NACA BLOG - From the Room to Zoom: Creating a System-wide Virtual Benefit Concert - 9/10/2020

Sept. 10, 2020
Joe Benyish, Salisbury University (MD)
Laura Hood, University of Maryland, College Park
Elizabeth Purswani, Towson University (MD)

In March of 2020 all of the University System of Maryland Schools (USM) went online, staff members from the USM Student Life Consortium, student activities staff from across Maryland, started meeting weekly to discuss virtual programming and mental health support. Through conversations with a core group of staff, the idea of hosting a virtual benefit concert came about to raise funds for student crisis funds throughout the USM system. As the website states, "When COVID-19 hit Maryland, students began to experience significant financial hardships. This benefit concert is to raise money through sharing stories, student performances, and a virtual concert." After five months of planning, staff who worked on this show behind the scenes will see it come to fruition this Saturday, September 12 at 2:00 pm ET streamed via YouTube.

The event will feature pre-taped content from student and alumni performers, as well as special appearances from the Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, USM Chancellor, University Presidents and other alumni, students and staff from the various institutions. Following this there will be a live portion of the show featuring national acts! 

Through the months of working together on this event, we thought it would be a good idea to share lessons learned throughout the process in case your campuses wanted to develop similar events!

  1. Purpose of the event
    • In the spring semester of 2020, at a time when staff all felt lost and the students were hurting both financially and socially, we knew we wanted to do something to help our students.
    • We knew that we could not put together a virtual concert in the spring when our in person large scale concerts were to occur, so we set up a summer schedule for planning. We tried to stick to deadlines, and kept the purpose of the event to help support students in our minds throughout all planning and outreach.
    • We took this small idea and wanted to make it into something big, with the sole purpose to support students.

  2. What does it mean to be part of a system/serve a community?
    • We know this was bigger than one school and we asked in the beginning for everyone to share the load. You have to let people know when you are overwhelmed and need help. We also know this is something new - so having expectations that match that. We know we are bringing awareness to the crisis funds and at the end of the day - we will be bringing awareness and hopefully receiving donations.

  3. Silos within a system
    • You do not need to be best friends or have a strong network to host an event like this. You need motivated staff members that are committed to working together and being honest with each other. We had a connection prior to this through the USM Student Life Consortium, but we utilized our co-workers to help with the event load and campus partners to assist in other areas. We knew from the beginning that budget would be paramount.
    • Some schools were able to fund more of the event, and some not at all, but we worked together throughout the process to ensure that all schools that wanted to be a part of the planning were. Further, we knew that staff size would come into play. There were some staff members who were a part of a 7 person team assisting, and some who were a one person office!
    • There were also some no's from schools to participate in the event. We were ultimately OK with that as we wanted staff and program boards that were all in. It didn't mean that the event wouldn't be fundraising for them or that they couldn't support in other ways such as marketing, it just meant that they weren't a part of the planning process.

  4. Committees and to do lists
    • We started with a small group of people in the beginning stages of planning this event, and then once purpose and overall ideas were established, we brought other campuses on board to split up into committees for actual tasks.
    • There were three committees: artist relations and production, marketing and public relations, and development and sponsorships. Each had their own staff pushing the cause and worked to establish action items for each institution. For example, artist relations worked directly with the production team, marketing oversaw the full marketing picture including all logos and flyer development, and development and sponsorship oversaw the asks for donations and overall sponsorship items.
    • Through collaboration, the team supported each other on major initiatives, such as run through of show, video content, slide transitions, marketing the week of, and other items.
    • Nothing like throwing a major initiative into play during a pandemic while planning for virtual or in person or hybrid fall! We had to stay motivated throughout to keep others on task, while juggling many other commitments.

  5. Expect the unexpected: DJ...copyright...contracts taking FOREVER…
    • Even if you know it's going to be a problem - be open with the agents with your concerns. We were open with our campuses legal offices, and they didn't have concerns with copyright, but our tech company did have concerns and we listened to them.
    • The public nature of this event and its many moving pieces meant that we needed to be extra cautious with its planning and execution. This type of event wasn't something we could ask for forgiveness later. It was not only an event that cost money that we were able to move over from the spring, but it was something that tied together all of the state system schools.
    • New times = New contract processes. We did not allow time for a quick contract process. We saw many rejections throughout the process, and we started very early on (May), and even with that it took a while to get a final list.
    • We didn't expect artists to say no. When we pulled our money together and what each school could afford in an artist - we thought we would be able to get some of the top names on the charts. Some artists didn't want to be live streamed, didn't want to be part of a benefit concert or simply didn't want to perform virtually. Despite the setbacks we were fortunate to end up with our finalized group of artists!

  6. Marketing, marketing, marketing
    • We all know that marketing for any event is extremely important, and marketing for an event that was between many campuses and virtual was of utmost importance. We had to make sure to remain consistent in our messaging as well as the looks of our logo, flyers, website, Facebook event, etc. We did this by making sure that marketing and public relations was one of the committees in planning, and by having two staff members, from the same institution, lead this charge.
    • For an event such as this, it's important to get your marketing departments on board early and keeping them in the loop as much as possible!
    • It was important to utilize the student voice in this remote and limited programming capacity since we live in this different and virtual world when it. We weren't afraid to give people all the supplies in promotion, including asking people to share and tag as much as they could on social media. In the beginning of our promotion, we realized that sharing wasn't getting people excited about the event. We needed our students to share to their communities and get excited about the event.  We needed the cross promotion of students in the organizations they're involved in, as well as staff to utilize their cross promotion and networking circles.
    • We needed to learn and enhance new ways of marketing. Flyers were not happening due to campus restrictions, so we relied on student publications, network Facebook groups, and NACA Blogs

  7. Leveraging our tech help partners in the process
    1. Do you have roommates or colleagues who are really great at something? Are there others across campus who may love to be a part of something that isn't normally in their roles? Ask them to pitch in! Everyone knows their limits, and video editing and website design was ours! So we asked our roommates and partners to help. It's good to know that Res Life staff (former or current) really are jacks of all trades and can jump in as needed! 

  8. Campus stakeholders
    • Who from your campus is going to love this event? We latched onto our development offices to help promote and share in their channels. They were able to share it with alumni and other AVPs.
    • We talked with our marketing offices and got them excited for the event. They brought in all of their support and assistance as needed.
    • For this event, we knew that we wanted to attract current students, alumni, and faculty and staff. Therefore, we started early on with talking about the need for diverse artists that reach different generations. We wanted to take a fundraising standpoint and obviously raise a lot for the student crisis funds, but we also wanted to provider much needed entertainment for our students!

  9. Other big takeaways
    • Work with a middle agent. Without our middle agents through this process we would have been LOST.
    • Work with contacts in the NACA® 24/7 digital marketplace:
      • Connect with the leaders in the field. We do not need to recreate the wheel. Talk to other institutions or staff who have done this before!
      • Support the NACA entertainers and agents.
    • Create a core team of program planners - you have to have your squad! Those are the folks that hold you accountable, and are with you through the good, the bad, and the ugly! Create a fun social chat with them so you can mix in work and play.
    • Use your connections on campus to promote - get out of your silo! This was a great opportunity for us to build relationships outside of our own areas.
    • Set up weekly meetings (better to have it set and cancel, then not have it set) - stay as organized as possible and scheduling weekly calls really kept us on track.
    • Give yourself time to plan (at least 4 months) - even when you think you have all of the time in the world, you don't! Allow for as much time as you possibly can, and remember to treat a virtual event as if it was in in person event.
    • Relationships are important… we're in a relational field.
    • Have fun along the way! Remember, campus programming isn't rocket science, even if we think it is sometimes.

Joe Benyish is the coordinator for student life at Salisbury University (MD); Laura Hood is the coordinator for engagement and activities at the University of Maryland, College Park; and Elizabeth Purswani is the assist director of programming for Towson University (MD).

Related Professional Competencies: Networking & Business Relationships, Campus Politics, Technology, Event Support, Professional Development

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