How did COVID-19 affect corporate and non-profit event planning?

The impact of COVID-19 on live events and event planning over the past 18 months is undeniable – major events like 2020 Olympics, award shows like the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards and even Coachella were canceled or dramatically changed due to the pandemic. When we think of live events though, we often think about these concerts, local festivals and sporting events. We don’t really think about live corporate events or nonprofit fundraisers that also had to be put on hold or drastically change to adapt to the pandemic. For example, fundraising events like galas or 5K runs, training seminars for new technology and internal recognition ceremonies at corporations were also put on hold or shifted to a virtual landscape.  Nonprofit fundraising saw an overall increase in smaller donations under $250 by 19.2%, but the events where a large chunk of fundraising comes in weren’t happening (WealthEngine).

To truly understand the effects of COVID-19 on live corporate events and non-profit event planning, we spoke with a few of our connections in the industry who were on the front lines of the shutdown, making changes and decisions in real-time to create successful events.

Our first conversation was with L37 Creative, a media and events production company with events ranging from sales meetings and award functions to large association conferences. Ryan Legue, General Manager at L37 Creative, stated that when COVID-19 hit, they jumped on the virtual train immediately to figure out how to convert all their Q3 and Q4 of 2020 event planning to take place on a screen. This was referred to as a “home presentation mode” which did limit creativity, but it allowed customers to get their important messages out. Since that time, all of their events have been virtual, but beginning in Q4 of 2021, they will offer “on premise support” for a hybrid event model, which elevates the quality of virtual meetings to a true TV-like experience.  

We also spoke with President Mario Garcia and Director of Development & Communications, Nikki Way, from Onward Neighborhood House in the Belmont Cragin community of Chicago. Onward House focuses on education for children and adults, workforce development for entrepreneurs and additional services including a weekly food pantry. The food pantry remained open following CDC guidelines over the past year, and in-person options for classes began July 9, 2021. They have two significant fundraising events each year which include a gala in late winter and a Golf-A-Thon in September. Thankfully, their Golf-A-Thon was able to take place according to plan, however the gala was shifted to be entirely virtual.

In addition to learning how to pivot, our conversations with L37 Creative and Onward Neighborhood House revealed some key insights and learnings from the past 18 months and how they feel this will impact live corporate events, event planning, and non-profit event-planning moving forward.

No real replacement for in-person gathering

The types of events each company holds are clearly different, but surprisingly enough, their thoughts on the pros and cons of virtual events aligned in many ways. One of the main reasons for holding in-person events in both industries is giving a space for individuals to gather and network which is something that can’t be achieved to the same extent in an online breakout room. According to a Bizzabo article, 61% of marketers believe that in-person events are the most critical marketing channel, which is a 20% increase from last year. Not all content was able to translate to virtual, so some events really did need to be built from the ground up. Mario Garcia noted, “At Onward House, we love hearing personal connections to the organization which is something you just don’t get at the same scale at a virtual event.” The ability to mingle and interact with others in an environment built to recognize an organization is more powerful than discussing over a screen.

Lower overhead costs

A pro of virtual events is that there are much lower overhead costs. This is a huge opportunity for smaller, more intimate fundraising events throughout the year, according to Onward House. “You have to work really hard just to get people in the room,” Nikki Way explained. “Virtual events really are an opportunity for us to extend to families and friends of people who support us, even beyond the Chicagoland area.” The thought is utilizing their board members to host small BBQs or gatherings at their home and schedule a portion of time for someone from Onward House to speak virtually and collect donations. In the corporate world, they also noticed the lower overhead cost and the convenience it provided within the healthcare industry. Healthcare clients didn’t have to travel to big conferences or symposiums which gave more of an opportunity to attend multiple conferences within a year because traveling was eliminated.

New skill sets became apparent

Online production skills weren’t a widely taught or maintained set of skills in the areas of corporate events and non-profit fundraisers. The flexibility and adaptability to this industry shift is hard to teach. As L37 continues to grow, after an explosive growth during the pandemic, this will be a key consideration for new hires as they anticipate the need and desire for virtual events to be here for the foreseeable future, at least through 2022. The virtual world moves so fast and there are new variables that people need to be familiar with if things begin to go wrong. But building a hybrid model will continue to be a priority for those wanting the benefits of in-person experiences. Another thing observed is that customers were more focused on content strategy than they ever had been before. They learned that shorter segments with more voices can be more successful than one speech from a CEO. The shorter sessions engage more members of the audience because there are multiple voices offering content on a variety of topics.

Surprising opportunities were revealed

As 2022 approaches, Onward House is excited for the opportunities they received in the past 18 months and are eager to implement them as a concrete piece of the organization. They were able to open a telehealth clinic within the center to make sure members of the community were receiving quality medical care throughout the pandemic. At L37, they are eager to return to live events and can tell that their customers are as well. Event spaces are at a premium for Q1 and Q2 of 2022 with some spaces reaching close to the same cost they were pre-pandemic.

As the COVID bubble is starting to open, learning how other companies have adapted in the past year and grown their own skills is super beneficial. With a better understanding of others struggles and triumphs, it allows companies to proactively to seek out new ways of operating.