Beyond the BEO Podcast: Intentional Event Design with Malak Sidky

Beyond the BEO Podcast: Intentional Event Design with Malak Sidky

Digital and hybrid events are here to stay, so how do we engage our attendees, regardless of where they are? Join me as I chat with Malak Sidky, founder and president of Health Care Event Planning. We chat about ways to include attendees that may not be on-site.

Flowers, Flowers, Where Are You?

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I am wondering how hard will it be to source those precious roses. The last report I read outlined a few converging factors that led to a scarcity of flowers.

Factor # 1: Did you know that most roses are shipped from Ecuador and Colombia? But many growers there were forced to destroy their buds during the pandemic. This also happened in the Netherlands, a major exporter of flowers. They destroyed almost 400 million flowers; this included 140 million tulip stems!

Factor #2: The pandemic resulted in many weddings being postponed. Then when things opened up in Summer 2021, everyone wanted flowers for their weddings and demand exceeded supply. This led to price increases.

Factor #3: Globally, weather has wreaked havoc on the flower industry. The fires in Australia destroyed eucalyptus plants which are instrumental for seed production. Forest fires in B. C. wiped out many crops and plants that are typically shipped across Canada.

My advice to you, reach out to your local flower store and place your order early!

50 over 50 Campaign

Did you know there are less than 60 days left in this year. Its time time to celebrate you!

The 50 over 50 Campaign is still on and going strong.

Will you choose to be one of the 50 Stars?

Remember when we said that the 50 over 50 campaign will have a night of celebration? Well it’s happening! That’s right everyone. The details of the exclusive event are still in flow and let me tell you, they are tantalizing. We are planning an in-person event for May 2022. To make sure its done right, I’ve hired Malak Sidky as the event planner (check her out!). We are not backing away from this and its full steam ahead.

We just need YOU!

We have 30 spots left to fill. All shoots will be photographed by the end of March 2022. We are now booking for January and February. (Pssst, we have a few spots left in November). First come, first serve!

We are open with full safety precautions in place. Book your session and get ready to feel like you are walking on cloud nine during your shoot. Then circle May in your calendar as the event of 2022 that you’ll have to look forward to. We need this kind of celebration especially now.

Dust off that evening gown girlfriend, you’re gonna need it!

Learn more and apply here.

Mind Body & Soul Retreat Recap

Another successful retreat under our belts. This one felt no different than previous years. The setting at Sherwood Farm was idyllic, the workshop facilitators were phenomenal and the food was delicious. Yet there was a difference for me; with respect to the preplanning in the midst of a pandemic to ensure the safety of all our delegates and vendors. Here’s a sneak peek behind the scenes:

Firstly, I dithered a bit. Would I have the nerve to offer a live event despite the pandemic? And if so, what were the steps I needed to take to host a safe event? I had already hosted 2 virtual retreats and they were very successful from all aspects, including vendor and delegate satisfaction. It would be so easy to just offer another virtual event. However, I decided to take the plunge. If I, as an event planner could not design and curate a safe event, then who could?

Step One: I asked past participants to weigh in on this issue. Namely, would they want to attend a live event, knowing that I would be taking every precaution? An overwhelming majority said yes, so I hit the ground running.

Step Two: I enrolled in the Event Leadership Institute’s course: Pandemic On-Site Protocol. This was instrumental in determining which layers of safety needed to be incorporated to ensure a safe event and entailed the creation of a customized Duty of Care process. I also enrolled my on-site event planner in the same course so that we both benefitted from this specialized training.

Step Three: I decided early on that all participants needed to be fully vaccinated in order to attend and embedded that requirement in my registration process. For those who were not fully vaccinated, I had a private conversation with them requesting that they take the COVID-19 rapid test upon arrival. I ordered the Abbott Rapid Test kit and familiarized myself with the testing protocol. As a biochemist, I felt confident in administering the nasal test but nevertheless practiced using the kit beforehand.

Step Four: I selected a private venue so that there would be no exposure with other guests, such as at a hotel where various groups would be on site.  Sherwood Farm is located in King City, ON on 70 acres of land. I met with the owner and we mapped out the space. The aim was for all activities to take place outdoors including meals. There were designated areas for vendor booths, yoga, horse meditation and speaker talks. We ensured that everyone was socially distanced and made use of signs “ Stay One Horse Length Apart”. Masks were mandatory inside the house which guests would access to grab coffee or use the washrooms. I also allocated a private area for on-site testing.

Step Five: I purposefully marketed the group rate to encourage people to sign up together. The thinking behind this was that people in the same bubble (siblings, best friends) would be more apt to feel safe participating in the various activities and eating together.

Step Six: When making catering arrangements, I requested that all meals be boxed so that delegates would only need to pick up their power bowls and an apple and proceed to eat anywhere on the property. There was a few tables and chairs set up and some people took advantage of that, while others ate elsewhere on the grounds.

Step Seven: On the day prior to the event, I sent out a link for the Covid screening questionnaire and asked delegates to provide us proof of completion when checking in at the registration booth.

Step Eight: I attended an event planning summit shortly before the retreat and benefitted from a planner’s story about how to differentiate people’s comfort level with being greeted by using a colour coded name badge system. Green meant you were comfortable being hugged. Yellow meant you were OK with elbow taps and red meant you were only OK being spoken to. It was interesting that most people chose yellow at our event.

I am happy to report that the retreat went very smoothly. People were very respectful. Everyone followed the protocols we set out and no one got sick. As a result of having planned this year’s live retreat, I am more confident in my ability to design and curate a wonderful experience that incorporates safety at every level.

Québec City does not disappoint!

On a recent trip to Québec City, I was delighted to rediscover some wonderful sites and take in lots of lovely sounds from musicians performing throughout the Old City.

Here’s the back story: a few years ago, I had bid on this trip at a MPI Xmas event which included a flight for two from Toronto to Québec City, a 2-day stay at the Hotel Château Laurier, a dinner at the famous Fairmont Château Frontenac and museum passes thanks to Québec City Business Destination We were all ready to redeem this trip last year, but then COVID hit. So we rescheduled till this Summer and as they say “good things happen to those who wait.”

This city knows about food; we ate our way through the trip! Highlights included a very inventive meal at Chez Rioux & Pettigrew, which had been rated as the #2 best restaurant in Québec City by Trip Advisor. Originally this was a store that was founded in 1860 by Narcisse Rioux and bills from that time are on display throughout the restaurant, giving it an added historical touch. We had 4 dishes to share, everyone one of them a hit. Imagine scallops and mussels in a creamy corn sauce. Delicious.

The meal at Le Sam Bistro’s in the Château Frontenac was outstanding and included fresh oysters with a fennel & citrus salad and an amazing chocolate dessert. The best thing about the meal, other than the fantastic food was the view; our table overlooked the old town.

What surprised me was how hilly Québec City was; a walk around town used muscles I did not know existed. There are lots of staircases as well; so bring sturdy walking shoes. The Plains of Abraham are definitely worth checking out. There is lots of history at this site.

Another place not to miss is the Musée de civilisation. We saw the Maya exhibit which is featured until October 3, 2021. There is an extensive collection of artifacts, most of them never before exhibited outside of Guatemala. Did you know that the Maya built cities with massive temples in the middle of dense forests? Truly impressive!

I highly recommend Québec City for its culture, gastronomy and friendly locals; this destination should be on everyone’s bucket list!

Local overnight stay turns into a fabulous experience!

On a recent visit to Langdon Hall, Cambridge, I was very impressed by the standards they set. Our room was ready upon arrival at 2:00 PM. And what a stately room it was; spacious and magnificently furnished. I was delighted to see a fireplace and there was lots of wood available in and outside the room. The bathroom had a deep tub and they provided bath salts. We definitely took advantage of both fireplace and bathtub during our stay!

But what was truly impressive was the fact that someone remembered me mentioning that it was my husband’s birthday. Waiting for us was a sweet package of apple muffins, beautifully packaged with a red ribbon and a card wishing him Happy Birthday. It’s the little things that count.

We took a walk around the grounds which were spectacular. Then we came back and awaiting our dinner which was served in our room. The sommelier advised us about the wine, which turned out to be very memorable! The food was outstanding especially the cheese platter I had for dessert which included local honey.

I had reserved a garden tour the next morning and I feel that this was the highlight of the stay. It even surpassed the lobster scrambled eggs, served with fresh croissants, a berry bowl and fresh OJ. So what was so special about the tour? It was led by the head gardener and he was so passionate about what he did. We toured the garden, learned a lot and by the end of the tour, I was inspired to grow herbs and veggies in my backyard. This is a major shift for me as I was really not that interested in gardening and left most of those chores to my husband. But I was inspired and over the next few weeks, I went to the garden centre, bought mint, Thai basil, cilantro, chives, regular basil and thyme. I love that I am able to go out to the garden and pick some herbs to add flavour to my dishes! I also bought lilies and hydrangeas which I planted. I am really enjoying my garden this year, and it is thanks to the tranquil setting of Langdon Hall and their dedicated staff, that I have found a new passion!

Langdon Hall is part of Relais et Chateaux, and this designation puts them in good company amongst the most coveted properties around the world. I feel very lucky to have Langdon Hall in close proximity so my home so that I can go visit often. Next time, I will make use of their fabulous spa, which I have tried in the past.

Mind, Body & Soul Wellness Retreat – Curated with Intention

Planning a virtual retreat during a pandemic requires intentional event design. All events do, in fact.  We wanted to ensure that this event brought about positive change to the delegates as we are not immune to stress during COVID and can truly benefit from meaningful content being delivered to us. Equally important was the composition of the attendees; learning within a supportive community is so much more effective.

Roadmap for success:

So I spent lots of time researching the best-in-class experts and asked them to either speak at the event or facilitate a session.  Next, I examined the flow of the event. I needed a high energy, passionate speaker to kick off the day. Enter Zoe Dafniotis, Physical Education teacher, Fitness Professional and TRX instructor. She spent a few minutes outlining the core principles to a short but highly structured workout routine, where plank is king. Then we got physical and tried her 6 exercises repeated 6 times. Zoe’s session was a huge hit; one could sense the energy shift, and engagement was over the top!

The next sessions had to build on and complement the learnings. Annie Gaudreault, Founder VEEV, is a nutritionist and wellness coach extraordinaire. She debunked many myths about aging. Delegates learned that your lifestyle is a far more important wellness indicator than genes. I mean if Annie, who has some “nasty genes” in her family tree is able to run marathons, it certainly gives hope to us all!

Diane Crawford, Founder, The Voyage Inc. led us through a journey where she explored Confidence – Develop your Superpower. Using polls by probing the audience with questions was effective. Delegates were provided with a road map on how to build their confidence throughout their lives.

Delighting the Audience

In the months leading up to the retreat, I wanted to ensure a memorable experience for all delegates. I know that “breaking bread with someone” is an effective way to connect. So I decided that we would all eat together during this event and would split the group up into small breakout rooms so people could have a chance to know each other better. I purposefully sought out a caterer in the GTA who would create a healthy menu and could guarantee that the meal would arrive at people’s doorsteps. I partnered with Encore Catering; they have an excellent reputation and I have personally taste tested their delicious food. Delegate feedback was excellent; the meal arrived with a personalized menu card that had their name on it. This imparted a sense that they were special, as indeed they are. Aligning with a brand like Encore Catering that understands the importance of delighting the audience is integral to event success.

Engagement is King

Our social media campaign included wellness topics, profiled speakers and facilitators via short interviews and highlighted the benefits of attending. One of the first things we did was to partner with Trish Beesley, graphic designer and photographer. She designed wellness affirmation statements and accompanying imagery which were provided to early bird registrants. These beautiful, peaceful and inspirational wallpaper designs could be uploaded into iPhone or Android, providing a lasting benefit to delegates.

In the planning process, our events team tested out many engagement tactics and decided on 2 major ones. First off, we would curate a Pre-Show. During that time when delegates are logging on, we had them participate in a gamification word search powered by Engamio. Our sponsor, Samantha King, CEO of Fempire Builders, was keen to partner with us. “I love word searches and the competitive aspect of gamification, coupled with a Call to Action that showcased my company made it a perfect choice for me” Samantha stated.

Later in the day, we had immersive experiences like a much needed yoga class with Laura Brailsford. Another hit was a sound healing session facilitated by Nicole Manes, co-founder Sound Response Wellness. A sound bath has many benefits and is a wonderful wellness modality to reduce stress. Nicole uses her own voice as well as sound bowls, tuning forks and chimes allowing you to meditate and find peace. Feedback from her session was stellar.

Vendor spotlights were interspersed throughout the day. We learned about skin care from Helen Snell, Arbonne and her session got everyone inspired to suggest a DIY facial at the next retreat! We benefited from Jodie Rogers’ fireside chat about the healing properties of doTERRA essential oils. Jenny Hall did a ENJO product demonstration which was very convincing. The ENJO fibers in the cleaning cloths can actually remove butter/grease from a plate simply by adding water. No nasty cleaning chemicals needed!

Another premiere vendor, Teresa Isabel Dias, Founder, MenopausED, was also a big hit. Teresa is a pharmacist and menopause guru. Did you know that 20% of women going through menopause have such a hard time coping that they quit their jobs?  Her take on menopause being a possible glass ceiling had delegates talking up a storm. It is high time that we destigmatize menopause!

These examples showcase the vendors but the methods varied from product demos, to fireside chats, all the while offering compelling education. And the audience asked many questions, which shows how involved they were.

To recap the learning we were exposed to throughout the day, we utilized MyQuiz and created 12 wellness questions. Delegates were told that the person with the highest number of correct answers in the fastest time would win a prize; so competition was fierce! Contests are a great way to engage your audience.

Don’t Forget the Endnote

We really have to pay attention to the last session of the day. Having someone strong to close the event is paramount; too many times we focus on the keynote speaker and not the endnote. But the closing session is the last memory of the event.  So who better to close the day than Elvira V. Hopper, Founder, Live Your Vibe Transformation? She is an inspirational speaker in a class of her own. Elvira’s story is so compelling and people really resonate with her message that living out of alignment and not fully self-expressed can lead to tragedy. Elvira is a talented singer and crooned throughout her session so that we were educated and entertained at the same time. Who could ask for more?

Contracts in a COVID Era

Clearly, the world of events has changed. Planners need to be  more savvy when initiating contract discussions with venues. Successfully navigating the legal realms of contracts is a must to protect your clients. Here are some insights gained from the past year:  

  1. Contracts 101– Make sure that the event purpose is clearly articulated in the venue contract. For example, if your event is an international symposium, outline the various countries represented and provide estimates on the expected #s per country. If there are travel bans from any of these countries or the delegates have access issues with being vaccinated, you can cite frustration of purpose as a legitimate way of invoking force majeure.

Rationale: The purpose of the event is to gather delegates from various countries to share insights. If these delegates cannot attend, this negates the event purpose.

  1. Deposit Policy: As these are unusual times, ensure you have an understanding with the venue, that you cannot commit to high deposits. Negotiate the lowest initial deposit amount with them; my experience has been that hotels are willing to partner more than ever with planners.
  2. Rebooking: Certainly planners spent lots of time in 2020 undoing their event plans and having to negotiate alternate event dates with venues. This can be tricky. No one can predict when live events will be “de rigeur”, so it becomes an exercise of trying to crystal ball an ideal alternate timeframe to host the event. Work with your venue to ascertain optimal dates for your event and ensure that they are ready to safely host it. Don’t hesitate to ask them about their safety and hygiene policies. For several of my clients who are in the health care arena and working front-line with vulnerable populations, their health and safety concerns may be higher than other clients. Hence their questions will be geared towards when the hotel can assure them that their employees have been vaccinated since we know that temperature checks are not the gold standard of being COVID negative.

Lastly, do not put off discussions with your venue. Yes these are difficult conversations, but they need to be held. Don’t forget that other clients are rebooking, so you want to ensure that the venue can accommodate your alternate plans.

More than ever, honest in depth discussions with your venue are paramount to furthering the partnership. Your event venue wants the event to be successful and they are equally committed to ensure that the event is held in a safe manner as they need to protect their employees’ safety as much as you need to protect your delegates’ safety and well-being.

DOs and DON’Ts of Event Planning

Here are my tips for planning a perfect event, whether it’s complex with concurrent sessions or a simple affair.

  • Meet with your client to discuss the event goals and theme. Is this a staff appreciation event? Is this a bilingual event which requires simultaneous translation? Is it an educational session that confers credits to the attendees?
  • In the preplanning phase make sure that the date your client has selected does not conflict with other industry events or is too close to major holidays, otherwise your attendance rates may suffer.
  • Certain days of the week are better than others. As a general rule, avoid Monday and Friday events especially during the summer, as people tend to go out of town.
  • Determine with the client whether the event is reliant on sponsorships or whether the registration fee will cover all expenses.
  • Will it be a half day session, a full day, or multiple days? Will it run over several weeks? The event schedule needs to be nailed down early so that event promotion can take place.
  • Will there be concurrent sessions? If so, make sure that the room limits are adhered to.
  • Be aware of the client’s attendance expectations for the overall event and for each breakout session.
  • Will the event be recorded and available at a later date to attendees and non- attendees? If so, have they thought about the various price points?
  • Formulate a budget that takes into account all costs and projects what the registration fee will be. Get sign-off from the client.
  • Create a marketing plan that encompasses a social media plan. Obtain sign-off from the client and/or the communications department of the client’s company/organization for all communication materials. Make sure all logos used are current. Promote the event early, be consistent with your marketing efforts and set up processes to assess which campaigns are useful in driving attendance.
  • Scrutinize all contracts and ask questions if you are not sure of any clauses. Obtain sign-off from the client before returning any contract (virtual platform, event app, entertainment, speaker agreements, AV, catering, simultaneous translation, interpreter services for hearing impaired delegates).
  • If this is a hybrid event, work with your venue planner to optimize socially distanced seating arrangements, AV set-up, and catering. If you opt for external catering, make sure that the venue is in agreement and there are no penalties levied. Many art galleries for example have preferred caterers and deviation from that list will result in extra fees.
  • For hybrid events, book an AV technician for the entire day, especially if there are concurrent sessions, simultaneous translation or interpreter services. If anything goes wrong from a light bulb malfunction to a computer breakdown, the AV technician will quickly fix it and the event will run smoothly.
  • Create speaker agreements with clearly outlined deadline dates for submission of materials such as bios and headshots. Include a clause specifying that keynote speakers promote the event on their social media platforms and newsletters. Obtain speaker presentations one week prior to the event.
  • If the event involves out of town speakers, make sure you book their arrangements well in advance in order to take advantage of discounted airfare and hotel rates. If your speaker is on first thing in the morning, arrange to have them spend the previous night in town. There is nothing more panic inducing than a no-show from your keynote speaker!
  • If speakers are not being paid, make sure that they receive a modest honorarium or at the very least a thank you card by the organizing committee.
  • For remote speakers, arrange for rehearsals a few days prior to the event to ensure they are comfortable with the platform, have optimal internet connectivity, audio and lighting.
  • For the F2F component of the event, make sure you arrive at least one hour early to the venue. Have all emergency contact numbers for catering, AV and speakers.
  • Check that the socially distanced seating arrangements you submitted have been followed. If not, call your venue contact and have them make the necessary changes.
  • Check that all the AV equipment (screen, mics, computer) are working. Give the USB key to the AV technician so that all the presentations can be preloaded if those have not yet been sent to the technician in advance.
  • Ensure you have adequate help with registration, especially if there is a projected attendance of 100 or more delegates. Safety is a priority; have COVID screening protocols in place.
  • Reserve tables at the front of the room for committee members and speakers.
  • Verify the room temperature throughout the day; there is nothing worse than delegates being too hot as it puts them to sleep! If the temperature is not optimal, make sure you liaise with the venue contact immediately, as large rooms may take up to 20 minutes for the temperature to change.
  • Make sure that catering staff are setting up all meals and snacks according to schedule.
  • For virtual or hybrid events, ensure that you have a technical team at the ready if you did not opt for virtual platform support or had hired an AV company. The role of this team is assist delegates with tech issues, ensure that speakers have shown up in the virtual waiting room, moderate the Q&A, chat box, add information to the chat box (e.g. speaker website, downloadable document), launch polls, create breakout rooms, and basically ensure that the event runs smoothly.
  • Design an evaluation form that is comprehensive (5 point likeard scale) but is easy to analyse. If you are using an event APP, the survey can be incorporated into the APP, which is more efficient than issuing a survey the following day.
  • Submit the evaluation report no later than one week post-event.
  • Hold a debrief with the client to discuss the event in detail, reconciliation of the budget, evaluation results and any challenges encountered.
  • Book your next event with the client!

Mind, Body and Soul Wellness Retreat – A Virtual Transformation

Back in Spring 2020, I realized that my signature retreat, which was projected to take place in the Fall, would need to be reimagined. With so many of my client events being postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19, I was loath to do the same for my own event, which I had hosted for the past 3 years. Hence began a new plan that would take several months to emerge.

By enrolling in PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist on-line course, I was able to create a digital strategy for the event and ultimately weave in unique experiential aspects that were integral to the success of a virtual retreat. Here are some of the winning tactics that I chose to implement:

1. Design appropriate content for the digital event. Topics were aligned to the theme of wellness and self-care and embraced various aspects from mindset & rhythmic reframing to sound nutrition. Fourteen sessions were created for the day-long event with an average duration of 25 minutes each. Digital experts agree that shorter sessions are key for successful virtual events.

2. Reach out to potential sponsors as early in the planning cycle as possible. Since many companies were adversely affected by the pandemic, this became even more crucial.

3. Partner with exhibitors who could round out the programming and/or donate products to the delegate event kit. Programming elements included an essential oil demonstration, making a smoothie, and a sound healing session.

4. Choose a trusted supplier for the assembly and shipping of the event kit. Angela Koshman from pcnametag was very collaborative throughout the process. She ensured that all the products were safely packed in the kit (a wine glass was one of the offerings), the labelling included all the exhibitor and sponsor logos, and that the event kits were delivered to the delegates’ homes, which were all across Canada! The event kit, which was made possible through the generosity of exhibitors, consisted of meaningful items for a wellness retreat such as protein shakes, herbal supplements, essential oils, a malal bracelet, and coupons for discounted or free services.

5. Promote the event early and often. I showcased select speakers and exhibitors via Zoom interviews that were recorded and then posted those interviews on LinkedIn and Instagram. The original footage was given to Chris Noble from Noble Productions. Chris ensured that the Health Care Event Planning branding was incorporated, added music, and a call to action for each video. I believe that a professionally branded product was testament to the commitment for excellence in the design and promotion of the retreat.

6. Ask your suppliers, exhibitors, sponsors and speakers to share the videos and other event posts on their social media networks.

7. Include innovative elements to the virtual event. It was fortunate that Agata Jakuszko from Draw the Words sponsored the graphic recording for the retreat. She graphically represented the major takeaways from each session. It was very entertaining to check in with her throughout the retreat to see her unique digital drawings and added another engaging element to the day.

8. Ensure that your speakers are comfortable in a digital setting. Rehearsals were an integral part of this process. This included sound & connectivity checks, lighting adjustments and camera angle tips.

9. Choose to prerecord certain sessions. Because of possible internet connectivity delays, I chose to prerecord a video of a singing performance which enhanced the quality of the session.

10. Delegate the production aspect to professional event planners* who can assist with dry runs, script finalization, creating & launching polls, monitoring the chat box, and adding website information about each speaker/facilitator right after their session. This will free you up to run the show while ensuring the smooth functioning of the event.

At this point, I am unsure whether next year, the retreat will be offered in a live or hybrid format. However, these tips will continue to serve me well in the planning and execution of experiential events.

*Thanks to Nichol Turner, DES; Nickel Concepts Event Management and Sharda Sukdeo, BA, CMP; Eventures – event professionals extraordinaire!