Emanuel Yekutiel envisioned a people-powered meeting place with a rich social activism component. Then he built it.
Manny’s soon became a vibrant venue on the busy corner of 16th and Valencia in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. A combination restaurant, political bookshop, and civic events space, Manny’s brings in all sorts of individuals and organizations. “We are trying to create a rich fabric of programming,” Yekutiel describes, “not just elected officials but activists, artists, journalists, writers, all different industries.”
When COVID-19 brought a stay-at-home order to San Francisco, Yekutiel had some big decisions to make. Here’s how he orchestrated the quick parlay from an intimate community space into a digital events experience — without losing the focus on community connection.
The inspired shift to online events
Once the shelter-in-place order took effect in the Bay Area, Yekutiel had just 24 hours to make a decision. In that pressure cooker, an idea emerged: “Instead of just shutting down, we could rise to the occasion and double down on why we’re here,” he says. “All of the other places where people were getting their civic engagement are now gone. We’re more needed now than ever.”
So he announced to his full-time staff that they’d be helping launch an innovative new series of online events: “Manny’s Super Civic Cyber Conversations.” The idea, as Yekutiel explains it, was to “simply show up and wash the city with programs. You could always tune in — almost like a TV station.”
But as they quickly learned, organizing an online series is quite different than running an in-person events space.
Above: Manny Yekutiel chatting with Senator Cory Booker during an online event
The logistics of a quick pivot
The first thing Manny’s team did was to create a spreadsheet of about 500 dream speakers from all across the country, with suggested themes. They then contacted those people via a mass email with the subject “Participating in a Nationwide Civic Conversation Effort.”
With a virtual events series, Yekutiel and his team were no longer limited to Bay Area speakers. Presenters who had schedule and geographic constraints before could now choose their preferred time via Calendly and pop into a Zoom event from anywhere. By automating the booking, Manny’s team suddenly found themselves with 70-something talks on the calendar — including some pretty high-profile speakers: David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, quarantined in Chicago. The CEO of Recology, a municipal trash collection company integral to San Francisco’s stay-at-home efforts. Democratic Presidential candidate and well-known author Marianne Williamson, from her headquarters in Florida. The lineup was stacked.
Yekutiel was amazed, but not entirely surprised. “We’re rising to this moment and providing people an opportunity for hope, inspiration, and engagement in a very scary time,” he says. “Folks who are quite important and busy are willing to take time to join these conversations because they believe in what we’re doing.”
With all of this programming booked, Manny’s team set to work on the admin angle. They created Eventbrite pages and scheduled Zoom calls for each session, working around the clock to put everything in place.
A priority on growth over revenue
Economically, Manny’s operates partly on a sponsorship model, which brings to life the idea of a vibrant civic space available to everyone. Those with means are invited to become sponsors so that others will never be turned away for lack of funds. Pre-COVID, sponsors were getting some special perks, like invitations to pre-receptions with guest speakers and monthly socials.
Yekutiel believes in this sponsorship model deeply, and although he couldn’t offer in-person VIP perks anymore, he was committed to sticking with it. The entire virtual series was offered for free, with sponsors invited to help support the cause. Down the line, he believed the free-ticketing model would pay dividends by creating a larger pool of long-term sponsors. “I decided to optimize for growing our audience,” he says, “and I’m glad I did. I’ve probably gotten 50, 60, 70 new sponsors so far.”
No barrier to entry
With free events accessible from anywhere, Manny’s was able to really ramp up participant volume. Thanks to simple, inexpensive marketing in the form of Facebook posts, the event newsletter, and word of mouth, “attendance” at events soared.
In the past, a packed event meant 200 people. Now, with Zoom, there were up to 1,000 people on a call — people from all over, not just the Bay Area. Over the course of the series, Manny’s hosted tens of thousands of people.
And the data Yekutiel has been able to gather via Eventbrite registration is bringing in more information about where attendees are coming from and how they’re finding out about events, which will influence future marketing and programming.
Keeping remote events engaging
“We all understand the magic of gathering in person,” Yekutiel says. “Those of us that did not go into the events business to do online events — which I would hazard to guess is most of us — are learning as we do it.”
To ensure that online events would still be engaging, sessions were kept intentionally short, a format Yekutiel says is ideal because “it’s choppy. It’s energetic. You can ask all the questions you need.” He doesn’t shy away from asking provocative questions, either. For instance, “I asked Marianne Williamson, ‘You are famous for being at the bedside of people who were dying of HIV. What message do you have for the people who are dying alone in hospitals right now?’ She looked into the camera and cried. I think if you’re going to do an online call, you really have to go there.”
Another important strategy for hosting a successful online event? Always be authentic. Yekutiel says, “The best conversations I have are the ones where it’s purely conversational, where I haven’t over-prepared and the person has not over-prepared. It’s really just like we’re talking.” Yekutiel frequently involves the remote audience in these conversations. He incorporates Q&As into the chat of each Zoom session and personally sends a personal follow-up email to all attendees after each session — a small gesture that many recipients find to be a meaningful personal touch.
Don’t call it a comeback
So is this the new normal? Yekutiel doesn’t think so. “I think this is a stop gap. If I had to guess right now, I would say that once this is over — and it will be over — there’ll be a newfound appreciation for the beauty of a physical gathering and what it can do to the soul, how it can change a group of people collectively and instantaneously.”
That said, he admits, “There are people who are suffering greatly within our city. People have lost their jobs that may not get them back. There are frontline workers who put their bodies on the line. And all the people who’ve lost loved ones.” Yekutiel envisions the San Francisco community coming out of COVID-19 stronger than ever before, and more bonded. “I actually think this is bringing us closer as a city, because we’re all experiencing something in unison. I think part of my space’s responsibility will be to heal some of that suffering, to gather together people who want to be a part of our collective recovery.”
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