Header Photo (L to R): Day Bracey, Buzzy Torek and Ed Bailey collaborate to produce the Drinking Partners podcast. They are also working together to plan the upcoming Fresh Fest Digi Fest. Photo courtesy of Epicast and Buzzy Torek.
So every concert, sports outing and festival you bought tickets for is canceled. What’s left? Virtual events.
But what does it take to make a virtual event? And a good one at that?
We talked to five people in the area who are producing virtual events and how they make it work.
Casey Mahaven, Mahaven Events
Casey Mahaven is the founder of Mahaven Events, which has worked with Pittsburgh Magazine, South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association and Pittsburgh Musical Theater in producing and planning in-person events in the area.
Now that in-person events aren’t possible, she’s noticed that Zoom has become the de facto platform.
With that said, a good in-person event is engaging; virtual events should recreate that online in some way, whether with breakout rooms where participants can chat or a Q&A where panelists can interact directly with an audience.
“I was watching a virtual event that was all prerecorded last week. They had a DJ performing, and they were encouraging you to dance in your living room. But without that opportunity to actually engage with it, it just felt like, ‘Okay, now I’m just watching this DJ play music,’” she says.
But, it’s not to say that an outdoor event isn’t possible, as long as it follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and makes the safety of its participants the number one priority. For example, in planning this year’s Pittsburgh StepTrek in October, an“urban hike” in the South Side Slopes, they’ve expanded the event’s time frame from a day to a week and are putting emphasis on self-guidance so there’s never a crowd.
According to Mahaven, sometimes it’s not possible to transition the event virtually; it may not make sense or be safe.
“There are other things where there’s just not a way to do it virtually or with social distancing, at this point, you just kind of have to be okay with that,” she says.
Day Bracey and Buzzy Torek
Buzzy Torek records and engineers “Drinking Partners,” a podcast hosted by Day Bracey and Ed Bailey. Torek is also a member of Work Hard Pittsburgh, a business incubator in Allentown.
So, when Fresh Fest Beer Fest — the first Black beer festival in the U.S. — needed to go digital, Bracey and Torek teamed up to make it happen.
“Black folks and the country in general, but especially Black folks, need a reason to celebrate and see some hope and opportunity,” Bracey says. “So we hit up Work Hard to see if we would be able to do something remote, if they could, record and develop an app and they were with it.”
According to Torek, turning an event digital is no easy matter: for Fresh Fest Digi Fest, there are at least 40 people behind the scenes making sure it runs smoothly, between running multiple livestreams at the same time to making sure everything looks and sounds high quality.
“Logistically there’s a ton and we still don’t have everything totally worked out,” Torek says.
For $10, participants get access to livestreamed discussions and performances from four different venues in Allentown.
To replicate the feeling of an IRL beer fest, Fresh Fest Digi goers can buy packs of collab beers that contain a hoppy beer, sour, lager and dark beer, with two packs to choose from.
But using the Fresh Fest Digi Fest app won’t end when the festival is over, according to Bracey.
“We want people to utilize the app throughout the year, if they’re traveling and they happen to be in a state where there’s a Black-owned brewery that they can support, but also to keep up with various collaborations that may be going on, job opportunities, fellowship programs,” he says. “Anything that’s fresh fest-related will be available on the app between the festivals.”
Princess Jafar has planned events since 2014, producing shows at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the Glitterbox Theater and Club Cafe.
“Whatever you need, Princess Jafar has got it,” she says.
When events started getting canceled because of COVID-19, Jafar quickly started testing Instagram, Facebook, Twitch and Zoom, knowing that events would have to become virtual. She landed on Zoom because of its accessibility; you don’t need an account to use it but have more privacy thanks to meeting passwords.
Jafar just finished producing her 12th Zoom show, which ranges from redubbing shows and movies to traditional variety shows and drag shows. She’s also raised $3,000, which has gone directly to artists and organizations, through these shows.
Since everyone is straight up not having a good time right now (myself included), Jafar has given artists more support and breathing room so they can show up as authentically as they can.
“The hardest part of the event planning online has been working with artists whose worlds are crumbling, whose trust in society has melted away. Maybe some of them it’s for the first time in their lives; Some of them have seen this their whole lives, but either way, it’s traumatizing. And what I’ve noticed is that they all need more time with their videos. They all need more support,” she says.
Amanda Cowan, Willow Way Creative, grlpwrprojects
As the founder of grlpwrprojects, an online community bringing women together for personal and professional growth, Amanda Cowan knows how to take a virtual community and bring them together in real life.
When that wasn’t possible because of social distancing guidelines, Cowan took the collective completely online.
“If we wanted to stay afloat if we wanted to stay relevant, we had to move everything virtually,” she says.
Along with its Pittsburgh outpost, grlpwrprojects has outposts in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Since all three cities have different COVID-19 rates, Cowan decided to put the in-person events, retreats and conference on hold.
“We decided that virtual is the way to go, and we’re likely going to continue doing this at least until the start of 2021, just to be on the safe side,” she says.
Now, she’s focused on grlpwrbloom, a monthly virtual program centered around growth and wellness, and moving the in-person aspect. And, because you can tune in from your home, Cowan has found she’s been able to bring more women together, especially if they don’t have a grlpwr collective in their city.
“I have been able to meet some amazing women who I don’t think our paths were to cross if the virtual space wasn’t a thing,” she says. “We have to do what we have to do in order to keep this community going and to remain relevant, so virtual it is.”