Author ADMIN  |  Date published 16 November 2020

Confessions of a Virtual Event Planner - First Disaster

The second in our confessional series, an insight into that first experience of a major disaster in virtual event delivery

Welcome to the second edition in the series of Confessions of a Virtual Event Planner. Whether a means of just self-soothing, venting or online therapy, I thought I would share my personal experiences of being in this big new world we find ourselves in, via a regular blog.

Today, I wanted to share with you my personal experience of my very first virtual event disaster and how it all went wrong, were there any warning signs and what I took away from the experience! If you read my first blog, you’ll appreciate how this scenario did not aid my imposter syndrome and possibly undid lots of work and confidence that had been built over the last 6 months.

This story starts with us winning a brand-new client, via referral and as always, we were super excited to have the new win and in a year of uncertainty of business, see more and more new business come in. The client was a charity, and they hold an annual fundraiser every year in the way of a black-tie dinner, where they historically raise £six-figures +. It is a major annual fixture in their calendar and key to their success. 2020 was their centenary year and as you can imagine, they were hugely disappointed to be unable to do a face-to-face dinner. They came to us to design and run the fundraising evening virtually as a full-service solution, including creation of a prominent 45-minute celebration show, sponsor exhibition and regional drinks receptions, delivery of food to attendees homes and complete digital logistics and delivery. This was going to be our first virtual Gala dinner.

We started, as we do with every event, and that was to design the experience vs the brief and objectives. What did our client want to achieve and how could we do this in a dynamic, engaging and memorable way to be worthy of a 100-year birthday event. We researched and proposed the different technology platforms that could achieve the elements that were key to the evening’s success. We proposed the platforms and the attendee journey. The client fell in love with the experience and journey, but instead of choosing one of our platform solutions, they asked us to use a platform they thought was good for fundraising and offered actual tables for people to sit at. We reviewed the supplier and attended a demo, everything seemed in order. They have been established in the UK & US since 2000 and had big clients under their virtual belt. Lesson 1. Never assume what looks good on paper (or should I say screen) is good enough. Ask for actual client references.

So we proceeded to contract the client’s recommended platform. We had 1.5 months to plan and execute and the team got cracking. Our first warning signs should have been how slow the platform was to respond and action our requests. We put it down to the fact, the client was making so many bespoke requests to have the platform changed to suit their event. The platform agreed at every stage. Which actually hindered our execution and timeline. Lesson 2. A platform that is established and good at what they do, do not want to change their product or platform. They should know that creating new features and functions means automatically your event is a guinea pig and being delivered in beta stage.

Within our planning, we had scheduled multiple test events and reviews of the finished platform, none were ever met. Each time the platform would have an issue or elements not finished. Again, we put this down to the plethora of client requests for changes, rather than a supplier issue. Eventually for our last review the platform was ready. The client was happy, we were content, and everything seemed in order.

We fast forward to the evening of the event, we as a team are set up and raring to go. We have the team on the help desks, chat bots and phonelines. Our producer and showcaller in place and the platform team online. On the hour it goes live and we breathe a sense of relief as the show starts. The help desk team have queries coming in, which are standard around devices or logging in queries, but then something suspicious happened. Our producer was kicked off the platform and couldn’t log back in. Then systematically, all the team were kicked off the platform and refused entry, with error messages that our login details were not recognised.

Then panic mode set in event wide. The phones across the office went wild, flashing red lights as the cues on the phoneline were unmanageable. We had a huge percentage of the 1,000 attendees calling us in panic to say they couldn’t log in. Lesson 3. Always have a contingency mailing to your attendees set up and ready to go at the push of button for a few scenarios, including complete system failure. You can also use a text system and have this set up and ready to go if needed. Anything to aid your management of a crisis and having 1,000 angry or confused attendees is not something you need. We reacted quickly and sent out an email to everyone and then answered as many calls as we could until it died off.

Our next step was to think on our feet and take the 45-minute show we had created and upload it to the client YouTube channel and encourage all the attendees to go there to watch the show and chat and interact. It was obviously not the event expected or the event wanted, but Lesson 4. Always have a backup for delivering your event content, even if it is on a private social channel or you invest in a basic system, like zoom where you can direct attendees in unforeseen circumstances.

Our producer was on the phone to the platform, who effectively after one text message disappeared for hours, leaving us in the dark. Imagine that feeling of having no access, no support. The message we got was the event was being hacked and they were looking into it, trying to stop it. We then couldn’t get hold of them for what felt like a lifetime. Around 2am our time we finally got a message to say they will update us when they can, but we had a DDOS attack. Our event was over hours ago and we had been abandoned. We were in crisis management with our clients, who were understandably upset and worried that their event & attendees’ details had been hacked.

We had video conference meetings into the middle of the night, with their legal and communication teams, they shut down their internal corporate emails and we shut down any fundraising and associated sites in case of further hacking. We helped draft press statements for release in the morning.

We are 3 months on but we started formal investigations the very next day, the client appointed a cyber security expert and we reported the incident to the ICO. However, the platform remained quiet, unhelpful and eventually ignored us and the expert. We are now looking at legal action to recoup the initial financial outlay and then damages to brand. It has become obvious over these 3 months that there was no hack, that the system failed due to system management.

I wish that we hadn’t experienced this complete event failure, and no doubt loss of a client, but at the same time it has given us invaluable insights and made us aware of the possibilities of the risks. We have changed our processes; we have created our own crisis management around virtual events and we take no chances anymore! I leave with this question, what value do you put on event failure and a loss of a client? It is worth an initial outlay and investment in a backup plan and system that you know, trust and can turn to in order to avoid that larger loss financially and in reputation?


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