trivia, or having teams of attendees face off in a Battle of the Bands-style competition.
For each session, SongDivision will create an original song, which is recorded in a professional studio and sent out to attendees along with a highlights reel post-event. All of the musicians the company works with have either recorded or toured with well-known artists.
"When you bring in SongDivision, you are bringing in these musicians who understand corporate culture and are great facilitators, but they've also been the band for big stars. For example, this band is normally the band for the likes of Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars — but today they're your band," said Sharpe, who noted that moving to virtual has allowed the company to create musical experiences that are more interactive. "Now, everyone in the audience has a chance to interact with the band via Zoom. They're just one raised hand away from interacting with David Bowie's guitar player."
The Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau has worked with SongDivision a number of times over the years. Most recently, the organization partnered with SongDivision to host a virtual happy hour, which took 150 attendees on a musical tour through Switzerland.
"I've been wanting to do something more interactive, but it can be hard to find a partner that's a match. They need to be able to engage in an interactive, professional way and really understand what our aim is and who we're talking to," said Caroline Pidroni, head of the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau. "I chose SongDivision because I trust them. I've worked with them on several occasions and they come up with a unique program every time. They know how to engage and to what extent. For this event, we were able to educate the audience in a fun, informal way using musical facts, and we had amazing feedback."
Among the larger events SongDivision has worked on recently was a one-hour legacy celebration for TD Ameritrade. The company, which is being acquired by Charles Schwab, wanted to host a virtual event for its 10,000 associates.
The SongDivision team worked with TD Ameritrade to write a custom song, "Invested Forever," which honored the company's 40-year history and highlighted major accomplishments from over the years. The song was used to kick off the one-hour event with a bang. The SongDivision emcees also hosted a few musical games throughout the event.
"People were completely blown away. It was totally unexpected and everyone wanted the MP3 of the song right away," said Kent of TD Ameritrade. "They did such a good job of going through a lot of the important milestones on the timeline, while at the same time homing in on the energy of what it means to be invested forever in something and invested in something together. Whether people are going to stay with the new company or find their way somewhere else, it's something that we can look back on together and say, 'We did that. It was an incredible time and incredible accomplishments as a company and as individuals.'"
Test Attendees' Knowledge
Another option for planners to consider is setting aside time on the agenda for a game of trivia. This can be a good way to break the ice at the beginning of the meeting, or test what attendees have learned after an education session.
The Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau, for example, decided to host a virtual happy hour in June for its 2020 Meeting Trophy participants after the event was rescheduled to 2021. The organization used the game-based learning platform Kahoot! to create a trivia game that tested participants' knowledge of Switzerland. The questions focused on everything from geography and fun facts to the country's unique offerings for meeting and incentive groups. Winners received prizes, such as a Swiss Army Knife and a puzzle of the Alps.
"There's always been this big separation of church and state in the meetings industry. So, we have content and learning over here and engagement and fun over there, and don't let them get anywhere near each other," said Sharon Fisher, CEO of Play with a Purpose, which specializes in team building and event activities. "It's become even more obvious in the virtual world, but the meetings that we've seen that are really, really successful blend the two and put engagement and content together."
Play with a Purpose offers trivia games that can be customized to a group's needs. In September, Play with a Purpose worked with a consumer products company to create a trivia game for the company's national sales meeting. The questions quizzed attendees on meeting content, as well as general company information. For another group, Play with a Purpose developed a trivia game for the new board of a company. The game, which was used as part of a leadership development program, tested how well each board member knew their role and responsibilities.
Create a Custom Escape Room
For those who can't travel right now, virtual escape rooms offer attendees a chance to slip into a different world and get lost solving a series of challenges. They're also great for team building and can be tailored to the content of a meeting, says Fisher.
"It's like a real escape room. I think what makes them so appealing is that nobody knows how they work and everybody on the team will see something different that will eventually lead to solving one of the puzzles." said Fisher. "You truly do feel like you're part of a team. Most are timed, so if you're competitive, it's a race to be the first to finish."
Play with a Purpose offers two virtual escape rooms: the Infinite Loop and Escape the Mob. A third, space-themed escape room game is expected to launch this week. The company also has the ability to create custom escape rooms that are directly tied to an event's sessions and goals.
In August, Play with a Purpose developed a custom virtual escape room for a financial services company. The escape room was designed to test employees on the facts, marketing plan and competitive analysis of new products that were being launched. The group of 280 people was broken down into teams of no more than eight to create an intimate and rewarding escape-room experience that everyone could be involved in.
"That entire game was based on the content of the meeting," said Fisher. "So, they had to not only be able to answer some questions about the content, but also apply it and show that they understood a way to use it in their world before they could get the answers and solve the challenge. There are so many ways to make virtual events more engaging. What it really takes is working with the speakers to figure out: How can we stop talking at people, and start talking with them?"