It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the events industry upside down. But as parts of the world begin to reopen, event creators are getting creative and finding inventive ways to safely gather in-person again.
On July 22, Eventbrite hosted a webinar with two event creators who have adapted to the times by scaling back or reimagining their in-person events. Kate Levenstien, CEO and founder of Cannonball Productions, was set to produce her traveling Bacon and Beer Classic at iconic NFL and MLB stadiums across the country and had big plans to take a new venture, Seltzerland, to 10 markets. Freddie Kole, who founded Chicago Twenty Something in 2004, was gearing up for another summer of organizing hundreds of booze cruises, bar crawls, and outdoor festivals in Chicago.
Now they’re both learning how to safely produce in-person events during a pandemic with a combination of strict safety protocols, shifting priorities, and old-fashioned ingenuity. Here are six lessons event creators like you can take away from the webinar, which was moderated by Eventbrite experts Shirene Niksadat and Melissa Doniak. (Watch a stream of the full webinar below.)
Be willing to adapt
When COVID-19 first hit, Kole was cancelling events as quickly as rules and regulations were changing. “It was tough to have our team plan for events knowing they might be cancelled,” Kole said. “One thing that we’ve focused on now is being more nimble.” Instead of planning events three or four months in advance, and selling tickets that early, Kole’s team is focusing on events with a quicker turnaround. “We’re putting tickets on sale two to three weeks before so customers feel confident when they’re buying tickets they’ll come,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re constantly adapting to stay in line with current protocols.”
Think small, dream big
Knowing it was going to be tricky to host festivals centered around food and drinks in her usual venues, Levenstien decided to postpone her events, many of which were already on sale. Then one day early in quarantine, Levenstien and her husband were walking around a golf course in New York when she had an epiphany. “This provides so much space, there’s tee times people can sign up for, which distances groups along the course, it’s beautiful space to utilize, and kind of falls in line with our mantra of using iconic venues that aren’t typically used for festivals,” she said. She reached out to golf courses in different markets and plans to relaunch a physically distanced Seltzerland from August to October at five courses in cities like Denver, Boston, and Washington, DC. Levenstien plans to use color-coded wristbands to track attendees as they move through the course sampling different hard seltzers, and is staggering entry, using a reservation-style texting service to inform attendees when they can head to the course.
Kole’s company started hosting live events again in mid-June, easing into things with a series of skyline cruises operating at 25 percent capacity. Now that baseball is back, he’s launched a series of Chicago Cubs watch parties at Rizzo’s Outdoor Beer Garden just outside Wrigley Field. “We’re sticking with simple events, not doing much with vendors or selling food,” Kole said. “Primarily, we’re handling everything through check-in, and once the guests are checked in they’re in the hands of the venue and we’re making sure the venues are complying with all the guidelines.”
Communication is crucial
Both Levenstien and Kole agree that they’re communicating with attendees before an event more than they have in the past: about safety protocols, refunds, and attendee expectations. “We’re definitely communicating more ahead of time,” Kole said. “We’re reiterating that [attendees] have to wear masks and what they’re expected to do. It’s definitely been a challenge but we found the more we communicate the better. Our customers are very understanding and it’s been a great experience so far. We’ve been lucky that our customers are complying and happy and understand that we can’t deliver the full experience we’re used to delivering but they’re happy with what we can provide right now.”
Levenstien initially had to lay off her staff in April — before a Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan enabled her to hire them back — so she was handling customer service requests herself. After a loyal customer made a repeated inquiry, Levenstien asked her to hop on a call. She told the woman, “I almost thought if i didn’t communicate you would just forget about us for a little bit and not request a refund,” Levenstien recalled. “She said, ‘No, we just want to know everything that you’re thinking — even if you don’t know when the new date is, even if you don’t know where it’ll be, we just want to know what you’re thinking and to give us some level of certainty or transparency.’ So from then on, we’ve really been doing our best at over-communicating on social and email, even on the phone because that’s the level that I think they deserve as ticket holders and the level of service that we want to provide.”
When it came to rethinking the Beer and Bacon Classic festivals, Levenstien surveyed ticket holders on what she should do. “One thing we heard overwhelmingly was if we weren’t able to host it in the way that we had in the past, they didn’t want us to change the format, they’d rather wait.” As a result, those events won’t return until next year.
Virtual isn’t always a reality
With Kole and Levenstien both specializing in events that feature food, drinks, and people gathering in close quarters, going virtual isn’t always an option, though both are considering online events — or hybrid-style events — in the future.
Levenstien is trying to figure out how she can expand her audience by catering to people who are outside a festival’s market, or don’t yet feel comfortable at in-person events. “I think that there’s a way to create that hybrid,” she said, adding that virtual attendees could pick up the same products in-person ticket holders will be tasting from a local store, or have them shipped to their door. “There are ways they could be engaged from home — even if it’s watching our bacon eating contests or sipping along and understanding the differences between hard seltzer flavors. It’s probably not going to be the same energy as if they’re on-site but at least they’ll still be able to join and engage.”
Safety comes first
Both Levenstien and Kole are prioritizing safety at their events and Levenstien pointed out how useful it’s been to have resources like Eventbrite’s COVID-19 Safety Playbook for Events. “Other than what [Eventbrite] created with the Safety Playbook, there haven’t been that many resources created for how events should re-enter,” she said. “We found it helpful to create an attendee journey manual, thinking about how our attendees were going to experience this event from the second they saw the event listed online all the way through filling out the post-event survey. We’re doing infrared temperature checks at the door, we’re mandating that masks be worn unless they’re sampling at that moment. We’re even providing everyone with a [contactless] drawstring bag that has their wristband and a bottle of water.”
Kole has been working with his local government and is taking pains to lay out safety expectations on event pages and in emails before the event — making it clear he’s taking attendees safety seriously. “Eventbrite is awesome and is letting you customize waivers so you can add waivers to your order form,” he said. “It’s an easy thing to do and it’s something we’ve been using a lot.”
The future is full of opportunities
Kole thinks simple, smaller events with shorter lead times will remain an events trend until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 — especially if state and local governments continue to change rules and restrictions. “We learned our lesson planning these events that we can get burned pretty bad in the long run,” Kole said. “We make our money on large scale events — 5,000 to 10,000-person bar crawls and large festivals — and we’re not confident we can produce that in a way that’s gonna be safe and also that it’s gonna be guaranteed to go forward. So we’re looking to reinvent the wheel and also keep with our simple events.”
Levenstien foresees a lot of potential in the future as event producers flex their creative muscles and put their heads together. In April, she launched CLEO, the Coalition of Live Event Organizers as a way to have collaborative conversations with other event experts. “That’s been a really wonderful resource and it’s a very trusting network of people who are being really honest and vulnerable,” she said. “It’s been wonderful to lean on other event organizers because we’re all in it together.”
Levenstien said she’s confident that event creators can weather this storm and come out better for it — much like after the 2008 recession. “Even though we’re in this period of time that sucks, I think we all are very creative people — that’s why we’re event organizers,” she said. “We’re resilient, we’re quick on our feet, we’re very creative, and we make it happen.”