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Earlier this month, Cedar Rapids welcomed guests back to EntreFEST through a “hybrid event” that featured both in-person and virtual speakers and participants.
In-person tickets were capped at 250 and quickly sold out. At the same time, we sold 98 virtual tickets, allowing people to take part via webcam, and we had virtual speakers alongside the sessions that were held live.
It was a significant moment for us at NewBoCo. EntreFEST was our first major event to have in-person participants since the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down more than a year ago. All of us were curious what the vibe would be.
Would there be tension? Would people feel uncomfortable?
In the weeks leading up to the event, we tried to have fun with those questions, releasing a goofy video that showed our staff trying to relearn how to do basic things like shake hands or make small talk.
Behind the jokes, however, we genuinely didn’t know how it was going to go.
What we discovered was that there was an incredible lightness and energy in the air. While I am never a fan of the word “normal,” there seemed to be a sense of relief, a sense of welcoming the familiar back into live events and networking.
So many times during EntreFEST, I had that realization of, “Oh, wow, I'm talking to people without wearing a mask. Hey, I’m shaking people's hands. Hey, we're standing in a group having a conversation.”
It felt like a huge weight coming off, as we all got to once again have these experiences that we used to take for granted. We heard from speakers afterward who seemed so thrilled to be in front of live audiences.
It isn’t as if NewBoCo sat idle for the past year. We had EntreFEST in 2020, too, though the event was entirely virtual.
We’ve had great success with virtual events, from ICRAgile to K-12 programming to virtual 1 Million Cups networking events. They certainly have their own strengths, and we don’t want to forget the lessons that virtual events taught us about accessibility, flexibility and the reach of our message.
Virtual events opened many doors for us.
In the past, we probably wouldn't have even considered bringing in a speaker that wasn't physically in the space. In 2020, however, author and podcast host Guy Raz was able to join us from thousands of miles away, offering us personal stories and observations that our audience would have missed otherwise.
There are people who struggle to attend events in person, who benefited greatly from the opportunity to take part in our events over the past year via Zoom.
Opening our eyes to that option, and learning that we can connect with people and bring them content that way, was a big learning point for us.
Being able to offer programming that allows people to participate in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable is important, not just for NewBoCo, but for any nonprofit organization.
Whova is an app for organizing and communicating with event attendees; NewBoCo has been working with Whova on EntreFEST for years. Earlier this month, Whova shared a user survey that showed 93 percent of attendees are interested in attending events with virtual elements well after the pandemic is over.
This means that hybrid events — combining both virtual and in-person elements — are going to be with us for a long time.
So how will that work?
I’ve spoken with many people who feel strongly that this is a transition year. While there is a desire to be able to get back to in-person events, we’re going to see a lot of trial and error along the way.
I'll be very curious to see what happens as more events try different approaches to find where the sweet spot is.
Going forward, we’ve been given the opportunity to at least think through the best way to execute each program and event at NewBoCo.
It may turn out that there’s a different answer for every single thing that we do. It may be that a particular form of training can be done more easily in a virtual situation.
Or maybe a hands-on approach is far more effective. Maybe some events are equally enjoyable whether in-person or via Zoom.
The fact that we now have the ability to try those options, however, is such a thrill.
Let’s all work together to figure out the new landscape. As a community, we’ll all be better for it.
Jill Wilkins is chief operating officer for Cedar Rapids-based NewBoCo.