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When done well, digital events have the power to connect people from around the world and increase audience reach. Such was the case at the third-annual Women In Leadership Meetings + Incentives, a Northstar Meetings Group event created by women, for women.
The annual conference was originally scheduled to take place in the nation's capital in mid-March but had to be rescheduled due to COVID-19. In a matter of weeks, the planning team converted the event to a digital platform, complete with speakers, one-on-one appointments and networking opportunities. More than 125 women attended the May 27 event.
"I've needed a day like this since all of this craziness started," said Leeann Philipsen, chief meetings officer of The Meetings Concierge, which provides hotel-site selection services for groups. "It makes me feel so good about our industry and will carry me through until we meet in person again."
The day-long, digital event consisted of a mix of educational presentations, breakout sessions, scheduled appointments and a happy hour with pre-mailed cocktail kits from Go to Louisville. Attendance for WILMI 2020 surpassed that of the previous year, which had nearly 100 guests.
"It was really inspiring to be able to replicate a live event in the digital realm without any significant changes to the agenda," said Loren Edelstein, vice president and content director of Northstar Meetings Group. "We had the same presentations, one-on-one appointments and even a participatory cocktail-making demonstration. As much as I'm looking forward to visiting all the wonderful destinations and venues represented at WILMI, I do feel like I spent the day at a meeting with a wonderful group of professionals who were able to network, learn and build relationships for future business."
WILMI 2020 kicked off with a session from certified speaking coach Deirdre Van Nest, who told the group how women can stand out and own the room they're in, whether it be an in-person or virtual meeting.
Van Nest, provided by Goodman Speakers, dived into common challenges women face when presenting and shared her own story of evolving into a confident and successful speaker. She advised attendees to adopt the mindset of being a "guest" in the room to either a "gracious host" or a "benevolent dictator" who fully owns the space they are in.
"I used to be 100 percent terrified to speak in front of groups," she said. "For 24 years, I would not get up in front of a group of three or more people. I was scared to share my ideas in meetings and it really kind of crippled me in some ways … but if you want to be taken seriously and you want your ideas to get buy-in, I cannot stress enough how important it is to make this shift."
In a midday panel discussion, moderated by NMG content director Loren Edelstein, meeting and incentive industry executives shared their experiences adapting to a COVID-19 world, including pivoting to virtual events and recovering revenue. According to the panelists, strong relationships are key to surviving and thriving during these difficult times.
"This is a relationship-type industry and it's the relationships we have built over the years that make everything easier now," said Jan Capinegro, senior director of global field events for the kitchenware company Pampered Chef. "When we had to pivot our 5,000-person live conference to virtual, we relied on our production company to come up with the best virtual vendor that they could work with. They know us inside and out and we trusted them to choose. Not only was the event successful, but we had 24,000 attendees versus the original 5,000."
In the final general session, Beth Surmont, director of design experience for the event strategy agency 360 Live Media, offered advice for engaging virtual attendees. The tips included creating an attendee experience that activates the five senses, as well as crafting just-in-time event content and providing plenty of opportunities for networking and creative problem-solving -- elements that are increasingly important given the current climate.
"Any time you're putting people together, you want to think about how and why you are putting those people together to create a sense of community," said Surmont. "We live in a place right now of complete uncertainty, and since nobody knows the answers, what I want is to talk to my peers. I want to talk to everybody in this business who is experiencing the same things I'm experiencing, and I want to know how they are solving their problems. What insider information do they have? What best practices have they already encountered that I can learn from? If you put people in a small group discussion where they can get answers to some of those questions, it can be very powerful and very meaningful."
WILMI 2020 wrapped up with a happy hour, where attendees made Whisky Sours with Louisville Bourbon, and gathered in breakout rooms. A choice of discussion topics included everything from the “new normal” of the meetings industry to the future of F&B in a post-COVID-19 world. Virtual networking tables and one-on-one supplier appointments enabled attendees to continue these conversations throughout the day and make new connections to move business forward.
"Although we were able to hold virtually the same event in a digital format and participants overwhelmingly shared positive feedback, we are still anxious to travel in person to all the wonderful destinations that were represented at WILMI," said Edelstein.