Fans of Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen chefs were invited to the “Best Weekend Ever” event in New York City last fall. Over the course of four days, about 3,000 people ate with and learned from the Test Kitchen team and editors of the Condé Nast-owned food magazine. But in 2020, the pandemic has made such a gathering impossible.
However last Friday, Bon Appétit decided to harness the power of its wildly popular YouTube channel by hosting its first-ever live event on the video platform. Test Kitchen editors mixed cocktails, cooked dinner and answered trivia questions. By employing YouTube’s donate button, Bon Appétit raised about $200,000 for Chef José Andrés’ nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen.
And it was great for Bon Appétit’s bottom line: That evening alone Bon Appétit gained 850 new subscribers. By Sunday, the magazine amassed 2,800 new subscribers — its highest three-day total ever.
“I honestly feel like we were able to pull off that show not despite the coronavirus but because of it,” Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport told CNN Business. “This entire two-month stretch has forced us to think in a more creative, innovative way.”
With much of the United States still on lockdown and maintaining social distancing, media companies have been forced to cancel in-person events. These gatherings, often ticketed and sponsored, can be big moneymakers for publishers. Seizing on a captive audience with nowhere to go, some publishers have switched to virtual events which have proven successful in driving audience and revenue.
The Wall Street Journal hosts hundreds of events every year, from intimate dinners for its C-suite communities to big conferences like WSJ Tech Live and the Future of Everything. Tickets for the Future of Everything can cost up to $1,800 for a three-day pass.
Those tentpole events require significant planning. The Journal’s events team started coordinating this year’s Future of Everything festival, scheduled for May 11 to 13 in New York City, last April. Leigh Gilmore, the Journal’s general manager of live journalism, said by March her team knew it couldn’t go on.
The format of the virtual series is similar to the in-person event with the Journal’s editors leading panels about technology, innovation and business. For now access is free and anyone can tune in.
“We have this opportunity now to reach so much more of our audience without [having] those physical space limitations,” said Suzi Watford, chief marketing and membership officer for WSJ. “The thing for us is building community.”
Her Campus, a portfolio of media brands geared toward college women, originally planned to hold a marketing conference about Gen Z trends in Boston in March and in New York in April. But the company changed it to a four-day series of online panels and attracted more than 600 registered attendees paying $300 each.
“Moving this event virtually enabled us to reach attendees all over the country,” Her Campus CEO Stephanie Kaplan Lewis told CNN Business. “We are seriously considering hosting more events like these for marketers throughout the year and into 2021, both full-fledged conferences like this one as well as one-off panel discussions and interviews.”
Her Campus is hosting a virtual graduation for the Class of 2020 on May 15 with speakers and performances. The event won’t be ticketed like its marketing conference, but HerCampus secured sponsorships from several brands including Aussie Hair Care, Neutrogena and First Aid Beauty.
Teen Vogue is hosting Virtual Prom on May 16 with partners AXE, the grooming products company, beauty brand OGX and Chipotle (CMG). The annual Teen Vogue Summit, which was originally scheduled for May 1 and 2, was canceled because of the pandemic.
Since publishers can’t offer traditional in-person booths inside a conference venue, they have worked with brands to create online experiences. For Virtual Prom, AXE is sponsoring a “promposal” challenge whereas Chipotle will create content on how to make corsages and boutonnieres from materials found at its restaurants.
“Some of the fun we’re doing is the lead up for prom, what you’re going to wear and how you’re going to do your makeup,” said Alice McKown, head of marketing at Condé Nast Culture Division. “What’s really cool about these virtual events is the merging of the digital experience and the event.”
In-person conferences and events are far more than just sitting in on panels and speeches. Publishers and other event organizers can justify pricey tickets because of a lineup of talented speakers and a curated list of attendees who can network with each other.
“The main benefit for these conferences is that happy hour or the random conversation you have with the person sitting next to you,” said Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz focusing on consumer technology and who led the venture capital firm’s investment in online events platform Run The World.
Virtual events do make it easy to collect and share attendee information, with permission.
“Online it’s almost as if everyone’s LinkedIn is floating above their head,” Chan said. “Even though one could say it’s hard to develop a relationship online, there are a lot of benefits in doing that digitally — the number of people you can meet and likelihood of having that exchange of contact info.”
Watford of the Journal said she is considering breakout sessions and private chat rooms as a way to create networking opportunities at future virtual events.
Seeing what’s possible
On Friday, Test Kitchen editors will host a dinner party on Instagram Live with celebrity guests such as Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig, Brooklyn Nets player DeAndre Jordan and “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness. Through Instagram’s new donation tool, Bon Appétit is raising money for The LEE Initiative to support restaurant workers who have been furloughed.
“Obviously the success of the variety show informed us that, ‘Hey, this works,’” Rapoport said. “It’s definitely opened up our eyes, and I think everyone’s eyes with what’s possible online. What I’m curious about is what will be the carryover post-coronavirus.”