Q&A with Mystic Seaport Museum's Sherri Ramella
While most organizations have transformed their in-person events to virtual events this year, Mystic Seaport Museum produced a hybrid event. Can you explain to our readers how you came up with the format for this year’s America and the Sea Award Gala?
"We, too, had decided to go with a fully virtual event. Our Gala includes an award presentation, and we very quickly realized that we would prefer to present the award in person rather than virtually, and we of course could not expect our honoree to attend without his family to celebrate, so that led us to more of a hybrid model. Still, more than 200 guests joined virtually, while only a small group of 20 comprised of the honoree, his family, and a handful of key staff and board members gathered in person in a large room with a capacity of 200. The format of the event was essentially the same as our annual in-person event, but in this case it was livestreamed for our virtual guests to join in the celebration. COVID-19 safety measures were taken throughout the evening, including temperature checks, masks, social distancing, and sanitizing the microphone between speakers."
What were some of the biggest challenges you came across with rebuilding your event format?
"The biggest challenge was how to produce a virtual program that would properly honor our award recipient, and keep guests engaged throughout the full event. We were concerned about the length of the program, and the potential for losing guests before the fundraising segment at the end. We cut our normal run of show everywhere we felt we could, but there were key elements that of course couldn’t be eliminated, such as the award presentation and honoree remarks, the auction, and live appeal, so the full program ended up being approximately one hour fifteen minutes. That still felt a bit long, so our strategy was to keep each segment short, but meaningful, to keep the program moving along, maintaining the attention of our guests. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive!"
A lot of our readers are going to want to know how you selected which guests would be invited to the in-person portion of the event vs. the virtual portion.
"Our state COVID guidelines limited indoor gathering to 25 people. We started with our honoree and his family. Adding the remaining event speakers brought us nearly to that limit, so we were able to neatly cut the list there. Just two weeks before the event, the governor increased the indoor gathering limit to 100, but we made the decision to adhere to our original plan out of an abundance of caution for our guests."
Now that you’re on the other side of the event, is there anything you would have done differently?
"Our planning was very fluid, which could be difficult to maneuver at times, but almost certainly resulted in a better outcome as we responded to the ever-changing landscape surrounding COVID-19. If I could have done one thing differently, it would have been to begin planning earlier."
Has your committee discussed what you will be planning for 2021?
"We hope to be able to return to an in-person event in 2021. The virtual aspect was so successful in opening up the participation opportunity for folks who typically aren’t able to travel to our gala in NY, so we might choose to maintain some virtual element as well."
What are the top three things you attribute towards your success?
"The success of the event without a doubt can be attributed to: 1) an engaged gala committee and staff who made difficult key decisions, reached out to potential sponsors, filled “seats” at virtual tables with interested guests, and pulled together a remarkable auction; 2) an extraordinary production company, RoofTop2 Productions, who guided us through a new realm of technology to present what one guest described as “the most engaging…focused, informative, fun, and inspirational - the hallmark traits of a great event”; and 3) an incredibly accomplished, well-respected, and well-liked honoree for whom so many folks wanted to express their support by participating in the event.
I can’t end this without commenting on the level of knowledge and professionalism of MM Event Group, with whom I have had the pleasure of working on our last three galas. Although circumstances impacting our 2020 event budget prevented me from hiring them in the same capacity as in previous years, when I reached out very late in the game for some additional help, they jumped in without skipping a beat, to help us get across the finish line. Marilyn and Lisa are the quintessential team players, and truly want to see their clients succeed. I am forever grateful, and look forward to returning to a full collaboration with MM Event Group in 2021."
First two images: © Mystic Seaport Museum, 2020, Photo: Joe Michael