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As we get deeper into remote work, one thing is obvious: we are having less fun.
The office used to provide a free sense of community. And if you needed to shake things up, there was always the offsite.
But, when your regular interactions are all digital, and there’s no travel in sight, how do you recreate something different? Attending another virtual team bonding session is just another chore.
Is there a way to create the same spark of energy that offsites gave while your team is still sitting in the same place they are every day?
Sean Hoff is a Co-founder and Managing Partner at Moniker, a corporate retreat agency that has pivoted to new virtual offerings.
Aren’t virtual events lame by definition?
Sean was hesitant to pivot to digital events because his business did cool stuff like rent hundreds of Vespas for teams on an offsite in Spain, not boring digital events.
BC (Before COVID-19), a ‘digital event’ was a euphemism for “I’m not going to try that hard.” It was a second tier service you could opt into if you didn’t want to spend the money.
But after the pandemic, it was the only option. So how could it be done with excellence?
With most of their business cancelled, they had to make a shift. To find out what was and wasn’t working, Sean and his team sat through hundreds of hours of virtual events (and lots of subsequent therapy). They came up with several ideas of how digital offsites could actually be done in an exciting way.
Interactivity is key
When you are planning your next virtual event, Sean says interactivity is the highest priority. Sean’s team makes use of recordings of actors for some of their segments, but they always have a live host, and sometimes use live actors as well.
It’s also important to engage as many senses as possible. Generally, virtual events only address two (sight and sound), and even those must compete with every other stimuli around. Great virtual events try to cover as much as possible.
Do virtual events have a future?
Sean says virtual events will be a permanent line of business for them. However, we are still in the early days. New technology like AR and VR will become more important as everyone tries to innovate.
Virtual events are mostly stuck in a Level 2 mindset–replicating what was there before. Sean and Moniker are trying to push things forward to find the next level advantages to digital.
14:16 – “People are social creatures, and this is just always going to be a part of our craving to connect and to feel a part of a community or a tribe.”
9:51 – “You’re going to see way more companies moving to either a fully remote structure or a hybrid structure. What used to be impromptu or unofficial gatherings is going to have to be replaced. And I think there’s going to be a seismic increase in demand for virtual engagement.”
Today, our guest is Sean Hoff. He’s a co founder and managing partner at Moniker. Hi, Sean. How are you doing today?
I’m doing very well, Neil. Thank you.
It’s excellent to speak with you. You are the man with all the answers right now when it comes to digital outings and experiences. But I want you just to give a little bit of background about who you are and the company you run.
My name is Sean. I started off Moniker about seven years ago. We are actually a corporate retreat agency. So companies come to us when they want to take their team abroad. During the days they would do work and meetings and things and then the afternoons we would be the team that takes over with team building or optional activities like cooking classes. So it was a pretty good ride for about seven years until 2020 hit.
This is what we call the old days, right? The old days.
And then in the last seven months, wow, seven months now. We’ve been forced to completely reinvent ourselves. And so as you can imagine, travel and retreats is not a great business model to be in in the current environment. So we’ve moved into doing virtual team building, which is not as lame as it sounds. And we’ve made a point of that.
Start with the lame side of it. Why is most virtual team building horrible?
Asides from if I got another invitation to a virtual yoga session or a happy hour at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon? No, I think the biggest thing, when this all started, our team, we were hesitant to get into the virtual world. And everybody was saying, like, come on, this is natural for you to pivot. And the reason was we looked around at the offering that was coming out. And we were just sorely disappointed and just felt a little bit kind of like the wind had been taken out of the sails of it. So we actually spent the first few weeks trying every other experience we could get our hands on. I think between the seven of us, we probably spent a good few hundred man hours trying different games. And throughout that process, we narrowed it down to three things that seemed to jump out at us as what works in the digital world, as opposed to the things that fell flat. And too often what we were seeing was, the first one was it wasn’t unique. It was another concept like, hey, it’s trivia, but with a twist, or, hey, it’s a demonstration of cocktails, but with a twist. And it was just the same theme or general concept, rinse, wash, repeat. And after a while, you can only do trivia in so many different iterations where you lose it. The second thing was it was what we picked up on is you cannot do anything if it’s not interactive. There has to be a form of dialogue going back and forth with the participants and whoever’s hosting or leading the event. And often what we were seeing was, it was just basically like a demonstration, or one person talking to a group of 80 people who sat there with their arms crossed and listening in. And honestly, after like four or five minutes, your eyes drift off to your email or whatever it might be. So we’ve made a big point in all of our experiences to use always live hosts, live facilitators, and quite often actually live actors, which set us apart. And then the last thing just was polish. In the Zoom world, the medium that we have to work with is basically your eyes and your ear balls. And so if you have to, if everything has to be done that way, there’s no taste, touch, or scent. Then we just made sure that everything looked and sounded really slick. So we use a lot of professional actors with the green screens, the halo lighting, proper audio, proper soundtracks for our games, and everything, just say make as much an immersive environment as possible.
I’m going to walk backwards through these because it’s really fascinating. I love the fact that you talk about senses and you realize when you do things, virtually, you’re down to two senses, right? You lose the other ones.
Yeah. And when we did our travel retreats, we had the luxury of having all five to hit on. We’d take a group to Barcelona, they’d be cooking paella class together. And so you’d have all of the senses in one go, which made it a pretty conducive environment for teams to bond and hang out and get together with a glass of wine while eating, while cooking, while everything. So when the virtual came, it’s just so important to make sure that you don’t halfass the effort of what things look like, of the audio quality. What the background for whoever speaking is. I mean, I have been on way too many webinars where I’m in the middle of someone’s bedroom or living room and there’s children running around the back, kind of distracting when you’re trying to convince people that they’re in a lunar disaster scenario on the moon.
No, I think that’s great. Because you said virtual events, before all this, I think had a bad reputation. And that polish thing was a big part of it is that the perception was that if it’s virtual, it’s kind of like, alright, we’re not going to put in our best effort here. But I think you all and I’ve been through one of your things, it’s really great to see kind of how you’re able to bring that professionalism in.
Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time training the right hosts, and making sure that everybody who kind of represents us in the guest facing role brings her A game in terms of energy, in terms of screen presence and charisma. We have some great people on our staff. And we’ve now actually turned and hire out extra facilitators. And there’s two different roles. There’s the people behind the scenes who are making sure that things work. But there’s also a completely different skillset and personality, who is the one who shows up, welcomes everybody and has to get everybody’s energy as well up very quickly. We’re the first to admit that if you’re an employee of a large organization, and you see a calendar invite come out, and it says, yay, virtual team building session, two o’clock on Friday, your eyes are going to roll. You’re going to obviously assume that, what’s this going to be? Is it mandatory? Can I magically book another sales call to overlap, so I don’t have to attend? And so it’s our job to overcome that initial skepticism. And we hope that what we’ve designed has done that.
Let’s go to your second point about being interactive, because I think that that is huge in the sense of, if you don’t give people something to do, something to talk about, some responsibility, then immediately your eyes are going to go somewhere else. And that’s part of the trouble of, if you’re sitting there in front of a stage watching a performance, you have no other options, like maybe you can grab your phone and look at stuff. But if you’re sitting on the screen, like your phone’s already in front of you, everything’s in front of you. So being able to build that interaction in is extremely important. What are the different ways and some of the different styles of presentations you guys have that you build that interactivity?
That’s a great question. We always start off, all of our experiences start off with a live host, welcoming people, having some background or something backdrop that brings out the theme of the event. That hosts usually spends a few minutes welcoming everybody, building a bit of rapport with the audience. We use a lot of video. So COVID has been good to us in one way that there’s a lot of great actors who are available and extremely willing to film the most random projects. We reached out to an actor who is actually quite well known. And he became one of our lunar base commanders in the disaster scenario. And so when we can kind of splice that into our introductions, and people get a quick sense off the bat, they’ve got live humans here to welcome and host us. We’ve also got professionally edited and produced videos, which will be woven in throughout the story. It just looks and feels a lot slicker than if you’re just one person talking with a white wall background. So we do spend a lot of time on making sure that there’s as much presence on the screen as possible. And it’s quick. We don’t let things drag on, I think we actually have an internal time limit of nothing can go on for more than four minutes. Amazingly, we have worked out that the average person’s attention span is approximately 90 seconds for them to decide whether or not this is worth their attention, or if they’re going to move on. And so we try to do that. Okay, here’s 90 seconds of something. Great. Let’s look at this video. Okay, great. Let’s go over here. And just kind of constantly keep leading them through something new and exciting. It’s a pretty good formula. It’s worked out for us.
I want to talk about something that will be difficult to just figure out because I feel like in your world right now, we don’t know how long everything’s going to keep going on like this. Like, is your business model that you had before totally dead forever? Or will it come back next year? We don’t know. But I think it’s safe to say that in the world of virtual events, we’re still in the very early days. Like, I feel like if this goes on, and you guys continue on with the virtual model, five years, you would likely look back and kind of laugh at what you’re doing now. So I want you to kind of peek into the future and say, hey, where are we going with this? What’s the next step that you see, in terms of the level of interactivity, the level of connection you can make?
It’s a good question. I think there’s two sides to it. I mean, for one, bringing it back to our company, specifically, we definitely have tapped an oil vein. This is going to be a division for us going forward forever. And if and when travel returns to what it was, fantastic. But regardless, this is always going to be something that we offer. And I think a big part of that ties into what we’re talking about, what does five years from now look like. There’s two sides to look at it. From an actual organizational perspective as a lot more companies move their workplace online, and this is what we’re talking about, digital workplace, is you’re going to see way more companies feel comfortable of moving to either a fully remote structure or a hybrid structure. And so what used to be impromptu or unofficial gatherings of like, hey, every other Thursday after work, we go to this corner bar and play some ping pong or something, that’s going to have to be replaced. And I think there’s going to be a significant, like seismic increase in demand for virtual engagement. How do you kind of connect with your colleagues in a completely remote digital space? And on the other side of it, I think as technology is just racing to kind of figure out, oh, wow, this is now a very hot topic in the tech industry, I think technology’s going to catch up. so Like we’ve already seen hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on new platforms, like Hopin. Zoom is, I think, still growing, something like 200,000 subscribers per month, which is unreal, because who hasn’t downloaded Zoom by now. And I think the next thing is people are going to start to pick up, I would love to see what augmented reality can do for the digital space. Like when Google Glass or that kind of technology can be incorporated and we can like mail out a kit so somebody at home can put on these glasses, and we can really astound them with some like, oh, and by the way, if you look up here, and a menu pops up on their glasses, the possibilities are endless and extremely exciting for us.
Yeah, that’s great. I’m thinking about the need you filled beforehand, when you were doing these travel events. How would you compare, like, if somebody comes to you and says, hey, my team, we want to go somewhere, we’re going to have some big event, we want to go to Barcelona, we want to do this type of thing. How does filling that need that they had compare with what you’re doing now? Do you feel like the need has changed and shifted? Or is it the same thing? People just want to get together and have fun or does it feel different now?
I think it’s slightly different. Before, you could probably divide our clientele into two types. There was a lot of companies that were using these trips and retreats to celebrate something. So whether it be hitting a milestone or sales goals and quotas, and things like that, and it was more of like a luxurious or glamorous high five, except it involved a plane. But the majority of our other clients were actually already remote. And so we work with a lot of tech companies who are already used to being spread out. They’ve got employees all over the globe. And they used the retreat as the once a year or maybe once every quarter event to get people together. And the focus was actually predominantly work. They would come together for four or five days in a city, they would be doing work from probably 9am till 2 or 3pm. And then we would take over. And that’s where we would come in with some optional activities. And that’s kind of where the bonding happened. And it wasn’t so obvious, like, obviously slotted in or scheduled as here’s your team building time. It’s like, hey, listen, we’ve rented like 60 Vespas. We’re going to go zip down the road in Barcelona, and then we’re going to be hanging out at this beach. You’re welcome to come. And people would love that and the conversations that happened there were natural. And I think now in the digital world, it’s a little bit different. It’s has to be scheduled, it shows up in your calendar as like, this is what we’re doing now. And it’s not so much about organic, and maybe they have a conversation, maybe something comes up. Now it’s more to make sure that people still feel connected to their colleagues, to make sure that people still feel engaged by what’s happening in the organization. And I think there’s actually a greater need, and also a greater focus on more frequency. So before these remote companies would meet, honestly, some of them would meet once a year in person. And now, I don’t know what it is. Because if you think about it, from their perspective, nothing’s really changed if you were remote pre COVID. But something has and now these companies reach out to us and they’re like, hey, we’re going to be introducing a monthly event every Thursday, or every first Thursday of the month, at 3pm, we’re going to block off an hour or two for something. What do you have? And it’s just interesting to see. And I think it just comes down to people in COVID, where a lot of us are spending more time indoors and not necessarily going out and socializing with our friends. And so the need for feeling connected, whether it be to your colleagues, if you’re not seeing your family or your friends as often, it’s something. People are social creatures, and this is just always going to be a part of our craving to connect and to feel a part of a community or a tribe.
Does that make you change the type of event you plan, if you realize, hey, this is more like a lifeline that you’re giving people now. It’s not so much a celebration or some fun experience for it. But if we don’t do these things, we’re risking their mental health. We’re risking kind of the social health that people have. How does that affect you as you plan these things?
It’s funny you bring that up, because one thing that we didn’t really notice until recently was once our events or experiences are done, they’ve been on the call with us for 90 minutes. They’ve been on the call with us for two hours and we just thought everybody was ready to go home. Everybody’s already zoomed out, we’ve already taken two hours out of their day. But we got into the habit of saying, hey, listen, we’re going to log off. But if you want to stick around on the Zoom call, we’re happy to make one of you the host. And you can just hang out here as long as you wish. And more often than not, they’d be like, yeah, that actually sounds great. And so we would put somebody in their company host, and we could see that they’re still on our call. And we’ve had it where colleagues have been on there for like, legitimately two hours extra, and they’re just hanging out. And that’s something now we’ve actually put in as like a standard question. Like, listen, so this is the timing of the experience, it’s going to end at four o’clock. Do you think you’re going to want to stay on longer? Because we’re happy to do it, we just need to make sure that we don’t double book that exact Zoom link for a different client. And a lot of our groups are like, I didn’t think about that. Yeah, let’s do it. We’re going to have everybody on the call anyway. Why not? And so that’s been really interesting for us.
Yeah. And that’s what our group experienced when we went through it is that as soon as the call was done, and we were immediately jumped on Slack, and we’re just like talking about it and going through it. So I think that debrief time is something that we missed, not only in these kind of event type settings, but also in just meetings that you have, like, there’s often like the meeting. And then the meeting is over, and you exhale, and you sit around, you look at people you talk, you walk and talk as you leave the building. Even if that’s the end of the day, you’re walking out to the parking lot, and you’re still talking, you’re still having these like post event interactions that go through. I think that’s also a very important part that as a digital company like yours goes through, it’s important to bring those things in, too. I like that.
I’d also like to point out that Neil’s team won his game. So I would imagine that he was on the Slack channel mostly gloating at that point.
There was a decent amount of gloating and claiming, like, you all are dead right now, just so you know. It was fun to be able to experience those things. And I think we kind of forget what it’s like when you’re at home all the time, and like you said, there’s been companies that have been in this position before. But when everybody’s at home all the time, and we’re all feeling the weight of that, and we don’t have those social releases that happen in the office, you need that. And what the office provided for that, a lot of times a leader or somebody didn’t even have to schedule anything, just being in the office, something funny would happen, something would go on, it just kind of happened for free. It just existed, that serendipity would just pop up.
It’s interesting you bring that up. Our company, we have an office. We’ve had an office for seven years. I personally like going into the office. I like exactly what you’re describing, the banter, the kind of the random moments that happen in between things. And as a team, we realize that and we’re pretty good working remote. This hasn’t been too complex, but we decided to give up the office. But we’ve also said that come next year, whenever the time is appropriate, and it’s ready, we’re still probably going to rent out one of these like kosher we work type spaces, maybe once a week, just to get together just to hang out in person. And it has nothing to do with because we need to or because it’s conducive for our work. It’s literally going to be solely because we just want to actually get together and probably rip each other a bit.
Yeah. That’s fun. Have you guys noticed any difference like, you’re not taking trips together on these other things, you’d probably be traveling a lot and going through things. What do you do to keep your team engaged and together?
It’s been very busy. But what I have done for the last few weeks is we do try to set aside some afternoons, particularly on Fridays, to play some other games or to do something completely different. When COVID started, we had a lot more time. We were doing things like getting together on Wednesday afternoons and one of us in the team, we’re only seven people, but someone would lead to the rest of the team through a cooking class of whatever they wanted to do. We still religiously adhere to Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings we have a morning huddle for an hour and we’ve introduced just like random things to keep it not just work. We do, for example, I always show up with icebreaker questions, which continually get more and more ludicrous. I think my last one was name five things that have been added to your CV since COVID began and some of the job descriptions that we had in our previous life compared to what you have now, like I’ve casted actors. I have hosted lunar disaster scenarios. I have become a podcast interviewee. It’s amazing to see that and just getting together. We’ve seen a lot of success in this. We’ve shared it with the team and as we hit new milestones, growing this whole virtual division of ours, all the team is fully on board and everybody’s kind of participating that collective success through bonuses, through surprises, through little things. We’ve got our team Moniker branded sweat pants, or one fall we gave everybody $100 gift certificate to buy scented candles because it’s fall. And there’s just little things like that that I think the team has really enjoyed.
Sean, it’s great to talk to you. I feel like you are one of those people who maybe unintentionally is now a pioneer in a field and you’re going to figure out what’s going on here. There’ll be other people that follow along, but all the best to you as you guys keep pressing forward, keep trying to figure out what we need in this digital space to stay connected, to stay fun, to stay social, and to stay mentally healthy. So thanks for that. Where can people go to learn more about what you guys are doing?
You can head on over to our website, www.monikerpartners.com. Or I’m pretty sure if you just Google virtual murder mystery or love in the first degree or something like that, you’ll find us.
For now until you get these copycats come around.
That’s true. Thanks so much, Neil. I really had a good time with this.
Sean Hoff started out his career as a Banker but cast off to start Moniker after being an attendee on a number of “President Club’ trips and believing he could do it better. Fast forward several years, some amazing adventures around the globe, and a talent for creating magic from a blank canvas.
Sean plays the role of creative devil’s advocate, always asking “why not” and figuring out ways to squeeze in that little extra personality to create truly bucket-list worthy programs for our clients.