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The Drawing Board: Elevate Co-Founder Lisa Zarzeczny on Virtual Events, Connection, and COVID-19

Lisa Zarzeczny with pink filter on blue background

The Drawing Board is a new series by Bay Street Bull that surveys industry leaders on topics of transformation, innovation, and the road ahead.

Live entertainment spans a multitude of industries, ranging from sporting events and tech conferences to fundraising galas and the performing arts. But what happens when you take the live experience out of the equation? How do we define these experiences when their most critical component is missing?

Without a doubt, the live entertainment and hospitality industries have been among the hardest hit as a result of COVID-19. But these are industries made of resilience and fortitude. If the pandemic has proven anything, it is our capacity to innovate, adapt, and act quickly.

Lisa Zarzeczny is the co-founder and vice president of programming and operations at Elevate, a festival that focuses on technology and innovation. In a normal year, thousands of attendees from around the world make the annual pilgrimage to the Toronto-based festival to network and glean insights from world-class talent. So, in the face of a global pandemic that has restricted travel, live events, and overall gatherings, what is a festival like Elevate to do? Here’s what she learned from the experience.

What is your role in the organization?

Lisa Zarzeczny: I am the co-founder and vice president of programming and operations. I oversee all of our speakers and content, as well as company operations including strategic planning, government relations, and marketing and communications. 

Are there any milestones that you are particularly proud of?

Lisa Zarzeczny: I’ve had some incredible moments at Elevate. Introducing VP Al Gore on the Elevate Main Stage, meeting Former First Lady Michelle Obama, and sitting beside Wyclef Jean listening to Killing Me Softly by The Fugees all stand out. As a co-founder of Elevate, helping the festival grow from zero to over 30,000 attendees in three short years is something I’m proud of. 

How have you seen innovation manifest in your space? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: In the wake of COVID-19, the entire events industry has been shaken to its core. I’m confident that the companies that will make it through will be true disruptors. Event companies need to entirely revisit how they think about programming, human-to-human connection, and jaw-dropping experiences if they’re not only going to survive, but thrive coming out of this. 

To me, digital events are like ordering a taxi on your phone—a digital manifestation of a real world experience. The innovative companies are thinking about what “Uber” looks like in this space: a radical, virtual-first experience that isn’t just an incremental adaptation of the real world experience.

Michelle Obama being interviewed by Claudette McGowan on ELEVATE stage
Michelle Obama, Claudette McGowan (Photo: Elevate)

Can you describe an instance of out-of-the-box thinking that demonstrated a savvy business pivot? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: As the pandemic swept the globe, there were hundreds of companies either cancelling their events, or moving their conferences online. It would have been easy to follow suit and plan the digital version of Elevate Tech Fest for September 2020. But instead of jumping on the bandwagon, we scrapped the plan—one we had been building for years—and went back to the drawing board.

It was scary, but we knew we couldn’t take a traditional industry and move it online. We asked ourselves: what do people really need right now? And how will they want to engage through a digital medium? We ended up dismantling different parts of what people loved about events: networking, content, real-time news and insights, and building separate experiences for each.

In what ways has the reality of COVID-19 made your business better? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: The reality of the digital world is that you’re not just competing with other digital events, you’re competing with loads of world-class content. We quickly shifted our mindset from being a live events company to being in the business of content production. 

Making that type of strategic and mental shift demands creativity, persistence, and agility. Fortunately, we have a team with diverse and transferable skill sets and open minds. COVID-19 has created a fracture in “the normal” that made room for (and necessitated) taking a step back to really listen to our team, and deliberately re-evaluate our approach. And they’re constantly reminding me that just because we’ve done something one way in the past, doesn’t mean we should do it moving forward.

COVID-19 has forced us to look inside our shop with entirely fresh eyes, identify previously untapped strengths in our team, and find exciting ways to leverage them in ways that are designed specifically for this moment. It’s an incredibly exciting time, and has made our team infinitely stronger.

How have you helped your clients navigate this new landscape?

Lisa Zarzeczny: Our clients’ marketing and lead gen needs didn’t go away. In fact, they got stronger. We used this time as an opportunity to get creative and ask ourselves what’s possible now that wasn’t before? The fun part about the digital space is that we’re not competing with travel, cost, or time restrictions—it’s so much more scalable. We’re seeing an unprecedented ability to get our partners in front of key audiences and drive forward their business objectives year-round. 

We’re also having some fun with it. We’ve been featuring our clients and community partners in ‘Zoom Drop-Ins’ where they get to engage one-on-one with tech titans like Mark Cuban, Scott Galloway, and Arlene Dickinson. It’s led to some fascinating exchanges and showcases our partners as thought leaders in a meaningful way.

Quote by Elevate co-founder Lisa Zarzeczny
Lisa Zarzeczny, Elevate

Are there any positive changes to your industry and the events landscape that you think will remain once we are out of the woods with the pandemic? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: As is the case in any financial (or other) crisis, many companies are shaken up, but amidst the rubble emerges some truly brilliant and innovative ideas. There are startups completely reinventing the way we consume live content, interact during live (or virtual) events, and network with each other. Events moving forward will all have a virtual element and allow for people to engage through different mediums, and the overall attendee (and sponsor) experience will be significantly enhanced. 

The ability to attend virtually or remotely eliminates the travel barrier and makes events more accessible for all. The ability to quickly pop in and out of “rooms” ensures you get only the most relevant and impactful content. And the ability to stream thought leaders in real time ensures that in our rapidly changing world, you get the most up-to-date lessons and avoid anything dated.

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Lisa Zarzeczny: We’ve seen this cycle begin in other experience-based industries, like sports. Mark Cuban is already thinking about a world where stadiums aren’t full, but instead you’re streaming games through different channels like YouTube or Twitch. In the future, ‘live’ will be only one component of the events industry and with developments in technologies like AR and VR, we might even change the definition of what ‘live’ is.

What have you discovered about the human connection and the impact it has on creating community in events?

Lisa Zarzeczny: I wouldn’t say discovered, but it’s definitely reinforced how important human connection is in fostering a sense of community. As head of programming, I’ve always been the one to say that content is king when it comes to events.  But even I’m aware that content is only part of it. The reason you go to an event is for the networking, the people you meet, the accidental collisions. You just can’t recreate that in a digital environment, especially at scale the way you can at a festival or event. 

That was a big part of our decision to cancel the 2020 festival. I don’t think you can take what was a seven day festival with 30,000 people, plunk it online, and call it a day. You’ll lose the magic of the human connection. We didn’t want our audience to forget the magic of the Elevate community because they had zoom-fatigue from sitting in front of their screen for four days. 

Instead, one of the first things we did when COVID-19 hit was produce intimate C-Suite Roundtables. We recognized the need for human connection had been amplified because there was no textbook for navigating this crisis. By bringing together a virtual group of peers we were able to facilitate a meaningful exchange of knowledge and community that worked in the digital space.

How has human connection been redefined for you? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: The need to facilitate human connection is stronger than ever before. I’ve never seen people look out for one another the way they do now.

I think before, we fell victim to this mentality that bigger was better. Big events, big weddings, big social circles—it’s almost like this pandemic has taken us back to the 1950s. We’ve seen a renewed emphasis on local, on community and on family. It’s about fewer, deeper relationships. I mean, when you can only be in a bubble with ten people you are really thoughtful about who those people are.

Lisa Zarzeczny standing beside Martha Stewart
Lisa Zarzeczny, Martha Stewart (Photo: Elevate)

Who do you think will be the winners that come out of COVID-19?

Lisa Zarzeczny: Right now, I’d say there’s two types of companies in the events and hospitality industry: the ones that are surviving and the few that are thriving.

Those who have been able to pivot to meet current needs spinning up micro-weddings, at-home cocktail kits, and streaming technologies are doing what they can to survive.

And of course digital event platforms and software companies like Zoom and Hop-In are the businesses to be in right now.

But the true winners coming out of COVID are the ones willing to make a big bet on what the future will look like. Those that understand that live events are more than broadcasting evergreen content, but rather about bringing humans together around a common mission, whether it be sharing ideas or absorbing knowledge. The companies who figure out how to unbundle that value and build them into digital-first solutions will win.

What has surprised you about yourself as a business owner or how your industry has been able to rally and grow?

Lisa Zarzeczny: The adaptability and resilience of our team has been the most inspiring thing to witness. We produced our first digital event in six days! Figuring out which platform to use, how to add elements like video and b-roll on top of Zoom, building a digital set—the team worked really hard. I remember being so nervous before we went live wondering if this was even going to work. 

And it did. 

That first pilot led to 12 more episodes of Elevate Live where we featured global tech titans like Mark Cuban, Kara Swisher, Guy Kawasaki, and Michele Romanow. And the response we got from viewers was incredible. It was a special moment when someone wrote that we were providing an invaluable lifeline for people during these difficult times.

How have you redirected and focused your attention to other parts of your business to make it better? 

Lisa Zarzeczny: Every time we thought about what was next for Elevate, we kept going back to our mission—to unite the world’s innovators to solve society’s greatest challenges. We used to do that as a festival. But it became clear that the way in which we delivered our mission didn’t matter. 

We know that the impact of COVID on our communities will be devastating and far-reaching, and that this is the time for innovative solutions to help solve really big problems. So, we decided to launch the Elevate Social Innovation Exchange (Elevate SIX), a year-round social innovation hub that will tackle the complex social, economic, and environmental challenges facing our region and the world. With over 40,000 square feet in the heart of Toronto, the space will house an SDG accelerator program, a state of the art community collaboration hub and a digital media lab. 

I’d say that’s a pretty cool silver lining to come out from this.

Any concluding remarks?

Lisa Zarzeczny: When you’ve succeeded at something before, it can be tempting to think the same strategies that got us to our destination last time will take us to the next one. But some situations force you into reinvention. And it’s the moments that force us to accelerate again that are the ones that get us to our next destination, as long as we dare to take a new route.

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