My career in events started back in 2008 as a sales associate supporting sponsorship fulfillment. I fell in love with the nitty-gritty details of my job so I ventured out of sponsorship fulfillment and dove right into event management. Fast forward 12 years, I landed my dream job as the Director of Corporate Events at Gainsight, giving me the experience of working on both the client and agency side of event production and the opportunity to oversee the corporate events team here at Gainsight. Having just surpassed the biggest milestone in my career of pivoting from a 6,000 in-person event at Moscone to a 22,000 virtual event in less than 60 days, I thought I’d share my journey, lessons learned, and key takeaways.
Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that 2020 kicked-off just like any other event year in the fast-paced world of B2B SaaS.
February 28 – a day I remember well. Local Bay Area newspapers posted the first of what would be the start of in-person event cancellations in San Francisco. I felt it in my gut that once big tech companies announced their cancellation, that us little guys would soon have to face the unknown reality and follow suit. I wasn’t sure what my next steps were or where to even start, so I turned to Meeting Expectations, the agency helping us produce Pulse for the next steps and guidance. They introduced me to a hospitality lawyer that would eventually help and guide me and my VP of Corporate Marketing, Lauren Sommers through the tough conversations we were about to face with our venue and hotels. After 3 long days of combing through the contracts and reading line by line the cancellation and force majeure clauses, I was as ready as I could have been. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve produced an event at Moscone or hosted attendees at these hotels, so it was even tougher going into these conversations with someone you’d worked with for almost your entire career. Having an honest, clear, and concise discussion about the future of events, the future of our event, and the health and safety of our community became the most important conversation. We knew we wanted to come back to San Francisco, so that was our end game…to find a cost-effective way to continue doing business where both parties don’t lose. In the end, the human-first approach worked better than getting legal teams involved and we were able to find a positive solution that worked for all parties. While these negotiations were taking place, contacts that we’d worked with for years were being furloughed or let go and it was clear to us that the landscape of events was about to change.
The tiger team involved with the pivot acted quickly. Time was of the essence, and our message to the CS community would be key. On Monday, March 16 the cancellation email from Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight would be sent, and by Wednesday the Save the Date for Pulse Everywhere, our reimagined virtual event, would be announced. We launched the website without a platform but we had 2 major goals at the top of mind: content and childlike joy. That is what brought over 5,500 customer success and product managers to travel to the Bay Area, so we had to think big and change the game.
Not All Vendors Are Created Equal
Once we made the decision to pivot our in-person event to virtual the first task was to demo what was out there. With the help of our production agency, we demoed and talked to over a dozen vendors, where we would eventually realize that not all vendors were created equal. During these calls we learned to ask the right questions: Whose platform was it, who were the web developers, and how do they manage live streams? These were just a few questions in a long list of requirements that we were building. I registered for at least a dozen events where I would take copious amounts of notes and sketch out what I would do differently and how I could make this a better experience for our attendees, eventually leading me to build my Pulse Everywhere Lookbook. After a week of demos, we found the vendor that would help bring our vision to life. The demo blew us away with 3D lobbies, and all the bells and whistles we didn’t even know we needed. About 2 weeks into contract negotiation the vendor decided that they did not have the bandwidth to support our event. Our choice was to change the date or find a new vendor. We chose the latter.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I went back to the drawing board and realized I had mistakenly missed a vendor that Gainsight was already working with. Intellum, a Learning Management System, was already the platform for Pulse+, Gainsight’s online platform for eLearning and industry certifications. In my mind, a learning experience was not a virtual event, but I’m not afraid to admit I was wrong. Intellum already excelled at delivering educational content, so it made sense to have a deeper discussion with them about Pulse Everywhere and show them the lookbook. After that first meeting, I realized having the other vendor fall through was a good thing. Intellum didn’t back down or get overwhelmed by our big ideas and visions. They were ready to dive in and give us their all. The partnership and trust involved in the planning of Pulse Everywhere were rare. I’ve worked with very few vendors whose sense of accountability was as big as mine, and it was clear to me that making Gainsight’s Pulse Everywhere a success was equally important to them. It was a first for both our companies and we relied heavily on communication, transparency, and honesty in the upcoming weeks as we began to plan Pulse Everywhere.
Agenda and Flow
Moving a 3-day event to a virtual event was a task in itself. During the initial conversations about Pulse Everywhere and how many days and how long each day would be, cases of COVID-19 were being confirmed and climbing very rapidly. Offices began to close and talk about a shelter-in-place began to circulate the news. We knew that with all the uncertainty around us, it would have been selfish of us to ask our community to commit to attending an 8-hour virtual event. We landed on two half days which felt like a digestible amount of time to commit to. We also wanted to make sure that the timing of our keynotes and sessions would keep attendees engaged. Our final agenda consisted of a 60-minute opening keynote, 6 breakout tracks that included 35-minute sessions (25 min presentation and 10 min Q&A), and a 60-minute closing keynote. We scheduled a welcome reception the Monday before our event to give our attendees a chance to get familiar with the platform and connect with sponsors and other attendees in advance. This also helped troubleshoot any log-in issues before the day of the event. The biggest key takeaway from our survey results was that we needed more time in between each session and that attendees would have loved time on the agenda to network.
Content Production and Delivery
We were so lucky to have had speakers and topics already lined up for our in-person event, so now the challenge for our Product Marketing Team…handpick which tracks to keep and which presentations to bring virtual. In the end, we ended with 6 tracks that focused on specific personas. The content chosen stayed relevant to the CS community and some of the content focused on real-life examples of how businesses were handling the current situation with COVID-19. Now that our agenda was solid, we needed to finalize how we planned to deliver the content. Track leaders were working closely with their speakers in the creation of their presentations given the short turnaround time, so the next big decision was to go live or pre-recorded. Our initial choice was to go live and natural so that we didn’t lose the human connection, but we began to realize that the shelter-in-place was now taking a toll on internet bandwidth. Content delivery was one of our biggest priorities, so with the help of our AV production companies, ETS, and Blaze Streaming Media we decided a hybrid approach would be best. We quickly pulled together a list of equipment we needed to send to all 65+ speakers and we began ordering equipment. It took 6 of us to get our hands on everything we needed. The pivot to virtual events had a high demand for equipment so a lot of retail sites were back-ordered, and our usual supply from 3rd party vendors had dried up. In the end, we were lucky to be able to secure the necessary equipment. Once the packages were sent out our team scheduled calls with every speaker to unbox their equipment, assist with location scouting, set up equipment, and provide tips and tricks to being comfortable presenting remotely. Within 2 weeks we would have all of our keynotes and breakout sessions recorded with a week left to spare for video creation, edits, and final approvals. Track leaders and breakout speakers were prepped for the live, day-of experience and our GameChanger jackets were en route. I don’t regret going the hybrid route of pre-recorded and live. In the end, the human connectedness and honesty of filming in your private home or office, with animals and children popping in during the session really brought out the reality that everyone was facing: that we weren’t alone, and we were in this together. This would later become the theme of our event and Nick’s keynote.
Networking and Engagement
Anyone that’s been to one of our events knows that attendees love to connect, and this annual event is the only time they get to connect with others in the CS community. During the planning of Pulse Everywhere, the constant discussion was “how do we keep attendees engaged with each other when we’re all at home?” Lucky for us, Intellum’s platform already had built-in networking and chat function that we took advantage of and brought to the next level. Consider the lunch roundtables and birds of a feather but x100. We had over 50 networking groups spanning from Customer Success Practices, People Like Me, My Industry, Pulse Tracks, and many more. The call-out on the home page was: Find Your Tribe. We wanted to make sure that whether this was your 8th Pulse or if you were a first-timer, that you would find where you belong, and if you didn’t know, the community would be there to guide you. Each tribe was moderated by a Gainster that helped keep attendees engaged throughout their experience and provided assistance along their journey. The Tribes were all public and were open to all attendees, but if you ever wanted to have a private conversation you could easily start your own, without leaving the platform. We added surprise and delight moments with Gainsight PX which allowed us to respond to our attendees in real-time, help them discover events as they unfolded, and gather their feedback. Gainsight PX played an integral role in the attendee experience, whether you noticed it or not.
Childlike Joy and Social Impact
Childlike joy is one of Gainsight’s values, and something we take very seriously. After every decision, we make we always ask ourselves if we have enough childlike joy. The pivot to a virtual event definitely made this a challenge for us, but one we would not regret. Our survey results last year had one common question “would the puppies be back”? Last year’s Puppies of Pulse yielded 6 adoptions so I knew that we had to have the Puppies of Pulse make an appearance. The original plan was to find a local shelter where we could set up a webcam, but as cities began to shut down and travel became restricted we knew we needed a backup plan. I stumbled onto the website Explore.org, the world’s leading live nature network with a mission to help people fall in love with nature. So we reached out and asked for permission to use their live streams and we chose 3 live streams with Warrior Canine Connection. After Day 1 of the event, I remember logging on to the platform that night to read the reviews left by attendees, and I’m not going to lie, the feedback was so heartwarming and positive that I was in tears. We also took advantage of the tracking Intellum was able to do on the platform and we gamified the entire experience. Attendees earned points and the more they engaged the more points they earned. The top winner won a Peloton. Not all attendees participate in games, even in our in-person event, so we made sure we had other activities for everyone. Our virtual expo hall consisted of 22 sponsors where attendees virtually connected with sponsors to learn about their products and services. Gainsight Central had 4 virtual booths if you wanted to learn more about Gainsight’s products and services. The GameChanger community was launched days before Pulse Everywhere, so attendees had the opportunity to learn about how to be a GameChanger. Gainsight Gives had a new approach to CSM Training and Re-Employment. Together with Guild, Gainsight extended their training to anyone whose job was impacted by COVID-19, we also posted links to several job boards. Our Teammate Success team also played a big part of Pulse Everywhere, connecting with attendees who had recently lost their job due to COVID-19 and wanted to freshen up their resume or get connected to an employer that was hiring. We posted job listings of companies hiring and even included their logos in Nick’s keynote. I have never been so moved by how the community came together at a time of need, and to this day it gives me the feels. We knew attendees were eager to help and contribute in any way they can, as were we, so instead of sending attendees a water bottle, backpack or Pulse Everywhere swag, we curated a shortlist of charitable organizations and allowed attendees to choose which organization resonated with them and we made a donation on their behalf. We definitely had the right ingredients in making sure attendees had fun, connected, and engaged with each other and the community during Pulse Everywhere.
It Takes A Village
If this blog post has made me realize one thing, it’s that I could not have done this all by myself. While I was the lead on the production of Pulse Everywhere, it would not have been as successful without the help of all the Gainsters and vendors I worked with. They make my job look easy and they make me look good – and for that, I’m eternally grateful. I’ll occasionally look through my LinkedIn profile and realize all I’ve been through in my career and feel thankful to be where I’m at, especially knowing that hundreds of thousands are losing income right now in the events industry.
So what’s next for me? Well, we’re now pivoting a C-Suite annual event that we usually host in a resort to a virtual event..so I’ll let you know in about 30 days 🙂
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