By Chida Rebecca | Editor-in-Chief
The coronavirus crisis has forever changed how we think about, host, attend and experience events.
During the last three months, as all types of in-person ceremonies and engagements were being canceled worldwide due to fears of spreading the deadly COVID-19 disease, people began turning to Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms to stay connected, helping to create some sense of normalcy during perilous times.
Michelle Johnson, founder of Let’s Play Ultimate Events, and her team are among event producers, who have previously only engaged mostly in organizing and executing functions people attend in-person. Now, they find themselves at the forefront of a transition happening within an industry already experiencing rapid change. They are helping to comfortably shift event guests into our new virtual norm.
Established in San Diego in 2010, Let’s Play Ultimate Events began as a fun game night for friends that grew into a full-service events company specializing in a nostalgic game concept. As a minority, woman-owned special events company, Johnson sought to create an alternative to the “same old bar scene.” When Johnson moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, she took Let’s Play Ultimate Events with her, adding a scholarly touch to her event productions.
While the gatherings have been remarkably successful, COVID-19 brought about a challenge that caused Johnson and her team to be quick on their feet, putting them in a game changing position. People are hesitant to go out. “So how do we change this to something that people can enjoy?” she said.
After all, anyone can host a Zoom, says Johnson, “But it takes a certain personality that can bring people into something where they’re engaged and not just watching.”
While Let’s Play Ultimate Events had already been keeping loyal supporters entertained through virtual events like their famed Taco Tuesdays, Johnson knew she would have to pack more into some of the other virtual remakes of her clients’ favorite functions.
During the pandemic, the Let’s Play executive team became students of the virtual events emerging on various platforms. From DJ D-Nice on Instagram, to the thousands of streams surfacing across the country, Johnson didn’t want her company’s reputation to be based on “likes” and “shares.”
“That’s not the engagement we want,” she said. “We want to retain the engagement that we had with Let’s Play, which is the interaction of people. With that in mind, Johnson said, “It was natural for us to say Zoom is the only way we can accomplish that.”
Now an alumna of UCLA, Johnson serves as the university’s Black Alumni Association president. Just as they were making radical changes within the company to take on virtual work outside of in-house projects, an opportunity presented itself.
A dear friend connected to the association, Vincent Boyce, had passed from COVID-19. “He was a Mason; a member of Phi Beta Sigma; and he was also a UCLA [alumnus]. So, the idea that only 10 people would be able to be at his service was something I just couldn’t fathom. You know, there were too many people that I knew personally that would want something to say or to be there in person.”
Johnson immediately reached out to those connected to Boyce to see if a virtual memorial could be held. “The family was open to it,” she said.
So Johnson and her team immediately began making plans for an online home-going, connecting with the funeral home and working out the details. The goal? Simulating the entire funeral experience for those unable to physically be present. An order of the service was collected allowing Johnson to mirror what they could virtually. The things they couldn’t, they simply just filmed.
The virtual memorial captured the entire service – from the viewing of the deceased to shots of the pews and those in attendance. Those engaging online were getting a broader view than those in attendance, but even in their physical absence, Johnson ensured they were able to offer virtual condolences to the family. “It’s a heartbreaking thing … this is reality,” she said. “There are people who don’t make it to a funeral because they can’t afford it.” So, for someone to be able to say goodbye to a relative or friend, virtually, makes a difference.
When the memorial is over, they package up the entire service, including the condolences and present them to the family as a keepsake.
An African American owned mortuary that Johnson is working with was dealing with an onslaught of business as a result of COVID-19. “You would think that he’d be happy about that, but he was actually very distressed because he said, out of all the nationalities, our people were the main ones who needed the service. They want to touch the body; they want to come in and pick the coffin — they want to do all those things. To be able to give people a place to experience that mourning and keep them safe at the same time, he said, is an invaluable thing.”
With that feedback, Johnson knew they were doing the right thing in terms of the services they were offering.
Adding a virtual memorial option to their offerings has been great for her company. “It’s actually led to an explosion [of business] because so many people actually need the service.” Within one week they were able to make the necessary shifts within the company to offer more expansive work. “It was a quick pivot for us” she says. “One thing I feel is a blessing as a business owner is the ability to think outside the box.” Whether that thinking outside of the box is driven by financial need, or just a desire to be at the forefront of whatever it is that’s coming, Johnson adds that if you’re not afraid of it — and you don’t spend time going, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ — then the journey will have its rewards.
Johnson says while most people were indoors panicking about the restrictions, she was in front of her computer saying “What do we do? How do we make this happen? Fortunately, I had the understanding of the platforms and my partners had their own expertise.”
Death is inevitable, and, because Johnson was able to trust in her foresight and that of her team, new opportunities materialized at their fingertips.
“The reality is that people do pass away, and the desire for people to honor their loved ones who have, is something that’s not going to ever change. We appreciate the ability to be able to fill that need during this time,” Johnson said. “But then also it helps us to prepare for whatever’s coming next because whatever is coming next, we intend to be at the front of that, too.”
For more information on Let’s Play Virtual Events call (844) 904-7529.