Six months into a calendar of webinars, virtual happy hours and Zoom board meetings, chambers of commerce and other business groups have scrambled to reinvent traditional business events.

Organizers have become more savvy on technology and online logistics, as attendees can drop out of a virtual meeting at any moment if production is sub-par, speakers and mixers get monotonous or the price of an event, when organizations do charge, isn’t worth its value.

“Even when we did webinars before, I would tell people, ‘you need to be really damn good because you really only have 20 to 25 minutes to talk.’ You got to get everything right, what you’re saying,” said Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce in Van Nuys. “The attention span online is not the same. And people get Zoom fatigue, or screen fatigue now.”

For Vanyek, putting together a virtual event comes down to one question: What do attendees want to get out of the event?

“You have to figure out what the need is,” she added. “It’s not a one-sized need. You have your sponsor’s needs, and then you want to have facetime with your elected officials, and then you have the need of what the program is.”

Correct tech

For organizers such as Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, finding the ideal platform or combination of tech tools means spending time and resources wading through a sea of potential streamers.

“You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince,” joked Waldman. “There are a lot of programs out there and I had four staff members going to every single event that popped up that we saw, to try out programs that other people were doing.”

Even when VICA settled onRemo as its virtual platform to host its ambitious Hall of Fame Dinner in July, it wasn’t without its flaws, Waldman said.

“It does not work with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge; you can’t use it on your phone or tablet; it works on Safari but not on your phone,” explained Waldman. “We held a lot of events before we held this event so people could acclimate to this program.”

VICA’s Hall of Fame Dinner was a guinea pig of sorts for freestanding virtual events in the Valley, presenting members with a cocktail of pre-recorded emceeing and speeches, food and wine dropped off curbside, and networking by way of video chatrooms.

Miraculously, more than half of the 250 attendees stayed to the end of the two-hour event — organizers said they would be lucky if attendees reached the 45-minute benchmark.

“It was Dodgers opening night, so I was fully expecting to lose 100 people,” said Waldman. “We picked our date before they did.”

Vanyek, who attended the VICA event, said the pacing of the virtual event helped keep her engaged, and jumping back and forth between live announcements and pre-recorded video broke up what could have been a dirge of award winner after award winner.

“You don’t have any WiFi bandwidth issues, you don’t have to worry about that,” added Vanyek.

Randy Witt, chairman of the Fernando Award Foundation and owner of video company Randy Witt Productions in Sherman Oaks, echoed the pros of having at least some portion of an event’s content pre-recorded.

“Events previously were dinner, people at podiums, sometimes they would show videos. Now it’s more like you’re producing your own Academy Awards because you’re going into people’s living rooms, or family rooms or kitchens,” explained Witt. “There are multiple aspects to having virtual events that they didn’t have to deal with before, such as bandwidth, what kind of cameras the participants are using, what kind of lighting, sound. We need to pay attention to these things in a lot closer regard.”

Witt is discussing with board members if his Fernando Award event would work well in a virtual format too — for now, the event is simply postponed. If Fernando does go virtual, it will take place at the end of this year, Witt said. Another Valley event, the Armand Arabian Leaders in Public Service Awards, has been cancelled for this year altogether, event producer Rickey Gelb told the Business Journal.

Participation through tangible components, like dinner and a centerpiece dropped off at the home, helps virtual events stand out to participants. But VICA’s Waldman returned to the question of giving people what they want. “One of the things people like the most about VICA events is the networking. How can we simulate that?” he asked.

“We found this program where you’re able to go into a room ... and you can pick how many seats at each table. You go into the room and you’re not beholden to one table. When people set up their profile, you’d know what company they work for, a link to their LinkedIn, a link to their website.”

Pricing

VICA ultimately decided to not lower the price of its event because it is virtual, instead striving to give members as much value as they could under the circumstances.

“Our events are in many cases part of people’s memberships,” added Waldman. “We chose to not lower the price; we chose to keep the price the same, the sponsorships the same, but give people more. Give them the value, or what we feel is the value for what they’re spending. It’s a hard question for people.”

The organization charged $225 for early-bird tickets and $275 for a normal ticket. VICA plans to charge $175 for its Business Forecast Conference in October, providing ‘swag boxes’ for participants and dropping off fresh coffee and bagels to the home.

Vanyek said her chamber will likely keep certain events free, including its popular networking event Thirsty Thursdays. “We have people who think we should charge for it — we started getting sponsors for it. I don’t know if we’ll ever charge for it. I kind of like having something that’s free,” she said.

Smaller groups

Smaller business groups such as the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Los Angeles in Sherman Oaks have learned to be nimble with virtual events during the pandemic.

Lois Pagaspas Klavir, vice president of events for the Filipino Chamber, said the group was able to transform an in-person meeting to a Zoom meeting in a week’s time back in March.

“We didn’t expect that people still wanted to meet during this time. We never skipped a beat this year at all,” Klavir said.

In fact, the chamber added an extra webinar per month to better meet member availability: the third Wednesday evening and fourth Friday for lunch, every month.

Klavir hopes the events will help people make themselves available during these times out of habit, regardless of the virtual component.

“The way we positioned it too, is this is not just chamber work,” added Klavir. “You’re doing this for your business. Some of them, they still have their own businesses or they’re retired but they have a side gig. If they’re not on the program with Zoom, they’re going to get left behind.”

Klavir said that explaining the need for virtual platforms like Zoom took time and patience with senior members of the board, but that members are more likely to attend if they see that board members have also adapted to a virtual setting.

Ultimately, it’s up to members to decide if business groups will keep some element of virtual events after the pandemic fades, interviewees told the Business Journal.

Those that already had an element of virtual meetings, such as Vanyek’s Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber, will keep virtual events but dial back on frequency and detail.

Others, such as VICA and the Filipino Chamber, will gauge interest from members and determine what the climate is like on large gatherings down the line.

“Will anyone pick up a business card again? Will people shake hands? Are people going to be willing to go into a room with 100 to 500 other people?” asked Waldman. “What are the long-lasting repercussions? I think a lot has to do with, do we beat this pandemic and come out the other side, or do we adjust and live with it?”

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