A new era of event planning: Reflecting on the evolution of Startup Day

By Allie Eskew, Project and Events Director

It might seem obvious, but event planning has taken on an entirely new dimension within the last two years as the pandemic has shifted how, when and where we can connect. I’ve been planning and managing events at Piper Communications for several years, but like so many other event planners around the world, I had to rethink my process and find innovative new ways to help people connect. One of the most challenging and rewarding experiences during this time has been helping the Innov865 Alliance reimagine the way it approaches events through a mix of in-person and virtual options.

The Innov865 Alliance exists to develop, support and promote the Knoxville region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This collaborative effort celebrates how Knoxville is a great place for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. Since its launch in 2013, the collaboration has grown and evolved and now puts on a week-long event series called Innov865 Week, with Startup Day serving as the week’s signature event. It has been my pleasure to plan and execute this annual event each year. In 2020, we held Startup Day virtually, while this year, we were able to merge in-person and virtual offerings for our guests. Virtual and in-person formats have their obvious differences, yet I was surprised to find there was some familiar common ground between them.

With in-person events, the biggest challenge is usually prepping and planning for any technical issues that may arise. Over the years we have found that doing a dress rehearsal the day prior to the event is the best way to work through any of those issues so we are prepared the day of – I have also found it also helps companies and presenters feel more comfortable and confident on stage. 

Coincidentally, for virtual events, the most pressing concern is also tech issues. Managing a presenter’s internet connections and visual aids during a pitch competition is daunting for parties on both sides. However, as many of us have experienced, a new problem brought up with virtual events is keeping the audience engaged – the pandemic caused a major influx of online events, so we found that adjusting our event lengths and formats kept them engaging for our audience. 

When comparing the two, you just can’t beat the tangible experience of an in-person event. The excitement generated from face-to-face interaction allows for engaging, lasting partnerships. I love the networking aspect of in-person events that you just don’t experience with the virtual ones. But I found that virtual options also offer a new level of accessibility, allowing even more attendees to benefit from topics discussed at the Innov865 Alliance’s events. 

This year, I was happy to see that people really showed up – and showed up big – for Startup Day 2021, which was held in-person with masks and a virtual streaming option. You could feel the excitement in the room and the energy was incredibly contagious. Collectively, we were able to share and savor the pride that the Knoxville community shares of our entrepreneurs and the companies and technologies that are coming out of our city. Being able to celebrate that with one another in the heart of the city makes the event planning process so worth it. We also benefited from guests tuning in for our live stream from the comfort of their homes and offices, broadening our reach to many who may have never been able to attend before.

The event planning process has drastically evolved since my first event for the Innov865 Alliance. Today, we are able to merge in-person and virtual options to continue the celebration of Knoxville’s rich tradition of innovation. In my opinion, this dynamic event option is here to stay – it gives event managers a broader reach for their audiences as there are no geographical limitations and it allows for more connectivity across the state, regional and nation. 

Right now, I am looking forward to Startup Day 2022. The past two years have taught me the value in flexibility when managing any event, recognizing I can’t control the conditions in which this event is held. But whether we gather together in person or virtually (or a mix of both), what I can always count on, year after year, is many of the city’s brightest innovators gathering together to illuminate and celebrate our thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Find out more about Allie Eskew, Piper Communications’ Project and Events Director, here.