Two months ago, Encore Live was largely an in-person event company – the “dynamic human experience company,” per its website. Today, it’s a virtual-event one offering not just virtual production, but also remote productivity/team dynamics consulting and scalable mobile COVID-19 testing sites. Here, Encore Live CEO and founder Walter Kinzie discusses the disruption forced upon the events world by the coronavirus and how his company is keeping pace with it.
When did Encore Live realize that it was going to have to pivot from live events to virtual ones?
As we started watching what was happening in China, we were working on a project that launched in February in Reno, for a big holding company from Philadelphia which had lots of employees abroad. Whatever you believe about the reports of the number of cases coming out of China, there was no question about how quickly the virus was spreading and how catastrophic it could be. Immediately there was a sense of, “We gotta start thinking about this NOW.” Eventually we suggested to the company that they make a large component of it virtual and that they keep 1,100 people at home.
With the coronavirus, when did the sense of urgency kick in?
What was alarming to me was that it wasn’t institutions canceling events like SXSW – it was the municipalities and local authorities. SXSW is a significant revenue stream for the community of Austin, so for the mayor and community leaders to say, “I’m sorry, we’re going to forego all of this because we don’t have a choice,” that was monumental.
We adjusted to Zoom meetings quickly enough, out of necessity. Can larger virtual events, whether for health/pharma groups or others, catch on?
We’re seeing a surge in new customers coming to us looking for this. A big part of it is that there are lots of ways to talk live to people online these days, lots of ways to get video messages to people these days. But the quality is only as good as the company that provides it. We’ve had systems in place since 2012 and we can deliver broadcast-quality content. We can accommodate tens of thousands of people.
How has the pivot to virtual affected you internally? Have there been layoffs?
We’re not immune to the revenue [decreases] from a live event being lost. A handful of folks who worked on live experiences and had jobs that pertained to being on site for a mass gathering, unfortunately, we were not able to retain those folks any longer. But just yesterday, we posted for tech positions and started pivoting to individuals who have the skills to thrive in a virtual environment.
This is a cynical question, but is it even possible to replicate the energy and essence of a live event in a virtual setting?
Companies have to get creative today. You can’t replace anything 100%, but there are things companies can be doing. Look at a notable organization like TED. All of us in the business have been able to get a lot out of TED Talks, although we watch virtually.
How do you replicate the best parts of that model?
Well, get away from your desk while you’re talking. Don’t just use your laptop camera. There are ways to add lighting and staging in a very safe manner that allows people to get up and deliver a powerful and compelling message. Think about when Apple launches a product. They couldn’t have a more simple set, but the speakers are on a big stage with big colorful graphics behind them.
Companies need to look at this from the perspective of the things they need to do to engage attendees. People can ask questions, whether through text or the microphone [on a laptop or other mobile device]. You can do live polling in a way that’s very sophisticated. A lot of this technology has been around for a while, but there wasn’t a big demand to use it until this pandemic.
How about the flipside of that last question: What are organizations doing wrong or not as well as they could?
I give the benefit of the doubt to the entire country right now, whether a little kid or the CEO of a vast company. We’re all getting used to this. You can’t look at your phone or the news without hearing something that’s terrifying. So I’m not going to say anyone’s doing anything other than just adjusting to the norm now.
You can’t expect companies to be proficient in a new skill set right out of the gate. Our message, basically, is don’t bury yourself behind email and Slack and text messages. Only 20% of communication is the words you’re saying and your tone. 80% is facial expression and non-verbal cues.
What are some considerations specific to health/pharma events that are perhaps overlooked?
I would say it’s important now that the meetings and events go on… We’ve seen an uptick in pharmaceutical companies reaching out to us. There are lots of different technologies out there that can help pharma protect and guard their information and make sure it can’t be widely distributed.
We get that there’s a lot of anxiety. Hospitals and clinics are certainly distracted right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that the pharmaceutical and healthcare businesses still have the same customers they did before the coronavirus. Doctors, nurses, lab techs and more still need to hear from you, and there’s an obligation and an opportunity to help your sales reps and third-party vendors struggling out there make sense of the situation. You can educate them on how to survive in virtual world. They want that information.
Does everything that’s happened over the last few weeks change Encore Live going forward? Can you be both a live and virtual events firm?
Well, there will be lots of success stories of companies that have never worked remotely before this that are thriving today. Folks are getting comfortable using video technology to connect with employees and everyone else. While we do believe live events will come roaring back by Q3 or definitely by Q4 – the pent-up demand will be strong – companies will still be deploying virtual components.
I don’t think the business world is ever again going to be what it was six weeks ago. One positive coming out of this pandemic is that the way we interact will change forever. And on the other side of it, people will realize how important it is to come together.
For us, there will be a virtual component to everything we do from here on out. We’ve reinvented our business substantially in the last three weeks.