The Shows Must Go On – An Interview with One of NYC’s Top Events Strategists

Jun. 8, 2020

Sara Garlick Lundberg

[This article was originally published by Sara Garlick Lundberg in LinkedIn on 05/28/2020]


J. B. Miller is the President & CEO of Empire, an international events production firm that serves some of the biggest names in New York and beyond – from big nonprofits and leaders in philanthropy to multi-national corporations. Long before others made the call, I saw J. B. transitioning his team to virtual events. I reached out for his thoughts on the new world of online events.


You shifted to virtual quickly, before many were announcing delays and cancellations. How did you make the call and what was the transition to virtual like? 

As an events company, we are used to dealing with tight deadlines and rapid decisions. We saw Covid coming, we knew from many previous disasters – from Hurricane Sandy to the 2009 economic crash and the internet Bubble – that the first thing that gets cancelled are events. Institutions get skittish when you talk about getting people together when finances become shaky, and they become especially skittish when there are health risks.

We needed to quickly put a plan in place to ensure that we would get through. We looked quickly at what we could do to continue to have a livelihood. Fortunately, we had always been producing broadcasts and live events with some sort of digital content creation so the concept of pivoting to virtual events wasn’t alien to us at all.

We knew we needed to communicate that to our clients, and we also knew that we needed to do it in a way that wasn’t inappropriate in a moment when people were sick and hospitals were filling up. We felt that the best position was to provide guidance to an industry that was adrift and asking lots of questions. We put together a virtual events guide – a digital handbook for everything we know about how to produce virtual events, what to do, what not to do, how to choose a virtual technology platform, as well as outlining a variety of standard forms of virtual events.

I immediately started doing talks for BizBash and ZKIPSTER which hosted an event on adversity and how the industry was going to face this challenge. It was a good way to not just put our knowledge at the forefront but make it accessible for our clients.

How are donors responding to the shift to virtual events?

Different nonprofits have different needs. Some have a broad-based consumer donor pool they’re trying to speak to. Those who are in the public eye and are able to do the equivalent of telethons and live awareness events, where they’re able to leverage big name celebrities to reach wide audience to inspire large numbers of relatively small donations. Where it becomes more difficult is where a nonprofit is more reliant on smaller high dollar donations, especially where the bulk of revenue comes from table sales and auctions.

Another difficulty is when a big part of an event’s value proposition is the networking opportunities they created – the ability to bring donors together through ideas and engagements. We’ve been able to create good solutions for each of those challenges.

What’s worked?

One of the things we’re working on is trying to engage people in a more intimate way. There are a lot of engagement events happening. We’ve done an event for Dartmouth, and just recently did an MIT Solve event. We did Clinton Global Initiative University; we produced their global conversation on Covid featuring the President and Chelsea Clinton, Governors Cuomo & Newsom, Dr. Paul Farmer and many others. That was basically content, not designed to raise funds but to share ideas and maintain relationships.

There are incremental gains to be had if we’re open to it.

We’re also working on an event for an international society. We’re putting together a TV show – a best of, live-streamed show that encompasses the value proposition of this organization. It will be followed by series of private teleconference rooms where the major donors are invited to sponsor those rooms that other donors can buy into meet-and-greet experiences with talent and key participants. So, packaging something you can sell for $10k-15k ticket in groups of ten, or single tickets. Some of the other strategies involve activities at home – such as having a key chef lead you in the cooking of a meal with ingredients delivered beforehand in a Covid-safe way. You have everything delivered and your celebrity chef joins you cook and enjoy that meal together.


J.B. Miller

How is the fundraising going?

I think the jury is still out. I was on the Board of Reel Works, a Brooklyn-based youth charity. We had our gala scheduled for April and obviously had to cancel the physical gala. It’s now proceeding with a virtual gala on May 27th and many of us who had purchased tickets and tables rolled those donations into the virtual events. No one is asking for their money back. We kept our honorees and many of the participants and elements that would have been part of the in-person gala, and now we’re creating it as a live stream where we can raise additional funds and create further engagement with our donor community. We set a goal and we’re tasking our events committee members and table buyers to do further outreach to their constituencies. We actually suspect we will raise more money than we would have with the original Gala.


What questions are you clients asking? What’s the craziest thing anyone has asked for?

The requests haven’t been crazy, but some of the timelines have been crazy such as people asking to put together a giant virtual event filled with A-list celebrities donating video clips … in a week. It’s true that celebrities are more amenable now. We had a concert for someone in their living room with a famous front man the other night.

What I’m really seeing is that people don’t understand what a virtual event is, how it’s planned, and what is actually effective.

This is pushing a lot of people out of their comfort zone, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a difference between a zoom call and an actual event that is grounded in time, has some interactivity, some surprise, a narrative to it, that’s rewarding in its own way and makes one feel sufficiently moved so that the call to action is something participants want to do. Production value is the key.

Any success stories?

A client that is a national organization came to us because they had a lot of fundraising and engagement events on the books already. They had to figure out if they were going to move forward with 40+ events. We said, “you have 40+events happening over the next few months, let’s book out a studio, build out your own control room, build out your own template event to use across the events and customize”. We suggested creating some high value video content that could be amortized across all of them. We wanted to craft a really strong narrative that’s unique to the organization in this time both for the gala and the engagement events, and then we would execute all of them across the platform. It’s a very elegant, cohesive solution.

This is how a large national charity should be looking at things. If you think about what large organizations spend on physical events – between the venue and catering security and décor, staging and production – for the cost of a few galas, you could produce 10 or more virtual galas that will keep your hand in the game, your events on the calendar and your regular audience engaged, while answering the needs of the time.

What’s the most creative idea you’ve proposed?

There are a lot…. we’re doing a large project for a business organization where we have to create a global conference to bring together lots of people from around the world. For this we are using some existing technology to build out an integrated platform to allow people to meet, to attend different sessions, to network and to visit expos all in real time. These are all of the things you would do at a virtual trade show and we’re able to deliver that in one password protected platform.

We are speaking with a large religious organization and proposing to do their gala online. For that event we’ve been creating a mix of traditional gala elements like an honoree and information on programs with some faith-based moments, trying to create that catharsis of a group of people engaged in something sacred together in an online experience.

One thing we proposed is a 24-hour DJ party around the world, where DJs hand off from one time zone to another, to another, to another. The client is inviting all kinds of people to a four-day party. For a food organization, we’re proposing the creation of a big communal ‘Dinner with New York’ with all these celebrity chefs cooking at home. We have proposed inviting mixologists to lead cocktail hours… incorporating surprise guest speakers, etc.

Empire and our production vendors – lighting, trucking, sound companies – who are struggling, we put them all together and created a program we’re calling Illuminate our Heroes. We built out a giant 18-wheel truck with a multi-media thank you for workers at hospitals, and every night it’s visiting two different hospitals at shift change to applaud and celebrate all of the doctors and nurses. We created a 15-min interactive show to thank essential teams for their work and sacrifice. It’s something we did to keep our vendors engaged and to give back to front-line workers.

What have you learned from any mistakes made during the transition to virtual?

We’ve had realizations that the tech isn’t what it ought to be. The facility and seamlessness of bringing good programming into your home should be easy, but the complexities of doing it when you can’t put people together, you can’t put trucks on the road, when you need to rely on consumer facing technology or ad hoc solutions, it’s hard to deliver something at the expectation level of some of our clients. We’ve learned you need to be selective and manage expectations around what you can get. We’re hopeful and playing a role in making sure that the tools available do a better job.

What advice would you share with a CEO or board member considering a fall event?

To those board members, I would say Covid is a wake-up call. It’s an opportunity to change up your approach, to try different things, to engage with people in different ways. In normal times, people don’t want to try something out unless it’s vetted to the Nth degree… well you don’t have that luxury anymore. That’s isn’t necessarily a terrible thing and donors will be more accepting under the present circumstances.

Let’s face it, we’ve all fallen into patterns – every year, we all do our wine dinner, we do our events and engagement the same way. This is an opportunity to try different things. It’s a teachable moment, and it’s a winnable moment.

I think the organizations that aren’t afraid to take chances to address the challenges of the moment will come out ahead. They will learn things along the way, they will build new relationships and new perceptions of themselves. There’s positivity in taking risks in this moment, especially because the costs are low. This is an incredible time to innovate!

To those who are wondering what’s going to happen, I would strike a note of confidence. The world is not over. You will leave your home, go to restaurants, concerts and movies again. You will be meeting with people again. For all of these reasons, it’s important for nonprofits to stay engaged with their donors and board and events are a really good way to do it. If virtual events need to fill the gap for a short period, so be it. Embrace it, pivot, make the most of the moment you have.

When we start to meet again, I think we’re going to find that the virtual dimension will be remain and become additive. What’s going to happen when we can do an in-person gala for 500 and 1,500 additional guests in the virtual realm?

Events are such a big part of almost every nonprofit’s revenue, they can’t just give them up entirely. This is a great time to capture people’s imaginations, to tell your story. But they’re not going to do that by locking down, by stopping activity. Right now, people are at home and have time. There are real rewards here, there are winnable moments for nonprofits to consolidate the strength of their relationships with their donors, and to reach out and attain new ones.


#leadership #virtualevents #eventmanagement #virtualconvenings #coronacrisis #coronapandemic #pandemicresponse

Learn more about J. B. Miller and his firm, Empire.

About Sara Garlick Lundberg:

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Read my previous article, “Making the Most of Work from Home: An Interview with My Favorite Space Therapist”


[This article was originally published by Sara Garlick Lundberg in LinkedIn on 05/28/2020]