05 November 2020, 09:23 AM
  • Explore new ways of working, says Sally-Jayne Wright, and grow your database
Trend Watch: Virtual Food Events

In October, Trend Watch was invited by Invest Northern Ireland to a breakfast to showcase the best of the area’s food and drink. Pre-Covid, journalists would have gathered in a hotel for an Ulster fry. Post-Covid, the ingredients were couriered to our homes and we tasted while watching a cooking and tea-making demo on Zoom. It’s a format everyone is getting used to.

Can you give any examples from independent retail?
Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy, Lancaster has been offering one-hour, virtual, tutored cheese tastings on Zoom. For £29 (£49 with wine), you and a partner can taste six 100g portions of cheese delivered to you anywhere in the mainland UK. 

Do virtual events have any advantages?
“Yes,” says Michelle Charrington, business development manager at Invest NI: “With many consumers still working from home, online events allow you to interact with people directly in their domestic kitchens which can make a really strong connection.” She cites the example of a bread-making demo using Andrews Flour wheaten bread mix and Hillstown’s Horny Bull stout. “As bread was in short supply at the time, the products were relevant.”

Another advantage is that virtual events put your business in front of a global audience. You can also turn a problem - inability to meet in person - into an opportunity. This year, food consultant, Sarah de Wit, masterminded the very first Virtual Cheese Awards. Previously, with other awards, judging took place behind closed doors. Under the new, transparent format, viewers were able to sit in on the judging process itself. They learnt much more about what’s desirable, or not, in fine cheese.

Will an online event be cheaper?
Unlikely. You may need to budget for a chilled courier service to deliver samples, a third party to host and software licensing fees. You’ll probably need to invest in training staff.

What am I in for if I call in help?
A digital events specialist – someone who is much more familiar with the various software packages than you are and who can negotiate the best deals - can be a worthwhile investment. The entry level is about £1,500, for which they’ll manage the technical aspects of your event. They’ll check the compatibility of your software with your e-commerce platform, train up to 20 staff and show you how to use the recorded event on your site to grow your database.

Software licensing fees increase costs. At the lower end – about £77 ($99) a month - are platforms such as Hopin. While Zoom caters for up to 50 participants, Hopin can offer up to 100,000 partipants conference-like features including break-out rooms. Interactive, customised packages that replicate live events are the most expensive. Take a look at Vfairs and Mixedrealityrooms.com.

Any suggestions for simple stuff we can do on Zoom?
Could one of your suppliers offer a virtual tour of the farm, a meet-the-producer talk or a tutored tasting linked to products you sell? A food-related quiz where part of the proceeds go to the NHS might go down well.

Larger brands with new products to launch may be willing to subsidise samples and delivery. Larks Live Online Cookery School, Exeter was set up under lockdown. Book a course and you’ll find yourself directed to Greendale Farm Shop to buy the ingredients.

Start small and learn as you go. Even if yours is just a kids’ cupcake icing competition on Zoom, there couldn’t be a better time to stage a virtual event. Covid has made life dull and people are hungry for entertainment. Just don’t forget why you’re holding an event in the first place: to raise your profile, grow your mailing list and turn lockdown customers into regulars.

Any other tips for making most of the virtual events trend?
Avoid paying fees to ticket sellers like EventBrite by using a plug-in on your WordPress website such as Event Tickets, WooCommerce or Virtual Events

- Consider paid-for Facebook advertising to promote your event

- Rehearse the tech. Michelle advises: ‘People will forgive some chaos as we all adjust, but try to avoid failures.’

- If sending out samples by chilled courier, insist on guaranteed delivery slots

- Make your background appropriate, well branded and well-lit

- Invest in a lapel mic and headset to make sure you can be heard clearly.

- Record your event and use it to create a revenue stream. Some social platforms have new features which make it easier to charge viewers to access live video content.

Will this trend last?
Dean O’Reilly, partnerships manager at digital events specialist, EventMind, thinks that future events are likely to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. A sense of discovery is vital.

He compares it to the difference between browsing in a record shop where you chance upon a new label, and knowing what you’re looking for and ordering it on Amazon. “Virtual events must replicate the in-person experience as far as possible. Mixed reality is the buzzword – think of computer games where you can move from room to room and go right up to people.”

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