Turning lemons into lemonade: Reunions and social events work to maintain connections across the distance

Jeffrey Mandell, owner and artist of www.caricature.com, has seen his business increase greatly as he shifted towards virtual engagement. ]
Jeffrey Mandell, owner and artist of www.caricature.com, has seen his business increase greatly as he shifted towards virtual engagement.

For social event planners and entertainers, adaptation and flexibility have proven important to continued success during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cyndi Clamp, owner of Varsity Reunion Services and a high school reunion planner, noted the challenges of planning social events online.

“When promoting reunions, we’ve often said ‘you can’t hug a friend on Facebook,’” she said.

At the onset of the pandemic, Varsity Reunion Services postponed all further in-person reunions until 2021, but forged ahead with some events online, including one for a class celebrating their 55-year high school reunion.

“Without a new date on the calendar, we shifted to having a virtual Zoom meeting on their original reunion night, with about 65 classmates participating,” Clamp said. “The reunion included time for the entire group to be together, but because a virtual gathering of 65 people can be chaotic, we divided participants into smaller groups of eight to 12 classmates and offered these smaller group sessions four times during the evening.”

Clamp also noted that virtual meetings have become a great way for classmates to reunite, but require a different set of accommodations.

“We spent a lot of time sharing information with potential attendees about the logistics of Zoom, and even offered the chance for classmates to practice a Zoom call with us before their reunion night,” Clamp said. “We wanted everyone to feel comfortable with the platform to ensure they could fully participate. We also set up a trial run with the reunion committee to go through the format of the evening and test the technology.”

Clamp said ‘Zoom fatigue’ was a major consideration. While a typical reunion can last five hours, she limited this event to three hours, including timed breaks for classmates to step away from their screens. She also found it important to create a timeline of the evening, as well as a file detailing whom to transition into different rooms to keep the sessions manageable.

“High school reunions will always be better in person, but I appreciate the opportunity to offer the virtual reunion to the class,” Clamp said. “It expanded our services and helped us reconnect classmates in a new way.”

Rolling with the punches

Entertainers booked for these events have had their own challenges.

At the outbreak of the pandemic, Jeffrey Mandell, owner and artist of www.caricature.com, said he lost bookings for 30 events in the span of two weeks, right at the start of his busy season. However, Mandell began drawing his caricatures digitally almost 30 years ago, which helped him to slide over to virtual engagement.

“I had a feeling clients would be looking for virtual entertainment because this pandemic seemed like it was going to stick around for a while,” Mandell said.

Mandell said it’s important for any business is to be able to roll with the punches.

“You have to learn to make lemonade from lemons or you’re going to be left behind,” he said. “I knew I had to redefine my business or I would be one of the many artists and entertainers out there struggling to make ends meet this year.”

He started a new branch of his business, ZoomToons.club, noting the first month of virtual gigs was “a learning experience. But once I became used to the subtleties of Zoom, drawing virtually quickly became second nature.”

He also noted one major advantage to virtual sessions specific to his craft.

“I find it far more likely to have a meaningful conversation with the person I’m drawing,” he said. “There is a sense of just the two of us having a personal time together even if the time is only five or 10 minutes. People seem more comfortable opening up and conversing on a virtual call.”

For Mandell and for many of his clients, working virtually has proven a benefit for finances and scheduling as well. Mandell, who is based in Winter Park, Fla., said before the pandemic, he would regularly have to travel across the country at the client’s expense for a three-day stay, only to work for three hours.

“Now, they only pay for the hours they actually book me. I also can line up gigs throughout the day anywhere in the world because I just sit in my studio cranking out drawings of faces,” he said.

This makes it possible for him to work events “literally all over the world” in a single day.

Mandell said he has worked a few live events this year, mostly during the summer when COVID-19 cases were lower.

“Clients were very good about requiring masks and social distancing, and they respected everybody’s safety concerns,” he said.

Lee Dyson, owner of Hey Mister DJ, said his company has also worked both in-person, virtual, and hybrid events. His ‘micro-wedding’ package has proven especially successful.
Lee Dyson, owner of Hey Mister DJ, said his company has also worked both in-person, virtual, and hybrid events. His ‘micro-wedding’ package has proven especially successful.

Finding the ‘wow’ factor

Lee Dyson, owner of Hey Mister DJ, said his company has also worked both in-person, virtual, and hybrid events.

His ‘micro-wedding’ package has proven especially successful.

“We’ll set up three to four cameras with a video switcher, and stream the wedding ceremony to all guests who cannot attend, then display the virtual attendees on a large LCD screen so the in-person guests can see them and say hello,” Dyson said. “After the ceremony the couple will come over to visit with their virtual guests and share a toast.”

Hey Mister DJ also has an app allowing guests to submit requests directly from their cell phones, which allows DJs working live events to stay behind plastic facades, allowing for custom playlist additions while minimizing face-to-face interactions.

Dyson said for wedding receptions or corporate parties that are able to be in-person but cannot have a dance floor, contests and games allowing dancing and interaction without the guests having to leave their designated table have also proven popular.

As for purely virtual events, Dyson said one of the main challenges has been connecting traditionally live entertainment with an online audience.

“It can be hard to perform without having the reaction and feedback of a live audience,” Dyson said. “For us, the main difference was learning new technology and finding ways to create that ‘wow’ factor our clients expect from an in-person event.”

While lighting and room effects have traditionally been the means to create an ambiance for a DJ set, Dyson said there are online platforms that can compensate.

“Learning streaming platforms such as OBS (Open Broadcast Software) has allowed us to use green screen for custom backgrounds, as well as layering of effects, overlays, client logos, etc., to really make our virtual presence impressive,” he said.

Unlike Mandell, Dyson said stacking multiple virtual bookings in a single day led to ‘burnout’ due to energy demands and technical requirements.

“Now, we make sure we are realistic with allowing enough time between each event, and also having a maximum number of events we’ll accept per week so we can stay focused on delivering a quality and great client service,” he explained.

However, Dyson also believes virtual events can lead to a new kind of rapport between entertainer and client if done right.

“In a weird way, virtual is more intimate than an in-person event, so it’s important to engage guests in a very genuine way, almost like you would if it was just you and 10 of your family members,” he said.

“Once you get past the awkwardness of performing in front of a screen, you can really learn to love the challenge and thrive on this new way of interacting with people.”

Dyson said that he thinks doing one’s ‘technological homework’ and mastering virtual events will be important in the future.

“Imperfect action beats perfect planning,” he said. “Dive in and just start doing it now, because virtual events aren’t going anywhere. Even [when everyone is vaccinated], I think many companies will move forward with hybrid experiences for corporate meetings and conferences.”

Mandell expressed a similar sentiment.

“I truly believe that no matter how ‘normal’ everything becomes once again, clients will never stop booking virtual gigs,” he said. “It’s too cool of an idea and we’re already seeing clients versed in virtual meeting software. They were forced into it, so they learned all they could learn. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.”

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