Jessica Lopes, Event Manager @ HYPE Innovation
Jessica Lopes is an event manager for over 14 years in different industries and she is currently working at HYPE Innovation, a software and services company in the innovation management field. Since last year Jessica has been facing the same challenge we all have been – how to plan and host meaningful and engaging online events? Overwhelmed by this disruption in the field of event management, many event managers simply decided to cancel. Jessica never saw this as an option. If you are looking for insights on how to prepare for managing successful online events, this insightful SCOOCS Talk with Jessica Lopes is for you.
Who is Jessica Lopes?
I have been an event manager for over 14 years, and currently I am working at HYPE Innovation, a software company, in a B2B environment. When I started working in event management, I had the opportunity to work in various type of non-profit organizations and organized different type of events – large crowd entertaining events, sport competitions, medical conferences, training programs etc. I started to work at HYPE Innovation five years ago, where I am mainly in charge of planning events for our own customers.
Listen here to this interview with Jessica Lopes!
When did you realize that online events might be the solution to adjust to this new normal? How did you embrace this unconventional format?
I want to make something very clear: We were not thinking about taking our events online; we were forced to switch. Last February we were supposed to have our start of the year small group event with about 30 people. With the evolution of the pandemic and borders closing in Europe, we quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be possible to meet in person. What do we do? Do we simply cancel?
As a quick and easy fallback plan, we decided to adjust the content to an ongoing monthly webinar format. The first thing to do was to survey our attendees who had planned to attend our event and ask them:
- What would be the ideal format?
- How long can you stay in one session?
- Is it better to have one session per day, over several weeks? Etc.
Once we had a better idea of what those people were expecting, we decided to switch the event into four webinars – one every week.
The next big challenge was how to host our annual forum online. This is traditionally a 3-day event taking place in April/May in Bonn, Germany, packed with client-led presentations, expert talks, keynote sessions, round tables, workshops, and so on. Back then, the government’s response to the pandemic was very uncertain and changing on a weekly basis. Although we were quite sure it was not going to be possible to meet in person, we already paid a deposit to the venue supposed to host the forum and it was a significant portion of our event’s budget. Until the last minute it was like a poker game: checking if there was some type of regulation or law that would force the venue to cancel the contract so we don’t lose our deposit and can officially redirect our budget to a virtual venue. This process was so long and cumbersome that I was not able to really plan this virtual alternative, and, once again, we did that kind of last-minute switch.
It wasn’t until September that we could fully commit to virtual events at least until the end of the year. I spent a lot of time doing research and testing different online event tools. Not really sure of what we needed, we decided for one of the main players in the online event platforms field as a “safe choice” – the whole experience was incredibly disappointing. The upside is that by this time I had a clear idea of what was needed to meet my audience’s needs and expectations and host successful and engaging online events for them. This was when I really embraced the concept of online events. So, it took a while…
What were the first things that excited and frightened you the most about the possibility of online events?
A lot of things were very exciting, but at the same time very frightening. It was exciting to learn how to deliver a brand-new experience to our audience. That was really the fun part. It was also the opportunity for me to train myself on different tools. However, it was also really frightening for me because I’m not an IT person. My knowledge about tools and platforms was extremely limited. On top of this, like it happened in many other companies, event budgets were being squeezed when not completely eliminated.
When we think about online events, many people wrongly assume that it costs nothing – as if video calls can be compared to a proper event experience. Moreover, when managing onsite events, I was always the single and final responsible person, but I was also able to delegate the execution of very specific tasks to different service providers. I had to take over EVERY SINGLE task in the event management and hosting process while training myself to become an online event manager. I must be honest; although very exciting, these were also the most intense and scary months of my professional career.
What are the main pitfalls of planning and hosting online events?
There are so many pitfalls when planning and hosting online events… but I would probably emphasize three main ones.
As I have mentioned before, many people assume that an online event is free of costs. Top management is not always aware that it is really not the case, and we, event managers, have to fight for our budgets. Furthermore, changing the format from onsite to online doesn’t mean that it is faster to organize. Of course, some tasks, such as planning catering, might not be relevant anymore, but they are replaced by other tasks, such as training your speakers for online presentations, that can be as much if not more time-consuming. I do think there is an opportunity to reduce some costs, but it is a mistake to be cheap with the tools and platforms, because these become your virtual venue. The budget you would allocate on renting a venue should be transferred to your virtual venue providers, so you don’t jeopardize the quality of your event.
The second pitfall is related to planning time. While some tasks can go faster, you will be working with new tools, new platforms, new service providers, to reconceptualize traditional onsite events into engaging and meaningful online event experiences – this takes a lot of time. You need to test things out, you need to train yourself, you need to train your support team, and you need to train your speakers and attendees. It is crucial to provide educational content on how to use your tool, particularly to your speakers. While at traditional onsite events naturally talented speakers could jump on stage and present despite any technical problems their presentation might run into, in an online context technical glitches can be incredibly stressful and terminal to an engaging talk.
The last pitfall is to choose that right tool for your audience and for your event management team, and to commit. The industry is booming. There are tons of platforms and tools online coming out every day. While it is important to keep an eye on what’s coming up and embrace the opportunities to improve, it is not ideal to constantly change tool, and neither efficient to go for the most famous platform if this does not meet your audience’s needs and expectations and if you cannot guarantee the level of support you need. Find the right fit for what you want to achieve, your goals, and your audience.
What was HYPE innovation's main challenge when pivoting from onsite to online events?
Our main challenge when pivoting from onsite to online was trying to reproduce the intimate and open atmosphere that we used to offer at our events. As I said, most of our events are for our customers and they feel quite isolated in their position. They usually work in a team of one or two, and because of that, our events give them a place to learn from each other, while also sharing their struggles without being judged and finding help from other people in the same situation. It took time for us to build this type of atmosphere. Most of our customers who attend our events become part of a community – a family. How do you translate this online? That was really a tricky thing to do.
How would you suggest that an event manager should plan this move towards online events?
I did a lot of learning by doing because I was forced into that situation. As I said, this was not something I experimented before or that was planned. In a way, we all saw this coming, but perhaps didn’t really accept it? I didn’t realize how stricted the pandemic regulations would be, how long this “new normal” would be in place, and so on. More than ever, I think that we need to be very flexible and keep ourselves open to new strategies, to new tools, and be willing to learn, adjust, and adapt. This is new territory for a lot of people. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. I think that’s the key.
How do you think that other event managers that are now thinking about how to host, how to plan, or maybe already did it and didn't like the experience so much, how would you suggest that they should prepare themselves and organize themselves?
I think there are some very common key steps for everyone.
We need to understand our audience. That may seem like super basic, but that’s what I do for every single event. We need to really understand how they will interact and behave in an online event, because this is very different from onsite events. We need to know who they are, what are their needs, what do they expect from your event? Are they just coming to listen? Do we want them to be learning by doing, having some hands on session? Do we want them to network? Do we want them to have fun? These are the kind of questions the event manager should have a clear answer for.
One thing that I hear at every conference is: how do you keep people engaged? And I have the feeling that everybody thinks that engagement means the same from one event to another. It doesn’t. Depending on the type of audience, engagement can be very different. As I said, you may have an event where you have three hours of content being delivered on a very specific topic. Maybe no one will use the chat functionality you have there, but for three hours, they’re all there. Their attention span is there, you can see from the statistics: are they online or not? Are they getting disconnected from the session? This is a type of engagement that we should not neglect, that we should not feel bad about. We should accept it. These are also KPIs that are new for us, that we are learning to understand and to work with.
It’s also important to assess how comfortable your crowd is with all those online tools. If they have a good internet connection, if they have enough computer literacy to be able to use the networking tools, this kind of things. Don’t hesitate to run surveys to know what your audience expects. In terms of format, it’s very helpful to know which day of the week and what time is better for them to join your event. At HYPE Innovation, we do this regularly and it helped us to have a higher number of registrations and a lower percentage of no shows. Furthermore, select the set of tools and service providers that will help you achieve what you want to achieve. Dedicating time to understand the goal for our audience in attending an event is crucial. Finally, it’s important to plan enough time to train the stakeholders. Everyone that is involved in an event should know what is at stake, what is their responsibility, how they should react in certain situations because now we have to deal with that physical distance that we didn’t have onsite. This is how I would approach that: spend a lot of time training people ahead, because what may seem natural for you and logical may not be for someone else.
By now, you have hosted a significant number of very successful events, and we are wondering what is the secret ingredient for a successful online event?
I’m not sure if there is one secret ingredient. Everything I said before is very important. It’s a combination of things to consider. I think it is key to accept certain situations, even more than before. We cannot control everything at a physical event, right? There is an important part of our job that is about finding solutions when things happen. Of course you have to plan ahead and think: “In this scenario, what could go wrong?”. And then you can have your plan B, C or D. That’s what we always do. We try to envision those last-minute problems and how we would fix that. Onsite problem-solving is a little bit easier because we see things, we have this overview on what’s happening, and we can access people very quickly.
The coordination part is what I think one of the secret ingredients to a successful online event. We need to accept that something will go wrong also in the virtual world and not over stress about it, but just make sure that we can very quickly solve the situation. This is all about coordinating with our stakeholders: making sure that everybody knows what they have to do, what they are responsible for, how they can communicate with you, through which channel, etc. In my perspective, having this really planned and practiced is the key ingredient to making sure that communication during the event is fast and efficient, so you can solve any issue happening quickly.
How did SCOOCS become the selected online event platform?
We did a lot of research. Last year we tried another platform before and it didn’t meet our expectations. SCOOCS offers the perfect mix of features we need. That was the first thing from a technical point of view. The spontaneous match roulette, for example, is fantastic. If you’re just a social butterfly and you ready to jump in a call with someone spontaneously during a break. We found that SCOOCS offered all these networking features that our audience is craving for.
The other thing that was super important is great support. What made my previous experience with our previous provider disappointing was that I didn’t have the support I needed. With SCOOCS we found the right person to work with, because our account manager truly understands what our events are about, what we are looking for, and how important certain platform experiences are for our audience. Furthermore, I am constantly amazed about how flexible and customer-centric they really are. Not only they are open to suggestions and to build the feature we need in preparation for our events, but also during events they are there for us, ready to jump in a call at any time. This is what I found with SCOOCS that I didn’t find before. This is why I am staying with SCOOCS. I’m really happy with the way this platform has been open to listen to our needs and adjust their offer to exceed our expectations. This is key.
How has the online event experience surprised you so far?
The thing that has surprised me the most about online events is the participants’ behavior. Truly amazing. I thought I knew some of my regular event attendees really well because of the way they behave at our physical events, how engaged they are, raising their hands, asking questions, moderating round tables, and so on. But it is amazing how some people are very different online. Some were suddenly really quiet. On the other hand, other attendees that I thought were super-shy, were now sturdy, super active – maybe because the screen was like a protection? I had some great surprises!
How does the future of the event industry look like for 2021?
I think everybody agrees on the fact that hybrid is the new format. We have three types of participants. If you look at it, you have the group of attendees that really want this face-to-face format back, desperately. And others, they didn’t know they would like it, but suddenly they find it very convenient because they don’t have to travel, they can stay with their family. If you have kids, elderly, or pets to take care of for instance, the possibility to join events online offered a lot of convenience and flexibility. Lastly, you have the ones who want a mix of both. Sometimes, they want to travel for big conferences where there are also major social activities. However, for a one-day event, they’d rather stay home and attend a couple of sessions. Those are the three types of people that we’re going to have now to accommodate. As I mentioned, I do not think we will go back to only fully onsite events. This pandemic has reminded us that we need to adjust even more quickly than before. Being flexible and able to adjust to every situation is really the challenge for our industry in this “new normal”. We need to listen even more closely and even more regularly to what our audience wants.
A couple of months into the first lockdown the term “Zoom fatigue” emerged. Everybody was complaining about the lack of interaction and added value of virtual events. Fast forward one year, I see the same people booking their seats to attend these virtual events. What changed? Perspective, for sure. It’s not a phase, but a reality. But also, event managers got better at proposing unique and engaging virtual event experiences. Now we are seeing people doing cocktail parties and bringing in music performers and entertainers to virtual events. I think this is just the beginning. I think we complained a lot in our industry at the beginning, being scared of what the future holds, but I think the ones that are going to succeed are the ones who can embrace change and are willing to adjust, to be flexible and to be creative. If this is our attitude, the future will be full of great surprises.