How We Produced our 2020 Virtual Gala
Since livestreaming our 2020 Virtual Gala on May 7th, we have received a lot of inquiries about how we put our program together and produced a Virtual Gala. The short version is that a lot of people worked very hard and very creatively! It would not have been successful without the contributions of dozens of talented people.
For the world premiere and production of Geometric Unity, our Music Director accomplished an incredible feat by composing the piece and creating the parts within 10 days. It was then sent off to the 24 musicians of the Virtual Orchestra, to be learned and video recorded within 5 days. The tracks were sent to our audio engineer, Francesco Perlangeli, and video editors, Chelsea Bo & Sean Drummond of Paxeros, who worked closely with Maestro Izcaray to produce the final audio and video.
Solo performances were recorded by the musicians. The transitions and non-performance segments were directed and edited by AYS staff, who attended lots of webinars and learned new technology platforms on the fly.
A quick note to say that we produced the AYS Virtual Gala in about 6 weeks, in order to hold the event around the same time that our in-person gala was scheduled. Every step and decision in the process was affected by this lightning-fast timeline. We are proud of what we accomplished so quickly, but highly recommend longer planning timelines. (Trust us on this one.)
Now that we have had a few weeks to rest and review the process, we are happy to provide an inside scoop and tell our story: the successful and not so successful moments of how it came together in just a few short weeks. Read our five tips for producing a Virtual Gala below!
Tip 1: Build a Strong Project Management Plan Among Staff
In a blink of an eye, the performing arts world transformed with the sudden, unexpected cancellations of concerts and events due to the effects of COVID-19. AYS Music Director, Carlos Izcaray, and Executive Director, Tara Aesquivel, had a long conversation about how AYS would respond and push forward without live concerts and the idea for the virtual gala, featuring a virtual orchestra, started to take shape.
This became a time of reinvention for our organization, regarding both the programming that AYS offers and our job duties. Everyone on staff took a deep technology dive and became digital marketers and programmers within a few days! Though there were times of confusion, when many pieces of the whole were still TBD and everyone was adjusting to working remotely, we got organized with google docs and bi-weekly staff meetings via Hangouts.
AYS is a small and mighty team of 4 full-time and 1 part-time staff based in LA, and Maestro Izcaray is based in Alabama. Each person played a crucial role and maintained clear communication with the team, as we developed each gala segment, marketing and communications plans, fundraising strategies, and back-end IT execution.
Our first tip: create clear roles for each team member and be open for collaboration outside of typical job duties.
Tip 2: Find Strong Platforms that Fits Your Needs (and Budget)
Given the new circumstances, we knew that our event needed to be available on the internet and accessible to as many people as possible. After hours of research and listening to different pitches from various event hosting and streaming platforms, we decided to take on the streaming and auction management in-house. Several of the all-inclusive platforms required expensive annual subscriptions and offered a lot of functions that we already had in our donor and ticketing system, Salesforce.
A combination of OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) and Castr was selected for streaming the event on multiple social media platforms and the WooCommerce Auction Pro plugin was used to host the online auction on our WordPress website. After a couple of website crashes, we discovered that we needed to upgrade our website memory to accommodate the new features on our gala page.
Our second tip: Take your time shopping around for the platforms that work best for your online event needs. Also, do this well in advance of your event to ensure that you have plenty of time for testing and that your platforms are compatible with each other. Tech issues will always happen when you’re trying something new, but testing and research can minimize the last-minute issues… like our website crashing the week before the event.
Tip 3: No Part of the Virtual Gala was Actually Live...
When we were first planning the programming of the Virtual Gala we thought most of the segments could be live. However, it became clear that pre-recording most of the content would be beneficial for the overlapping production timelines across segments. And, most importantly, because we had never produced this kind of online event and had zero capacity for do-overs on our timeline, we decided to pre-record all but one segment. This would also minimize potential for technical difficulties during the livestream.
For the Virtual Orchestra, we provided guidelines to the musicians for making their recordings. Thankfully, most AYS musicians are already proficient with audio and video recording and had the necessary equipment at home. The Geometric Unity audio engineer was the trusted engineer that has been recording live AYS concerts for years, Francesco Perlangeli. Thankfully, Francesco was available because we had no time to do an RFP or vet new contractors! The video editors, Paxeros, were brought in via a staff member’s family connection.
Interview segments were recorded through zoom and we inserted archival footage and photographs to provide context and make things a little more interesting. AYS staff edited the interviews and other segments in-house using Adobe Premiere Pro and lots of YouTube tutorials.
We planned to have our emcee, Magician Matt Marcy, do one “live” segment near the end of the program, to give real-time updates on our auction. During our test run two days before the big event, the live segment came through with no sound and a longer delay than we expected. We immediately decided to have him record that segment (sans live auction updates) and, thus, the entire program would be pre-recorded, though many segments were written to have a live feel. In the end, we are happy we made this decision which led to slightly less stress during the livestreams. (Though, to be honest, two minutes before showtime, one staff member said, “I think this is more nerve-wracking than the real gala,” and no one disagreed.)
During the “livestreams” all staff members had live roles: there were team members managing each streaming platform (commenting and responding as AYS), monitoring online donations and answering the office’s cell phone, and ensuring that the backend of Castr was working properly. AYS staff were on a Google chat together throughout the streaming to communicate any issues and updates for the parts we were individually managing.
Our third tip: Going live can add excitement to an online event, as well as provide real-time updates on fundraising progress. However, pre-recorded sections can still have a live feel and will help mitigate day-of disasters. Have two or three live dress rehearsals, with time between to make adjustments, if you plan to do live content.
Tip 4: Set Up Your Talking Points Behind the Camera
As we mentioned in Tip 3, all of our segments were pre-recorded the two weeks before the gala air dates. This allowed our speakers to have talking cards available when filming their segments. Our Executive Director, Tara Aesquivel, was no exception (pictured)! Before filming her segments she would type her “script” in a large font and placed the talking points on a music stand right behind the camera, and slightly to the right. This helped it seem that she was talking directly to the viewers (you!), with only quick glances to the cues instead of reading the speeches word for word.
Bonus tip: If your look involves full-gala makeup and hair, schedule all of your recording segments within one day. It helps with continuity and saves time. (Get back to working in pajama pants sooner!)
Tip 5: Develop a Marketing + Communications Plan, Including Digital and Print
With any successful event or campaign, having a clear marketing and communications plan is vital. For many of our patrons, this was their first time watching and participating in a live-streamed event, so we knew that we needed to provide some knowledge on how to join from home. We decided to connect with our closest patrons and donors through direct mail. We sent paper invitations with a letter, explaining the new digital Virtual Gala and how they could attend and support. This provided a sense of familiarity to our longtime patrons who look forward to a gala invitation in the mail every Spring.
Our marketing strategies had to shift significantly from promoting live concert attendance to virtual attendance. Although it may sound obvious at first, we kept finding nuances and changes along the way to shift our thinking from “filling seats” to “tuning in.” We adjusted our geo-targeting on ads, of course, but also started listing the time of the event in both Pacific and Eastern times.
We primarily utilized email, social media, and our blog to spread the word and create a buzz around the event. Our PR Consultant, Lisa Bellamore, also helped us tell the story of our digital shift through our press release, connecting Maestro Izcaray with KCRW’s Madeleine Brand for an interview on Press Play, and featured event listings on LAist and LA Times, among others. We tagged our musicians in photos on social media and asked that they share with their networks.
Overall we had almost 3,000 unique viewers tune in to the Virtual Gala through our live streaming platforms: aysymphonyorg.dream.press, Facebook, and YouTube. To compare, the max capacity for our gala concert at Royce Hall would have been 1,800.
Final tip: Our loyal and longtime patrons were our core target audience for engagement and fundraising purposes, and we used the communication methods they prefer. However, we embraced the opportunity to invite anyone in the world to our event!
The Virtual Gala video is still up and available on the AYS YouTube channel, here. If you have any other specific questions on how we made this event happen feel free to reach out to us at AYS@AYSymphony.org. Though we miss seeing our audience members, community, and musicians in person at the concert hall, we look forward to continuing to share music through our growing digital programs.