Cindy Lo of Red Velvet Events Talks About the Future of Mass Gatherings
Cindy Lo started Red Velvet Events (RVE) almost 18 years ago with the mission to Outplan, Outplay and Outparty! Red Velvet Events is a boutique creative events agency helping global brands ideate, design and execute their experiential events since 2002. During this pandemic, she has pivoted her team of 23 to own the virtual and hybrid world.
The author of “Behind the Red Velvet Curtain,” Lo says that the secret to work-life balance is being truly honest with yourself (and your partner) about what makes you happy and fulfilled both professionally and personally.
“So for starters, it’s about having a partner who respects my career choices and understands that it’s a joint effort in raising our kids. For example, pre-COVID, my husband and I both traveled quite a bit for work so we would often make sure that our business travels didn’t overlap; one of us needed to take our kids to/from school and be at home in the evenings for them. If we were going to be in a destination that was unique or maybe even fun for the kids, we would actually try to extend our travel so that either we spent it together or even fly the kids out to join us to make a mini-family get-away. Though we both work a lot, we also made time to incorporate vacations throughout the year to reset and help us make our own family memories this way.
“I also recognize that what works for our family unit may not work for another and that’s ok because at the end of the day, you need to find what works for you and your partner, not your parents, not your best friend, etc. I think too many of us compare ourselves to what we thought was idealistic growing up, but I quickly realized after my career started to take off what truly made me happy and fulfilled, and I’m so grateful I have a partner who values my desire to have professional fulfillment.”
Your career began in Sales at Trilogy. How and why did you decide to pivot to producing events and experiences and activations?
Ah this one is a good story to tell since a lot of these memories came flooding back when we were first experiencing the effects of COVID-19. So I happened to leave Trilogy shortly after 9/11. I was in New Jersey (right outside of New York City) on a work assignment when the towers went down. Going through the motion of seeing our country at its weakest, I really started to think about my own career. Similar to what we are going through today, there were mass layoffs because businesses were negatively affected by 9/11, and I thought to myself — if I am going to change career paths, this is the time to try and do it.
At first I tried to get a job in event planning. But what I didn’t realize at the time was how devastated the industry was from 9/11 so no one wanted to even come close to hiring me, especially given I had zero formal experience. After being rejected three times, I decided I would create my own “work experience” by starting my own company. The intention was to only run it for about a year and then reapply for those jobs. Now 18 years later….well you get the idea. So I’ve said this to a lot of people who’ve been devastated by a layoff or furlough: “Were you truly happy in your last position? Because if you have the means to pivot, this might be the best time to try that pivot — after all, what do you have to lose? Look at my story.”
And the reason I chose event planning was more because my own friends saw what I was naturally good at and encouraged me to pursue it professionally. I honestly did not know at that time this could be a lucrative profession. I always thought event planning was a volunteer role for the many committees I served on. If only someone in business school would have enlightened me that this could be a career, I might have pursued it sooner.
Do you think that business schools understand the value of events now? Said another way, are there any academic programs that can train people for your line of work?
I’ll answer this in two ways. First, I want to address the entrepreneurial piece because it is my story. I think business school definitely NOW has a better understanding and appreciation of encouraging entrepreneurship for a variety of fields at the undergrad level. When I was an undergrad student at UT, entrepreneurship was only deemed suitable for MBA students. In the last decade, I have seen a positive shift at UT because they are encouraging more students to major in business, meet other entrepreneurs and figure out if you are the type to start your own thing post-graduation or go work for a reputable firm and work your way up. I’ve personally seen this shift because I have the good fortune to live in the same town as my alma mater so I get invited back often to speak to the undergrad students about my non-traditional career path. To your original question of having an appreciation for events, I haven’t taken a recent marketing class but I do know marketing professors are teaching students about how sales and marketing reach can be amplified through well produced events and experiences. Marketing professors are also now teaching social media campaigns tied to activations, which is another form of events.
Over the years, Red Velvet has created a lot of very unique activations and experiences. What was your favorite such experience and why?
Ooh this one is hard. I was looking forward to Scandinavia House for SXSW 2020. But since that never happened, I will have to say probably my two most memorable ones are the #ImEnough campaign (an activation from several years ago) and Tito’s Big Adventure, which takes place every year during Austin City Limits weekend. We’ve had the pleasure of putting on Tito’s Big Adventure for four years running (with the exception of 2020 due to the pandemic). Every year we raise the bar and do something more unique than the previous to keep things fresh. Attendees are always excited to return, as many of them qualify year-over-year.
From what you are hearing from your past clients, when do you think more people will feel more comfortable gathering for parties, networking experiences and conferences?
I think some people have already reached a point where they’re comfortable accepting “reasonable risk” when they leave the house to attend events with other “reasonable” people. But it’s because of a lack of testing that some have gotten sloppy when they go to these social outings because they don’t think they have COVID-19 (but in fact are just asymptomatic). If we could get testing increased, we can at least have a chance to allow those that want to be out, to be out safely.
However corporate America is not ready to take on that risk nor the potentially PR shaming that goes with hosting a live event during a pandemic. Since these companies are usually the ones leading the spend here, I think we are unfortunately in for another 18 month long hiatus. If a vaccine were to be approved and rolled out early Jan 2021, my hope would be that they can actually keep up with the supply chain. If so on the vaccine, then there might be a possibility for the latter half of 2021 to start recovering with corporate travel and events.
An essay about how the event industry is now facing its Napster Moment has gotten a lot of traction in the last week? Do you agree with the basic premise of this essay?
So I agree with the article in the sense that COVID-19 has forced our industry to wake up and figure out how to make digital technology work to both our clients’ and our advantage especially since the events industry is currently deemed unsafe to meet in mass gatherings. However I don’t necessarily agree that live events are dead and there won’t be a market when the vaccine comes out.
I had actually started another business with my husband pre-March that will hopefully explain why I think COVID-19 will actually improve our industry when we can all agree that the COVID-19 world we’re experiencing is in our rearview mirror. One of the many frustrations I had with our industry was the sheer volume of invitations and no true way to assess what I would get out of them. Not all live events/conferences are created equal and there was NO platform that gave me a true review of is this live event/conference might be worth my time and money. So rather than complain about it, I thought why not build a site to help do just that. Because there have to be others like me with limited time and budget, and who also appreciate the value of a well-produced live event where you can meet other people just like you from other parts of the world, right? This new business idea was very much in its infancy when COVID-19 unfolded, and I had to put a pause on this new adventure since Red Velvet actually has employees and clients so I know I did the right thing.
I think what COVID-19 has done for us is help clean up all these bad live events. When we come out of this chapter, the events that have been able to successfully pivot during this time and provide a well-produced digital experience and curated online community are going to win big.
What is your favorite platform for virtual meetings and why?
I have a few favorites and they are favorites for different reasons.
I personally like Hopin because it has a very clean look, is simple to use, and attendees don’t seem to have trouble navigating it for the first time. I also like Zoom for your everyday quick video meeting (by the way, this was a chance for Skype to own the market and Zoom just dominated because it’s easy to use, while Skype is not); has a clean interface and a reasonable fee. Last but not least, we have been doing more on Bizzabo. Assuming they don’t drastically increase their price point, I think this platform will appeal to many of the corporate clients that want to have a turn-key solution from registration to digital experience but it is a bit limited on branding so you have to be ok with that. However, it’s very easy to customize, which is key for the non-technical meeting planners.
What have you learned about producing memorable virtual events and experiences over the last few months?
Know your audience; switch up the content and delivery method every 10–12 minutes; don’t be cheap on the production and spend the time to test everything before you go live and then test again.
What is your best piece of advice for someone who is planning an in-person event? Is that the same advice for someone who is planning a virtual event?
No, I don’t think its the same advice. For virtual it’s so important to recognize what your strengths are (e.g., are you a more tactical planner or a more visual planner?). Because if you are a more tactical planner, it’s actually quite hard to plan a virtual event without someone telling you exactly what the agenda will be; the talking points, the content and how it will be delivered. I have personally noticed that those that do well with virtual event design have a photo/videographer/storyteller eye because they know how to tell the story visually.
What is your best piece of advice for someone attending an in-person event? Is that the same advice for someone who is attending a virtual event?
For this, yes I would say it’s similar advice. Whether it’s in-person or virtual, set your out of office (OOO) message, turn off all distractions and make the most of trying to meet as many new people and really listen to the content from the speakers. Just like you would for an in-person event, respect the time and effort that’s gone into it — because I promise you, a lot has. Once it’s over, try to connect with the new contacts via LinkedIn and as you never know where this connection may lead. So much of what we miss from live events is the ability to make contact with others; digital experiences still offer that, just in a different way and require a little more effort. If you remember others are probably feeling the same way you do, you might be surprised at the quality connections you make
I understand that Red Velvet was working on a re-brand of its services even before the pandemic hit last spring. Can you give us more context on that re-brand? What can we be looking to see from Red Velvet in the future?
Red Velvet spent the last few years “growing up” so-to-speak and has expanded its scope of services and the team’s core skills through hiring people with different backgrounds. These new services are still all tied to events and experiences, but the biggest difference is that now our process begins with strategy, then design, collaboration with client and partners and finally execution. Pre-COVID-19, we were excited to express this evolution to the world through a re-brand (originally slated for April 2020) but when the pandemic happened, we knew it was bad timing. We decided to delay through the summer, but now feel it’s an appropriate time to share because everyone is starting to get used to their new routine. Though we can’t do large-scale live events yet, we are still very much solving these digital experiences and hybrid engagement problems with our clients and partners, and we are ready to reveal our new brand to the world this fall.
How did the jackalope at the new Red Velvet office come about and what does this larger-than-life sculpture mean?
During the construction phase, I noticed a lot of people would cut through our parking lot to get to the adjacent shopping center, which was dangerous and not a behavior I wanted to continue once we moved in. So I thought what better way to prevent this from happening than to put a sculpture or piece of art of some sort to prevent this from happening? We had to figure out what that art would be, so I bid it out to a few different companies and Ion Art gets credit for suggesting the idea of the jackalope (mystical yet still friendly, just like Red Velvet) as internally we were brainstorming different animals but I wasn’t crazy about any of them. The design phase came next, and I was very particular that I didn’t want a jackalope that reminded me of a theme park. Instead, I wanted something that reflected Austin and complemented our building because, after all, we are on an iconic Austin throughway that runs North to South through the city. Because of this, I wanted to make sure it was large enough to be another iconic Austin photo moment (hence the size). Unbeknownst to me at the time, we ended up installing the tallest jackalope statue in the world at 18’ 2” tall — you can follow his adventures on Instagram. Another fun aftermath is that we now use Jacky as our company mascot as we never had a formal mascot before.
You and your husband Scott Francis are very involved with the Magellan International School in Austin providing the bulk of funding for the facility’s new iLab for Design + Making. What is your vision of how new technology should shape the education industry?
My husband Scott and I are very fortunate to have had the means to make this contribution to Magellan International School. We are pretty private people so we did not make a public press release about this contribution (I don’t even think I posted it on FaceBook) so only those that have either toured Magellan or have sent their kids there in the last three years would know about it. Our thought process was that we can help get children excited by showing them how to turn their ideas and designs into physical objects. We also wanted something that they can hold and manipulate, and get them excited about coding because it is just like learning another language. The iLab at Magellan is equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, and many other tools for making these designs come to life. Learning how to think this way opens up so many more doors for them in the future. We wanted to make it less scary and more fun and hopefully plant that entrepreneurial seed that there is more than one way to solve the problems we see in the world. I personally love all the tools that they have introduced to our own kids, and I am always blown away when they show me what they’ve created from the iLab space — it’s like a mini prototype studio for our future generation.
Why is planting that entrepreneurial seed so important to you and Scott?
For Scott and myself, we grew up with parents that had very traditional thoughts of post-college career paths. Especially with me being second-generation American and raised from immigrant parents and Scott’s parents careers were in higher education. We are fortunate that both sets of parents let us pursue running our own businesses our way. Also, as mentioned earlier, my undergrad experience was not particularly focused on having a successful career by running your own business — instead, it was always about working for someone. Kids really are the future, and we want to give them opportunities to recognize that they can be successful working for someone or starting their own thing. We think what is important is that self-drive, that internal motivation — whether it is channeled to work for a company, or to start one, or to have a career in academia. That self-confidence to go your own way is what we’re really focused on, and we feel the iLab for Design + Making does that.
Red Velvet was launched shortly after 9/11. What do you think we should remember about the events industry after 9/11 as we begin to envision a post-COVID world?
I can’t remember who said this but I do believe it’s true: “with crisis comes creativity.” I truly believe this was the push we needed in our industry to get us to adopt hybrid and more authentic digital experiences (not just a website but truly engaging with people and for the first time, we actually have technology to support this). Don’t worry, live events will come back. But because of COVID-19, we now know what people can tolerate via virtual and we are able to get very creative on how to deliver that experience and reach a wider audience more quickly. This silver lining of COVID-19 has definitely gotten me excited about the future.
Cindy Lo photo by LeeAnn Lo.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.