Everyone’s Going Digital
The Coven co-working community is offering virtual networking and learning. Photo by Bethany Birnie

Everyone’s Going Digital

From virtual meet-ups to webinars, event planners and startup incubators are two groups fighting to stay ahead of the planning curve amid the push to #flattenthecurve.

Overnight, event planners saw their business drop by 100 percent. First, it was the large scale conferences, galas, and award ceremonies. Then, even the smaller networking lunches and lectures. By the time a national emergency was declared and size limits were put on public gatherings, local event firms said they were staring at completely empty calendars.

At Event Lab in Minneapolis, virtually everything that was booked through April is now cancelled or postponed, said company president Jack Noble. “Most of our customers have been very understanding and reimbursed us for any expenses already incurred, including time spent planning their event, but most of these have resulted in a complete loss of revenue,” Noble said. “This is obviously a very tough time for Event Lab and the entire event planning industry.”

Every single corporate, nonprofit, and social event Amy Zaroff Events + Design had booked through the end of April has been called off or postponed. “What we are seeing is truly unprecedented,” Zaroff said.

Grant Whittaker, vice president of creative & development at Freestyle Productions, a full-service event production company based in Minneapolis, and Lou Ann Olson, director of public relations for Bloomington-based communications agency Tunheim, both say they’ve had numerous event cancellations and postponements as well.

Just ten minutes before it was slated to start last Thursday, Freestyle’s client FIRST—a nonprofit in St. Louis, Missouri, which works with youth to build science, engineering, and technology skills—made the decision to suspend their regional robotics competition. “We were completely loaded in, in an arena, with an arena’s worth of equipment and gear, and we had to tear it down and change our travel plans,” says Carrie Monroe O’Keefe, vice president of sales & marketing for Freestyle Productions, who was on-site at the competition in St. Louis.

But event planners are in the business of creating contingencies, and so many—including Freestyle—saw this coming. Weeks ago, before many were paying attention to the impending disruption, their teams were already preparing for the “what ifs.”

“We’ve been trying to think of ways that our current clients and any potential clients can still achieve what they want with their employees and their customers in a way that they never thought they would have to,” O’Keefe said.

Even before coronavirus rendered companies unable to hold meetings, Freestyle Productions was producing remote meetings for some of its larger clients—like a bank with offices spread across multiple states. “It’s allowing us to take that knowledge and bring it to other corporate clients who maybe don’t currently do that but may have to switch to those kinds of meetings,” O’Keefe said.

Still, the biggest issue at hand, Whittaker says, is figuring how to keep people engaged digitally—how do you make them feel like they’re part of an experience, even if they’re sitting on their couch in PJs?

Features like virtual sets and interactions, live streaming, remote presenters, video calls, and online breakout groups are just a few of the tricks Whittaker and O’Keefe have up their sleeves. Other events might not need to go digital, depending on timing and other circumstances: some could just move outdoors; others may be adapted to smaller groups over a multi-day period.

“We’re just trying to take peoples’ creative initiatives and translate them,” Whittaker said, “so that people aren’t losing their top dollar or losing their business.”

Likewise, Tunheim is currently helping a client arrange one-on-one virtual meetings with its customers and media in place of attending a trade show; another client has decided to forego an annual event and will host virtual presentations instead.

Minneapolis-based Heroic Productions, an event staging and AV production services company, announced Friday that it is temporarily transitioning an empty warehouse space into ready-to-use virtual meeting and event space with live streaming capabilities—available for both in-person (as allowed) and virtual events—for their clients and partners to utilize.

“There will be some loss still, but overall, event contractors are doing their best to ease consequences as much as possible,” Zaroff said.

Incubators Follow Suit

Much of the same technology being utilized by these event planners is also being harnessed by local businesses and incubators. Some are even taking the opportunity to create new virtual learning and networking opportunities among their cohorts.

“We’re practicing physical distancing, but we don’t necessarily have to practice social distancing in the same way,” said Danielle Steer, managing director of St. Paul-based Lunar Startups, an incubator for high-growth startups founded by women, people of color and indigenous peoples, veterans, and LGBTQ+.

Both Lunar Startups and its Minneapolis peer, Beta.MN, are using tools like Zoom, a video conferencing platform, to keep their cohorts connected to the incubators, their fellow entrepreneurs, and even the outside world.

While the curriculums taught by incubators can be enriching, being in the same room with other founders who are having similar experiences or connecting with mentors are the real keys to success, said Casey Shultz, executive director of Beta.MN. “So we’re really exploring how we can do that with Zoom, to make sure that we’re still facilitating those conversations.”

One exercise originally planned for this week, Shultz said, is a design-thinking workshop. Typically, the lesson involves cohorts coming together in one room to go through an ideation process, and then going out in the community to ask random individuals questions about the topic or problem they’re trying to solve for, and bringing that information back to let it inform their products. Luckily, Shultz said, Zoom allows for digital “breakout rooms,” where people can meet face-to-face on screen in groups. She’s also considering asking people to volunteer to chat via Zoom in place of the “strangers” that cohorts would usually consult in public.

Lunar Startups is taking a similar approach.

“There’s an old saying that you do business with who you trust. Therefore, it’s really important to build personal connections,” Steer said. Now, we’re in a “new world order,” she said, where we’re really having to think about the design challenge of how to connect entrepreneurs to each other and their customers. Her team is experimenting with several platforms now to find what works best for them.

“For now, we have a pretty active Slack channel [an online chat room for companies and businesses], so our founders are providing the relevant resources and support systems via Slack on a daily basis.”

Lunar Startups is also teaming up with The Coven, a community and co-working space for women, non-binary, and trans people with locations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, for what they’re calling Fix-it Fridays—free, virtual lunch meetings during which three founders will host a brainstorming session to help solve a marketing, financial, operational, or staffing challenge. (The Coven locations are closing through March 30, but they’re also offering a new pay-what-you-can digital membership option and additional digital programs.)

“Founder wellness is really critical to the success of any company,” Steer said, “and given the crisis that our global community is facing now, we want to make sure that we’re giving space for founders to be able to really address and talk about how they are personally doing through all this, and then how we can help them think about resilience-building going forward.”

Steer said Lunar Startups is also in the early stages of what they hope will be a “resilience fund” to help entrepreneurs patch up some of their emergency financial issues.

“We took a pretty early stance on wanting to make sure we were ‘flattening the curve’ in terms of protecting our community members as well as the rest of the ecosystem,” Steer said. “So that’s why we’re here.”

Shultz echoed that sentiment: “The feedback that we’ve gotten from our startups is that they feel that social distancing is the most important tool we have to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was really important to them that we take things virtual.”