Brianne Cohen of Virtual Vino: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event
…Strong, clear, and concise event communication. This includes pre, during, and post event. Now more than ever, guests need MORE information. Help them gain clarity on what they need to do as an attendee, and what they can expect as an attendee. Will they be a part of the event (i.e. will their video be shown)? Will they be expected to engage/chat? Will there be a pitch for money? How long will the event be? This will make for fewer surprises and expectations not being met once they are online. As for post-event, communication thanking guests for attending is important. For an event I did last year, we included a schedule of events, just as if it were an in-person event. That way attendees know how long they’re committed for. And know when they can take a break or refresh their drinks!
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brianne Cohen.
Brianne Cohen, certified sommelier, is the principal in a lifestyle brand and business based out of Los Angeles, offering her services as an event producer, wine educator, and wine writer. Since COVID hit, Brianne has educated and entertained over 2,000 people through her “Virtual Vino” online wine classes, both public and private. Brianne regularly judges at international wine competitions and holds the WSET Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. Learn more about Brianne at BrianneCohen.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born and raised in Redmond, Washington where I lived with my mother and older sister until the age of 7. We then moved to southern California and I haven’t taken my flip-flops off since! We moved in with my grandparents, which was an experience in and of itself. Living with grandparents gives a child perspective that they wouldn’t otherwise have. You learn to have patience with seniors and develop a different view around aging, death, and dying. I was studious and focused and could not wait to go to college. I ended up at Marymount College and then Loyola Marymount University, both in Los Angeles, and have been in LA ever since.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
When I was younger, I was told how good I was at hosting, planning social events, and organizing. After college I started thinking “is there a way to make money doing this?”. In essence, I followed my passion. I started out by volunteering with non-profits to help them plan small events. There was no shortage of events they needed to execute, but they didn’t have the funds to do it. I volunteered my time to learn the ropes and to have photos of events for my portfolio.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started planning events, everything was so literal. I planned events from A to Z, checked all the boxes, but I was lacking in one thing: intuition. I realized (quickly) that people need their hands held. In the first year of my career I planned an event for 100ppl. The attendees had very specific parking information. They needed to utilize one particular parking entrance in order to get free/validated parking. I included these details on the event website and thought I was good to go. Fast forward to event night and NOT ONE person utilized that entrance. Everyone used their GPS and pulled into the main entrance <face plant>. I had to quickly mobilize my team to talk to the venue and the parking manager to get the problem solved, which we did. THAT is the mark of a true event planner: the ability to act on your feet. For pertinent event details I now strive to get them in attendees’ hands a minimum of 3 times. Perhaps on the event website, in the day of details, and on social media channels. There is no such thing as too much information.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks was quite impactful for me. This was a book that my business and success coach, Marla Diann, had me read, and it changed me. When I read this book, I discovered I had what he calls an “upper limit problem”. I would only allow myself to experience a level of success, accomplishment, and achievement that is within my well-defined comfort levels. I had an “upper limit”. Fear, worry, doubt, and ego was creating these limits to what I’d allow myself to accomplish. Once I realized this and worked on it with my coach, I set big goals and looked further and higher than I ever thought possible.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother always said “it doesn’t cost anything to be nice”. I’m not sure if she came up with that or if she just repeated it, but it had an impact. Kindness is so underrated. Especially in this fast-paced harried western world we live in. I don’t care how fast you’re going or how much you need to get done, you must be kind. Period. That is a non-negotiable for me. Yes, sometimes I get short or lose my temper, but I always acknowledge it and apologize. Kindness is a pre-requisite in order to work with me. I will not hire vendors who are not kind and I will not take on a client who does not have a kind disposition. Unkind people are not my people.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
As I mentioned above, I started by volunteering for non-profit events around 2007–2008. This gave me a starting point and an understanding of how events worked. By 2009 I was co-producing the Queer Lounge, a program of GLAAD, at the Sundance Film Festival. This experience (two years in a row) gave me a solid foundation in running multiple events simultaneously, and project managing. Early on my specialty became non-profit events, with a focus on LGBT organizations. I loved the idea of planning events that fulfilled the missions of these organizations who were doing good work that I believed in and supported. Parties with a purpose, if you will. I have now been producing non-profit events for close to 14 years, everything from galas, fundraisers, concerts, and capital campaign events.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Some in the events industry were doing virtual events way before the pandemic. These tended to be tech-focused individuals working in tech industries, as not many other industries were doing virtual events. When the pandemic hit, event producers had many events on the books and were facing the decision of: cancelling, postponing, or pivoting virtual. I, myself, quickly had to pivot two events to virtual. One was an annual gala for a non-profit and another was a silent auction. It was an interesting experience, because one of the first things I learned was that I was not going to be the person to run the technology. It was apparent that I was not an event technology expert, and that role had to go to someone else. Also, I realized that there still was a need for an overall planner/project manager (me). And this was not the same person who would run technology. Those are two distinct positions. This realization came with a healthy dose of humility. I had to tell my client that I was not an all-inclusive solution. That my live event skills did not 100% translate exactly to virtual.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
The “Behind the Wines” webinar series with the Wine Institute, hosted by Elaine Chukan Brown has been fantastic. The focus here has not been on slick presentations and/or bells and whistles. The focus has been on quality information and interviews. The platform is the Zoom Webinar format, which is not to be overlooked for simplicity’s sake. The platform is clear, clean, and easy to understand. Sometimes people forget those things. When looking to plan a virtual event, your goals for the event will inform the vehicle with which to share your event. Make sure that the platform and the final product fulfill those goals, or you’ll be faced with an unsuccessful and/or underperforming event.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
There are so many. Almost too many to list. For one, speakers, presenters, and performers need to be coached. Coached on lighting, camera angles, clothes to wear, sound, etc. Also, I can instantly tell when a presenter/speaker/performer is also handling their own tech. You’d NEVER do this in a live event, so don’t do it virtually. You’ll need a virtual green room, talent wranglers, a tech director (and also an assistant). Also, just basics. Monitor the chat. If more than one person says there is a sound issue, that needs to be addressed immediately. I have seen live events where the chat is clearly not being monitored, and that is a missed opportunity.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
This answer can go a lot of ways, but I think YouTube live is a very clean platform to stream a live event and does not face some of the same glitches/limitations of social media (i.e. Facebook Live). When you stream on YouTube, both Zoom and OBS are likely being used to manage the screens, lower thirds, and transitions. This combination has produced many successful live events that I have watched as a participant. Sure, if you have $10K plus in budgeting for a self-contained virtual platform, there are many options, but I find that YouTube, Zoom, and OBS are a good trinity.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I think the better question is: are you the right person to be vetting said tools and software? Like I mentioned, I quickly realized I was not the right person. I was vetting platforms and it got very technical and over my head. We immediately brought on a Tech Director who became the person who owned that decision. Yes, as the Event Producer, I was a part of the conversation, but I relied on the TD to guide the conversation and translate the technical details for those of us who needed that extra step.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Aside from determining the goal of the event, the single most important decision to make about your virtual event is whether it will be live or pre-recorded. A live element adds excitement and relevance, BUT only consider live segments if it is integral for what you want to accomplish. I have seen more organizations fail at the live piece than succeed. Last summer I was producing a virtual gala and the leadership team was adamant on including live elements in the show that I did not feel were that important. Only after watching multiple live virtual events fall flat (or even fail/have major tech issues), did they decide to scrap the “live” element. To be “live” is a big decision, and not all virtual events need to be live.
- Strong, clear, and concise event communication. This includes pre, during, and post event. Now more than ever, guests need MORE information. Help them gain clarity on what they need to do as an attendee, and what they can expect as an attendee. Will they be a part of the event (i.e. will their video be shown)? Will they be expected to engage/chat? Will there be a pitch for money? How long will the event be? This will make for fewer surprises and expectations not being met once they are online. As for post-event, communication thanking guests for attending is important. For an event I did last year, we included a schedule of events, just as if it were an in-person event. That way attendees know how long they’re committed for. And know when they can take a break or refresh their drinks!
- Self-Produced or Outsourced? See above! If you are including live segment(s), I strongly urge you to consider outsourcing to a technical producer or someone with experience. When you have each person on the events team focusing on their core competencies, you will have a much smoother event. Planning the virtual silent auction and knowing that I did not have to troubleshoot every user issue, was key. I knew the auction platform was managing all chats and help requests that arose.
- Find ways to include shared sensory experiences. These are the things we take for granted, as in-person events are automatically a shared sensory experience. When the pandemic first hit, we were all fine to say hop on a Zoom happy hour once a week with our co-workers to chat and catch up. 45 weeks later, that falls a bit flat. Many are opting for virtual wine tastings in which everyone has the same wines in front of them, or mixology classes where cocktail kits are sent to each attendee. Guests have to roll their sleeves up and get to accomplish something together. The barrier to entry for virtual events was LOW at the beginning of the pandemic. Now that we’ve been doing it for a while, we have to step it up. People are lonelier and more disconnected than ever. Those shared sensory experiences can be the difference between a fulfilling event experience for an attendee and one that falls flat.
- Determine where and when to broadcast. Options include: YouTube, Facebook, and/or your website. List the pros and cons of each and chose which option(s) accomplish your goals. Will most people watch the event live? Or a replay? Once you answer these questions, you can craft an event that fulfills those goals and speaks to an audience who is consuming your content in that way. I worked on a live virtual event in which most people watched the livestream. We were sure to pose questions so that guests could interact live with us in the moment. This added to the feeling of excitement and made them feel as if they were there with us.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first questions you need to ask are: what are the goals for this event? Who is the audience for this event? What problem or pain point will this event solve for that audience? If you can’t get clear on those three points, then I think you should re-assess the feasibility of the event.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to start a movement of less waste/consumption AND a re-allocation of resources. We all waste and consume too much…that is a hallmark of Western society. Many others go without. Yet, there are enough resources on this planet (food and water, for example). I’d love to start a movement with the youngest and brightest minds to solve this problem. To inspire people to waste and consume less and to help allocate the plentiful resources we have.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to have a private lunch with Simon Sinek. His video on the “why” for companies and organizations is life changing. I’d love just a few minutes of his insight and guidance on how I can embody and lead with my “why” in all aspects of my life.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.