Major event organizers in San Diego embrace the virtual experience
Published - 05/21/20 - 09:00 AM | 2503 views | 6 6 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kathryn Vaughn, Lynne Doyle, and Kristi Pieper at last year’s Susan G. Komen San Diego Breast Cancer Foundation dinner.
Kathryn Vaughn, Lynne Doyle, and Kristi Pieper at last year’s Susan G. Komen San Diego Breast Cancer Foundation dinner.
With major public events continuing to be canceled, the choice for those remaining now becomes postponement – or going virtual.

That wasn’t even an option, or much of one, pre-Covid-19. But now, with no clear end to the pandemic in sight, event promoters are finding they’ve run out of alternatives.

The question now becomes, is it worth it to stage a major event remotely? Will it be financially feasible with far more restrictions, and far fewer attendees?

And the answer, according to local event promoters is: It all depends.

The Peninsula Beacon caught up with four event promoters in town – Sherry Ahern, Laurel McFarlane, Meredith Hall-Chand, and Armando Cepeda – to get their take on the viability of virtual events, and whether we’ll continue to see them more moving forward.

Laurel McFarlane, CEO of McFarlane Promotions, promotes numerous major events annually including the St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween block parties downtown, as well as Old Town’s Cinco de Mayo.

“It worked out great, the virtual fiesta went really well for the businesses there,” said McFarlane of the recent virtual Cinco de Mayo. “Businesses were slammed for that day, and consumers from all over had fun watching it virtually for two hours.”

But it can be really hard to do free events virtually, pointed out McFarlane, adding its almost unfair to compare live with remote.

“Live is a whole different thing, a whole different experience,” she said adding, “And with a free event, unless you’ve got sponsors to support it, it may actually end up costing you more (to stage).”

Sherry Ahern of La Jolla, founder/promoter of both the La Jolla Farmers Market and the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival, recently got the market reopened by adhering to strict state health guidelines. But the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival ended up being postponed until 2021. Ahern said it just didn’t pencil out.

“You would have had to have social distancing with people walking about ensuring they weren’t in clumps,” she said. “And we also would have had to have social distancing in the wine and beer garden. … not to mention that a lot of our event sponsors might not be in their best shape then.”

Adding it all up Ahern concluded, “We just wanted to be the best we could be for that event. We just didn’t think it would be feasible to do it.”

Meredith Hall-Chand with the Susan G. Komen San Diego Breast Cancer Foundation said it worked out for her group to go ahead and virtually stage a fundraising dinner on May 29 for the three-day event, presently planned for Sept. 26.

“With a virtual event you really have to think creatively to make sure you’re engaging your community,” Hall-Chand said. “And you have to have the capacity to figure out how to go virtually. You have to figure out a way to do it from a different platform.”

The answer for Komen in doing its fundraising dinner virtually was to have had a lot of online attractions.

“We have videos showing and talking about (cancer) patients here in San Diego, Hall-Chand said. “We’re having a silent auction, VIP packages, a doctor from Scripps speaking, an electronic violinist and a large contingent of the restaurant community that supports us. We already have almost 300 people signed up and they’re excited and interested, to see what it’s going to look like.”

Armando Cepeda represents both Encore, a music and entertainment production company, as well as the Virtual Event Collective, three businesses creating seamless customized virtual experiences for clients.

With the advent of virtualism, events have “taken on a new life,” said Cepeda.

“We’re doing lots of small things now like putting up webcams so people can see what’s going on at events and the new formats have been really cutting-edge,” he said. “We’ve been able to do virtual events for graduations, fundraisers, galas, fashion, etc.”

Is the trend toward hosting more virtual events a temporary trend in response to the pandemic, or a permanent change in event promotion?

“The East Coast had already been doing more virtual stuff with the possibility of hurricanes and such,” said McFarlane. “More and more people are getting exposed to events online. Though there’s something really amazing about live events. You just can’t get that on virtual. Probably, we’re going to have a hybrid of live, and virtual, when this is done.”

“I believe it (virtual) is deeply embedded now in the public consciousness,” said Cepeda. “It just makes sense to offer virtual services from here on out. Even if we do go back to ‘normal,’ virtual is still a unique way to engage people and get them to interact.”

Added Cepeda: “Once you get past the learning curve, virtual becomes more comfortable. But it will never replace live events or live interaction. It’s not meant to. It’s meant to be a tool, if you will, to provide a different experience.”


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