The events business has been hit one of the hardest since the pandemic started. To shed some perspective on the industry and how it’s changing, I invited Cheryl Gentry from Glow Global Events to join us.
Cheryl is a 2020 Inc. 500 honoree, ranked from the top people and events for two consecutive years, and one of the most influential women in business.
What is it like to be number 145 on the Inc. 5,000 list of fastest growing private companies in the United States?
Cheryl Gentry: When you say in America that sounds overwhelming with all of these small businesses in the US. I found out late July that we made it and they were going to email us our ranking on August 12th.
I accidentally opened an email because I wanted my sister to videotape me and my reaction getting my rank, and when I saw 145, I just thought of all the hard work that I had put in over the last three years, because the way they monetize it, and the way they look at it is how you’ve grown your business and the percentages and how they look at it to review it.
And so when I realized that we were 145, I immediately thought back on all the work that I had done, all the hard work I’ve done over the last three years to grow that. So thinking back about my strategic growth plan that I put in place and then looking at to where getting the announcement was just amazing.
Sherri Langburt: I don’t think people really have an understanding; out of 5,000 people you were the fastest growing; you’re 145. You’re not even in the Inc. 5,000; you’re in the Inc. 500.
Cheryl Gentry: Yeah. And even with probably the honorees, it’s probably more people that enter. So when you think about they’ve selected 5,000, but just the list of everybody that has an opportunity to apply and enter the awards, it just becomes even more competitive.
Like I said, I did my strategic growth plan about three years ago. I knew I wanted to be in that space and I knew I wanted to be there, but actually having Inc. Magazine recognize me on that space was just phenomenal. In fact, last night I went back to look at my strategic growth plan and I was happy. I think I hit all the milestones. I look at it every year. I went back through and everything that I wanted on how we get there and how we get to that revenue was listed in my plan. So you have to write it down.
Sherri Langburt: That’s amazing. Maybe I can use your strategic growth plan to help us out.
I know your whole career, most of your career in the past few years have been devoted mainly to events.
How did you get started in the event space? What were some of the challenges? What were your pivots?
Cheryl Gentry: I think you really have to be a certain type of person to be an event planner. I was always the event planner. Even as a kid, my parents would have a huge Christmas party and I always was planning that. What we do now is on a scale way bigger than a Christmas party.
But it really takes a different type of person to one, and in fact, Forbes Magazine says that event planning is one of the top 10 most stressful jobs, one of the reasons is it’s task heavy and it’s deadline sensitive. And so you have to be the type of person that can deal with that. You’re always on deadline and you have so many tasks to get one thing and to have the final event produced.
After college … I actually majored in human resource management. I started my first event business. And then I moved to New York and started in the music business, in the marketing department, but I found myself working late and really having fun with all the album release parties.
Every time there was an artist signed, we would have to have an album release party to kind of introduce them to the world. That catapulted me to an amazing position in the fashion industry, where I was director of promotions and PR. Again, it was the fashion shows, the 7th on 6th shows that I would just light up. My mentor said, “Start your own business. Start your own event marketing agency.” That was in May 1st, 1998, so we’re at 22 years in business here in New York.
You’re talking about the kind of person you are. How do you stay organized for the next big event?
Cheryl Gentry: With events, like I mentioned it’s task heavy. Really we like clients to give us nine months minimum to really plan. Although now that we’ve pivoted to virtual in these last four months or six months or so, we have really had only 10 days to produce some events. A big part of it is over the years, what I’ve done is put systems in place.
Event planners use a lot of Excel documents. We have a system that we have in place that one hour timeline can give us exactly what to do. I spent a lot of time laying that timeline out. As soon as we sign a client, all we have to do is put the date in and then it populates every other task and the date that it’s due. Early on, I backed into the dates. I had someone help me that knew Excel really well, and we created this document that really helps us put our tasks together.
With having all of our systems in place, that’s what keeps us really organized because we’re dealing with so many stakeholders, one, the client, but then everybody that attends our event is a client too. So we have to make sure that all of our touch points between the client, that we’re communicating what we’re doing, our speakers, our honorees, we’re doing speaker toolkits to make sure everyone’s expectations are met once they show up to the event, or once they go online with us, and then all of our attendees from the moment they get the invitation, what questions they’ll have, training, FAQs. So the prep to even once we are ready to face the public with the event, has gone into several pain staking hours.
Are you using any other event management tools?
Cheryl Gentry: We have our internal systems in place, but then we work with a couple of different platforms. EventsAir is one. That’s our registration project management tool that also has the event micro-site where we ask questions and collect data from all the attendees.
For some of the virtual events we’ve been using Hopin, we use Zoom, but we kind of take Zoom to the next level and use our technical producer to really insert customized title slides and session descriptions and backgrounds, so it’s not typically what you would see in Zoom. We’ve added what we call a graphics package to that.
Also some of the other platforms we use is Allseated, Social Tables for kind of the table rendering or when we do galas and we need to have seating assignments. We use zkipster for check-in. So depending on the client needs really depends on what platform we use.
Our team stays up to date on what software is out there, what platforms we need to use, and then based on the client needs, we always send out a survey to all of our clients so we can understand from their words, what they need, and then we build the needs around what they need.
Sherri Langburt: Now I’m going to go back to a few events. One of them we had food and wine coming and 20 minutes before 250 people were supposed to show up for an InStyle event, the food and the wine wasn’t there, which is very stressful.
What do you do when things like that happen and when something doesn’t go to plan?
Cheryl Gentry: We always have a plan B and that’s one of the reasons why you have these systems and checklists in place, because if the caterer was to arrive four hours for the event, you would never want to cater to arrive between an hour and two hours before the event. You want them there onsite four hours before the event. If there is a delay they can explain to you what happened, and then perhaps you can order from somewhere else if it’s appetizers or open the bar a little bit early. Typically we also have our bar vendor and our catering vendor sometimes separate, so if there is a delay, if they got stuck in traffic …
I remember we did an event last year and our florist was stuck in traffic and it was a breakfast. He got there before the event, but he was setting up right before the doors opened. The other thing is you need to manage your client’s expectations. Even though he had arrived before the event, he was still setting up in the room, the client was crazy because they knew that he was late and we had to do other checkpoints throughout the venue. They’re looking at him like, “There are flowers on the floor. We’ve got to be able to get this up.”
And so always having a plan B set up one, so we won’t stress our clients, but then making an intelligent decision far enough in advance that it’s not going to stress us.
We’ve had some disasters on our hand. We did an event in Berlin, and the hotel came to me and said, “The kitchen flooded. We may have to move your dinner to a different ballroom because the kitchen behind the ballroom we were using flooded.” I said, “I’m not going to run and tell the client immediately. Let’s look at worst case scenario. Let’s get the fire department here. Let’s get the chef here. What we can do.” It turns out that we didn’t have to move ballrooms anyway. But if I would have gone to the client and said, “Oh my gosh we have to move. There’s a flood,” they would have gone crazy.
A big part of event planners is we need to be the calm. We need to remain calm until we find out what the problem is. I always tell my team, “Don’t come to me and say what the problem is. Come to me and say there was a fire. The police or the fire department’s on their way. There were 10 people in there; they’re out now. Give me all the solutions before you just come and say there’s a fire in the kitchen.”
Sherri Langburt: Right, right. Very good intel. I can say that you definitely kept me calm when we did events with you.
Now social media has kind of changed events going back to not the virtual, but real events. Are you seeing a lot of people using social media, streaming live from events? What are some of the preferred channels that you think are most effective?
Cheryl Gentry: Absolutely. Social media, even though it’s always been a big play in what we do, it’s that on steroids now, because people are using all of the live options with all of the platforms. We actually right now love YouTube for streaming our clients’ live events, because it’s going to be live on YouTube, you can further engage. YouTube has now added a donate button.
You can engage your clients during the live via their chat feature. So even with all of these companies, they’ve stepped up in their capacity of what they’re offering. I know people have seen how Zoom has stepped up with some of their security. Each of these technology platforms are stepping up.
Outside of YouTube, I think Facebook Live is my next platform. One of the reasons why I like Facebook Live is because Facebook, even though a lot of influencers have followers on Instagram, once it leaves Instagram, it still needs to live somewhere else, and so you’d have to put it either on Instagram TV, you’d still want to upload it to YouTube.
But between YouTube and Facebook, they’ve done a really good job of people finding their video and understanding really how to engage their audience a little bit further. In fact, I think with Facebook’s new format layout, that videos are right up at the top now. At least in my page, pings or lights up when there’s a video that’s ready of someone that I’m following. So they’ve made video even that much more searchable.
Sherri Langburt: I wonder why it’s not that easy on Instagram.
Cheryl Gentry: Yeah. They’re owned by Facebook. I think they’re looking at every way. I don’t think everybody uses Instagram TV yet. I do think people are using the Instagram Live, which is good, but then you still have to do extra work and then upload that to either your YouTube or your Facebook channel. Out of the box, I like the YouTube and Facebook for sure.
What are some innovative ways that brands can stay, or you’re helping your clients stay top of mind with influencers now that so many events are canceled?
Cheryl Gentry: This is where across social media platforms, we are recommending and mentioning to all of our clients to really amp up the social media. One way to do that is they can produce more content through video. Let’s face it, everyone has 10 seconds before you lose their attention, but video has really been able to capture people’s attention.
What you should be doing and what we recommend to our clients and what brands should be doing, is not only recycling some of their video content, but looking at that video content and creating bite-sized snippets, even if it’s just a sound bite. How do you use bookends before and after? How do you look at some of your old content and turn that into a commercial? This is an opportunity to really not just produce new content, which you can immediately upload on YouTube … I’ve seen so many ads that come in now and it’s literally people walking down their driveway talking about their product.
And so allowing the brands, allowing our clients and even influencers to recycle some of that content that they already have and introduce it to a new audience.
Are all your clients now saying let’s just do virtual events? What do your virtual events look like?
Cheryl Gentry: Luckily only one of our clients moved their fall event to next spring. Every other client we convinced to move their event virtually. And within each of the needs of what they were looking for, we’ve been able to present different options.
For example, we have an event that was supposed to be in North Carolina at their convention center in Raleigh, North Carolina in November; 4,000 attendees. Luckily we were able to convince the client to change this to an all-virtual platform. We are using some technology, a platform called Conference Compass. It’s allowing us to bring in our speakers. Part of that event, we have a reading room where we have celebrities come in and read parts of a book.
We have a film that we are doing, we have judges filming awards, and so we’re uploading films for people to watch. It’s almost like a virtual film festival that we’re creating within that event. And then have about 30 sessions with speakers. We have about five keynotes. So it’s a really robust event.
We met with several vendors when we decided to convince them to go virtual. At the time we didn’t even really know the capabilities of all of these platforms out there. We did our due diligence. We were on demos with every platform I could think about. We decided on Conference Compass because they had some graphics packages that we could add. They had all of these different rooms where we can accommodate. They had a high level of customization; some of the platform you can’t customize that much. So we decided to go with that platform.
Now we’ve done a cooking class with a celebrity chef. For that client we decided to do Zoom. The chef had two cameras, and so we were switching back and forth between his cutting board camera and then his face-to-face camera.
I always like to tell our clients, “These virtual events are like producing a TV show.” The producer; he’s on the switcher. He’s switching from your headshot to, for the example with the chef, to his other camera. Like I said, we really look at the platform.
We did an event over the weekend. We had the DJ in one room. JP Morgan Chase was a sponsor. They sponsored the marketplace. We had several vendors that were able to either upload a video or have a marketplace where you could click their shop button. Even within this virtual space, you can really make it almost like it’s live.
We’ve sent custom boxes to some attendees. We’ve sent food, so everybody could have dinner together. We actually coordinated that. Those attendees were all over the country, and we coordinated that with Uber Eats and delivered dinner to 20 of the attendees and they all had dinner together.
We’re really thinking outside of the box on how to engage the attendees to make sure that they stay focused on how to attend the event.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah we’re seeing the shift and how to be creative with the virtual events, definitely there’s different platforms. Are you allowed to say, because I know people are going to ask because we get a lot of these questions, something like Conference Compass, what’s the charge of that, or would you prefer not to disclose?
Cheryl Gentry: Yeah, that’s pretty expensive. I think it’s at about 30,000. The reason why is because like I said, for that event, we’re having the film festival, we’re having the bookstore, the reading, the more you need the work customization you have, the more expensive it gets.
But say for example a platform like Hopin, on their lower end, I think it’s about $500. It’s a different level of engagement. Their logo is still on the upper left corner, so you still see that. You can really get your attendees in that room and curate an experience for them in a platform like that.
Even Zoom; I think so many clients think Zoom is cheap. By the time you start adding the webinar features and if you go over 500 attendees, that’s another fee, and if you have more than one host, that’s another fee, and if you add panelists, that’s another fee, I mean, those fees start getting more expensive. We do one event for a client and Zoom alone is $2,000.
Budget’s always a major concern, but there are a lot of platforms for different use and needs.
Sherri Langburt: For most of ours we’ve been using Zoom, but also I think that a lot of our clients are also doing these virtual events that aren’t real-time. They’re prerecorded virtual events, which is interesting as well. I don’t know if that engaging, but some of the outlets are feeling safer just prerecording and it’s kind of a virtual event that’s not really live.
Yeah. We’ve been doing a lot of prerecorded, but we’ve been uploading it live. So we’re doing this event, everything’s prerecorded, we are managing the chat, so people don’t know it’s prerecorded, and we are scheduling it and we’re announcing it that it’s going to go live … and this event is actually doing UN General Assembly Week … but we’re announcing that the event’s going to go live at 6:30 PM on September 22nd. Even though it’s been packaged and put together and prerecorded it’ll then really feel more like a TV show and people won’t be able to know that it’s prerecorded.
Sherri Langburt: I had a call with someone who runs a networking company and he’s like, “Isn’t everyone just Zoomed out.” I think there’s two sides of it. Some people are like, “I’m using this time to just do webinar after webinar because I want to learn and I have nothing else to do,” and other people are like, “I’m Zoomed out.”
How do you keep people engaged during a virtual event?
Cheryl Gentry: Yeah, that goes back to some of the customization. We send out custom boxes. We’ve been really successful with our corporate clients on doing breaks. Some of those breaks are customer engagement as well. So we might say, “Grab something on your desk that you got when you were on vacation,” and everybody will grab something.
But then it’s really fun to see what’s at arm’s length? What’s near you that you can then tell a story about? So it really becomes about storytelling in addition to these Zoom platforms. They’re getting to know each other in a different, better way, but then it’s also helping with people’s communication skills. How are they explaining what they receive.
For the chef, the cooking event we did, after they make dinner, we were sitting there and the client … we convinced them to do a guess the refrigerator. And before the event, everyone sends us a picture of their refrigerator. While they were eating, we did a video. We put a picture up of everybody’s refrigerator. We used the poll function and everybody got to vote on whose refrigerator they thought it was. It was really just interesting seeing people’s refrigerator that was very neat, that was junkie, that was healthy.
It’s interesting … then people can get to know each other. Some people guessed the right away whose refrigerator it was, some people you couldn’t guess. It was another level of engagement for people to get to know each other.
And it’s fun.
It’s so much fun. It’s so much fun.
Another one we did … the scavenger hunts have been really successful. What we’ve done even to engage a little bit further, when the question’s read and people have to run around their house to select an item, we’re embedding music. And so a minute of music will play while people are searching. We’ve inserted a buzzer that buzzes when it’s over, and then everybody comes back to their computer and they’re saying what they found during the scavenger hunt.
Those are some of the little things that we’ve been throwing in … any event that’s outside of really 45 minutes. We’ve been convincing the clients to use some of these other engagement elements, and even with the polling and also offering Amazon gift cards, which can immediately be emailed to them without having to send a physical gift card people are more likely. Everybody wants to win something. So if you say it’s an Amazon gift card, people are actually going to engage and play.
Sherri Langburt: That’s awesome. I guess you come up with the programming, but is it just one producer that’s doing all the graphics and the music and all that?
Cheryl Gentry: No, we have a whole team. Clients think it’s going to be a lot cheaper. It’s not necessarily that much cheaper. We have three technical producers, one’s a switcher, one’s managing audio, and one’s cleaning up any video. They handle all the prep. They also are on the calls. They bring the speakers in from what we call our virtual green room. They prep, they talk, we do rehearsals, so that’s the tech side. And then we have our event planners that are managing registration.
We’re building out registration platforms. That’s different too, because Zoom, of course you can register. Some clients use Eventbrite. Hopin in we’ve been taking registration. Cvent, we’ve used their registration portal. It depends on whether the client already has that subscription, and we use that platform to register guests.
Oftentimes we send out tool kits because if it’s a platform, they need to know what the expectations are once they get on. We send out speaker tool kits. We make sure any platform that we’re using has a detailed level of analytics on the back end.
For example, how many people are registering? How many people are logging in? How long are they staying on once they log in? Because we do have some clients that are giving CPUs, and so to get those credits, they actually need to be on for longer than 15 minutes, and so we don’t want to lose people.
Its typically about six people. Sometimes we’ll manage the chat feature, sometimes the client will. We come up with pre-FAQs that we worked through, so if anybody has a question, we’ll already have that content ready to pop into the check feature. It’s about six people that are on board for the virtual events.
What do you think, and this is a tough question, what do you think the future looks like for the event business?
Cheryl Gentry: I was on a Zoom last week, a webinar last week about the future of the event industry, and I said, “The future is now.” Every way, every opportunity, every innovation that we’re thinking about, this is going to be the future. Hybrid is going to be the future, because another thing that we always do with our clients is do pre-event surveys.
Not only are we going to have to do that with the client now, we’re going to have to do that with the attendees, because there’s going to be some attendees that will absolutely convene and come onsite, but there’s going to be another segment of that population that isn’t going to go onsite until there’s a vaccine if they have family that is in a high risk category.
So we’re going to be doing pre-event surveys to kind of assess the tolerance of where people are, whether they’re going to show up for convening. And if we do a live event, a part of that hybrid, and we’ve done live casting for years, a part of that live is going to have to be live streaming to another audience who doesn’t want to come live. So what does that look like? We normally would have done a dinner with 500 people, maybe that dinner is now [inaudible 00:29:29] a smaller room, but we also are now streaming that live to another segment of our audience that didn’t want to show up onsite.
I think the hybrid is going to be here. Like I said, we’ve always done live streaming and hybrid for a lot of clients, but I think the hybrid is here to stay for at least the next four years.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah, and I think that there’s so many opportunity. I mean, look, we do influencer marketing, but now our boxes … everyone’s like, “Wait a minute, you could send a box for an event to someone’s house.” We can’t get the products to their house; they could tune into an event.
I think there’s just so much. You just have to open your mind and think about all the different ways. Like with what you said with Uber Eats. Brilliant. Everyone got to eat together. Do you know what I mean?
Cheryl Gentry: I remember when this first happened and you and I spoke and we were trying to convince one of the venues that we had booked to do the food box with their signature champagne. I don’t want to mention which venue it was. They weren’t able to pivot and offer that because they didn’t have a fulfillment house to really get the packages out to the attendees. Now Great Performances is actually doing that. We’re partnering with Great Performances to actually send out meals, like do a meal kit.
I know people didn’t think this was going on so long, but you and I were on the call I think March 16th to strategize about what we could offer. It has to be that type of person, that type of business, that’ll say, “Here we are now; where can we go? And what can we offer now?” You never know when a catastrophe is going to happen, but it’s actually thinking how we address the customer and how we address our clients right when it’s happening.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah, I agree, and you’ve been doing great stuff. So I definitely want to have a followup call and share and learn more about what we’re both doing.
Name an influencer you love to follow, but hate to admit that you do.
Cheryl Gentry: Because of COVID and everything that’s going on, I decided to start my own YouTube page. There is this cute young girl who goes through how she built her YouTube page. She is Erin On Demand, I think she is. I absolutely love her. I follow her on Instagram. I follow her YouTube religiously. She is a marketing digital agency, and she’s showing step by step by step on what her lessons learned were, and her personality is just great. So Erin, she’s not probably huge, like a big, big influencer, but I think she has over a hundred thousand or so followers on YouTube, and she is just absolutely delightful.
Sherri Langburt: Awesome. Awesome. Well, always learning more from you, Cheryl. You’re amazing. Congratulations again. Wishing you all the best for the rest of the summer and hopefully we’ll see each other one day in person soon.
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Sherri. Thanks for having me today.