Whether it is an awards banquet, an industry trade show or a football game, the COVID-19 pandemic caused major reshuffling of in-person events and will likely continue to do so for a while.
For event planners, the pandemic also created opportunities for new ways, born of necessity, of putting on a show.
Tiffany Mattzela is the director of events for Arkansas Business Publishing Group, owner of this publication, which is hosting its 33rd annual Arkansas Business of the Year Awards at 7 p.m. March 3 in downtown Little Rock. Mattzela said normally she could see a 650-person ballroom filled for the program awards, known internally as ABOY, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, events have to be adjusted for safety reasons.
It’s a consideration that directors of events statewide have been dealing with since the pandemic roared into people’s daily lives in March 2020. The 32nd ABOY banquet was held just days before the pandemic forced major changes in social interactions.
Mattzela hit upon an innovative solution for the company’s 40 Under 40 program in July: “skyboxes” and watch parties. Mattzela drew inspiration from the NFL Draft, during which TV crews often film draftees’ reactions in their homes surrounded by equally celebratory family and friends.
Arkansas Business and Mattzela are bringing the same concept back to this year’s ABOY, which will be held on two stages inside the Robinson Center ballroom and the DoubleTree Hotel. Mattzela said the two-stage idea was inspired by New Year’s Eve celebrations when an emcee in one city throws the action to another emcee at another celebration.
“This one is pretty different in the sense that now we’re starting to dip our toe back into live events where we are hoping to have a certain limited number of people in person eating dinner … and another group of people who are joining us virtually,” Mattzela said. “It is more of a hybrid model we are trying to move into instead of a fully virtual model with just the finalists on site.”
One thing event planners learned early in the pandemic is that a virtual event must be more than just video streaming a live event.
The Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit, produced by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, was purely virtual in October rather than the in-person event that normally draws thousands of people, including top executives from multiple companies and scores of vendors advertising their products.
Ashley Wardlow, the executive director of the summit, worked hard to keep it lively and interesting. Between guest panels and interactive Q&As, Wardlow arranged for local musical acts to perform.
Wardlow said attendance was up approximately 12% and a post-summit survey resulted in a Net Promoter Score of 8.8 out of 10, reflecting how likely an attendee would be to recommend the event to a friend or colleague. The score of the last in-person summit in 2019 was 7.2.
“We were delighted to discover that by going virtual meant we were able to welcome speakers from across the country and from across the globe,” Wardlow said. “We are excited looking forward to 2021 and carrying that momentum forward.”
Wardlow said plans for this year’s event are not firm, but the preliminary plan is to have a hybrid event with in-person attendance and virtual aspects. She said having a virtual component meant there was a wider availability of speakers who might not have been able to personally attend the four-day summit in years past.
The Greater Bentonville Chamber also hosts the Northwest Arkansas Business Women’s Conference and will hold its State of the Chamber meeting March 3. In a twist, that meeting won’t be virtual but on television, as the chamber has arranged air time on the local Fox station.
To keep the audience engaged, there will be an interactive Facebook Live meeting and raffle giveaways afterward. Alex Howland, the chamber’s director of the Womens’ Conference (and a former Arkansas Business Publishing Group event director), said the chamber expects a bigger audience for the television version than the 700 who showed up pre-pandemic in early 2020.
“One thing we really took advantage of this year was going and finding really cool avenues and new experiences for our viewers,” Howland said. “It is very unique and very different. I really believe we will have more eyes on this program than we have experienced in the past. We are getting it in front of a very, very diverse set of eyes.”
There is a financial consideration with events, whether it is a nonprofit’s fundraiser or a private business’ enterprise event.
Matt Trantham oversees events and facilities as senior associate athletic director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The state’s flagship university saw COVID-19 severely limit its paid audiences at sporting events; Trantham said football filled an average of 16,000 of the 76,000 available seats in Reynolds Razorback Stadium for football games.
The baseball Razorbacks routinely draw a capacity crowd of 11,000 for games but coronavirus protocols will limit seating to 4,000. Trantham said organizing who sits where while maintaining social distancing requirements can be tricky.
Seating arrangements are determined by season-ticket holders, whether the venue is outside or inside and the configuration of the venue. In addition, there are mandates passed down from the health department, the SEC and the NCAA.
“We understand we can’t live in a vacuum here and we’ve got to optimize safety for our patrons, for our student-athletes, for our staff who come to support the event,” Trantham said. “All of those go into play. Some venues across the conference can probably accommodate more versus less. At the end of day the ruler is 6 foot or it’s not. That’s part of the puzzle.”
Mattzela, at ABPG, said a critical consideration is the bottom line. Hosting an event, either fully virtual or with a partial in-person component, has to make financial sense to the hosting organization.
It was that consideration that made ABPG’s planners focus on what made people want to attend a 40 Under 40 or ABOY Awards show to begin with.
“You have to take it all the way down to the studs,” Mattzela said. “Why do people even attend this? You have to make it meaningful. If I can make an experience meaningful to you, then I can charge for it. If I can charge for it, I can afford to put it on.”