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Omaha Magazine

Event Planning When Events Aren’t Possible: Organizers Think Outside the Venue Walls

Sep 28, 2020 01:15PM ● By Robert Fraass
 Micah House director donor relations, Ashley Flater

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Event planners throughout Metro Omaha are scrambling to find alternatives to traditional events, which predictably involves videoconferencing software and visits to smartphone app stores for ways to communicate with the outside world.

At a more complex level, event planning in the time of COVID-19 means finding ways to keep fundraising afloat and the bottom line in the black.

Omaha-area businesses and nonprofits believe virtual events have been the necessary way forward—and it has not always been easy.

One example is the MICAH House, Council Bluffs’ homeless shelter for adults and children. The organization’s annual fundraiser, “Champagne and Diamonds,” had been set for early May to coincide with its Kentucky Derby theme. With the Derby bumped back to September, staff and committee members scrapped their ballroom for a virtual room and focused their efforts on the giveaway of a diamond necklace, courtesy of Gunderson’s Jewelers in Omaha. Raffle tickets were sold and 50 raffle finalists were given champagne to sip at home while executive director Jaymes Sime emceed the evening’s festivities online.

“Beginning in March, we saw the writing on the wall about how things were going to play out. We realized very quickly that we would not be able to have 600 people in a room together,” said Ashley Flater, director of donor relations. “We just went with the flow.”

The good news is the reduced overhead costs for an online event cut their expenses significantly, but the event’s energy was sapped with limited interaction. The fundraiser went well, Flater said, but it didn’t meet their bottom-line fundraising goals.

“It was hard to replicate that excitement when there’s just one person talking to a screen,” she said.

On the business side, Carson Group had to pull the plug on its three-day “Excell” industry conference for its employees to meet with 2,000 financial advisers and wealth management industry executives in Las Vegas. The physical event has been pushed back to 2021, thanks to sympathetic venues and sponsors. Carson Group did successfully move its related “Partner Summit” for its partners online with the use of Zoom and GoToWebinar and lots of crossed fingers.

Despite the occasional technology hiccup, meeting goers were happy with the results with no significant decrease in attendance, said Maria Belt, Carson Group’s event producer. The Partner Summit’s October conference will also be held online, this time with a new event registration platform to enhance attendees’ experience.

“We would have liked to have done a hybrid event,” she said. “But when we surveyed our attendees, we found they aren’t feeling comfortable traveling, even into October.”

Carson Group will be rebooking Partner Summit contracts with Omaha venues to 2021 as well. “Working with your venues without major penalties is the key,” she said.

Carson Group is also using online technology to keep its sponsors happy in the midst of the disruption. In early August, they launched a virtual exhibit hall for its sponsors to continue to communicate with Carson advisers through demonstrations, videos, and other uploaded content.

Belt and Flater think the future of event planning will be altered—long after the pandemic subsides. They said more events will be held online and there will be more hybrid events—in-person gatherings paired with online presentations.

It’s had an effect at Carson Group. The company’s series of sales and prospecting events, traditionally held monthly in Omaha, have gone online, which might have improved the quality of the meetings. The event is now held online twice a month with fewer attendees, which has boosted attendees’ interaction and excitement about the events, Belt said.

“I think that going virtual gives firms the ability to attend our events that they would not have been able to otherwise,” she said.

MICAH House has an eye on a virtual event for its annual fall fundraiser, Flater said. The organization’s Comedy for a Cause generally attracts about 125 attendees. The group is trying to determine how standup without an audience plays online.

Flater is hopeful online events will contribute cash needed to perform the organization’s
important work.

“Our fundraising goals are tied to real people and real outcomes,” she said. “And our mission is so important that to not be able to have these events in person is unfortunate. It adds an element of stress because we want to do the best for the people we serve.”

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This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine. 

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