Event professionals know that sometimes challenging circumstances can lead to innovation – Miller Tanner Associates (MTA), an event planning company, is no stranger to this.  

Since the pandemic required a swift pivot to virtual in 2020, MTA has transformed how they deliver events by fully embracing the world of virtual, in-person, and hybrid experiences.  

From organizing an internal hybrid team CSR project that involved gardening at a Boston farm with a similar  opportunity for virtual attendees, to leveraging “digital handshakes” to forge mentor and mentee relationships for a client event, nothing is off the table, and they’re just getting started.  

Dive into how MTA has leaned into innovation to create compelling event experiences that foster connection, facilitate engagement, and drive business objectives.  

Get to know Miller Tanner Associates

MTA was formed in 1997 and is a full-service events and conference firm, specializing in exceptional experiences for in-person, virtual, and hybrid meetings. Leading up to 2020, MTA specialized in event experiences primarily for pharmaceutical biotech and medical device companies. But when the pandemic hit and organizations needed help launching successful virtual events, MTA’s client base quickly expanded to a variety of industries including media conglomerates, legal firms, and educational associations.  

Meredith Shottes has been a part of MTA for 15 years and serves as the organization’s Chief Experience Officer.

“We believe there’s a beginning, middle, and no end to an event experience. We really look at it as a holistic journey for an attendee and a client,” Shottes says. 

An unexpected twist: pivot to virtual events

In many ways, MTA has always been ahead of the virtual curve. The MTA team has been a remote-first company since it started. MTA has been offering virtual events for 10 + years so when COVID-19 hit in 2020, MTA was able to quickly pivot client events to a virtual format but wanted to elevate the experience for clients.

MTA needed to quickly find a solution that their team members could easily adopt and put to work for their clients’ events that were quickly approaching.  

“Our challenge was really like, ‘Okay, how do we train the full team to do a full pivot and take those wonderful skill sets they have for face-to-face and bring them into the virtual landscape,’” Shottes says.

The search begins: finding the right event solution

Prior to 2020, MTA was mostly relying on meeting platforms for their virtual events, but they recognized the limitations of these solutions. They needed to find an end-to-end event management platform that could power immersive virtual, in-person, and hybrid event experiences. 

When the pandemic set in, MTA spent every free moment researching event platforms.  

Shottes says that their search was less feature focused and more so driven by flexibility. At the time, the events industry was changing every few weeks. MTA needed an event platform that could keep up.  

Here were some of MTA’s considerations as they searched for the right event platform: 

  • Easy-to-use platform that allowed the MTA team to easily add, turn on and turn off specific features 
  • Customizable platform that enabled the MTA team to update events to reflect their clients’ branding  
  • Ability to repurpose features such as video rooms to become vendor or sponsor tables 

It was also crucial for MTA to choose a platform that allowed them to act independently as they built client events. They needed a solution that could get up and running as soon as possible, as some of their clients had events launching in 45 days. Other vendors MTA evaluated required up to four months of onboarding and training. 

“We already had internal production teams. We had internal event experts. We didn’t want to be dependent on an external resourcing structure. We were looking for someone who was going to say, ‘Take some training, here’s the platform, pick up and run.’ Our clients’ timelines did not meet the resources available for many of the event platforms at the time,” Shottes says.  

On a personal level, MTA strives to foster a work culture where team members can have work-life balance. Depending on the day, sometimes this means that team members are working early in the morning or late in the evening.  

“Not all businesses are structured that way, so we need something that allows us to get in when we have the time to work, not when [the tech provider’s] team is available.” 

As their search for an event platform continued, Webex Events (formerly Socio) checked all of the boxes MTA was looking for in an event tech solution. Webex Events was the clear choice for MTA’s next chapter as an events firm capable of building immersive event experiences for attendees – no matter how they choose to attend.

The importance of true collaboration in a planner, vendor relationship

Creating innovative and unique event experiences is a key component of MTA’s mission as an events and conference firm. It’s crucial for MTA to work with an event tech provider who serves as a partner to help bring their ideas to life.  

“We pride ourselves on coming up with the idea that hasn’t been done yet, especially now that we have clients who have done one, two, and three different events on [Webex Events]. Each time, the experience has to be familiar but different. It’s really working with the Webex Events team to say, ‘Hey I have this idea, but here’s the barrier I’m up against. Can you teach me how to do this?” 

Shottes also says the ability to tap into Webex Events integrations has become an important part of making MTA’s internal and client events stand out.  

Supporting event flexibility with powerful features

The MTA team are experts on leveraging event technology to promote flexibility, engagement, and meaningful event experiences. Here are some of the unique events they have created with their clients using Webex Events.

Transforming overview page into a personalized slideshow 

In 2021, an MTA client wanted to replicate the experience of their team members catching up about each other’s personal lives at the office. To achieve this virtually, MTA embedded a slideshow on the platform overview page to replicate this unique in-person experience in a virtual format.  

When attendees entered the platform, a rotating slideshow featured each person at the company alongside their image and personal highlights.  

“It was one of the most beautiful ways to engage. I didn’t know any of these people, I was just coming in to observe, but to see the beautiful images and messages that the team created, to actually have a visceral connection with other virtual attendees that’s outside of ‘Here’s the content. Here’s a slide deck,’ – this was a real way for the company to try and reconnect with one another in a completely virtual environment,” Shottes says.  

The ability to fully customize the event platform to specifications of the event was crucial in helping MTA’s client achieve a human-centered event experience.  

“I love the ability in [Webex Events] that spaces can be used for non-traditional things – you’re able to leverage traditional technology in a new way, so it’s not a static experience. You can rig areas of the platform to create a unique experience for each event as you need it.”

Fostering authentic connection with digital handshakes

At MTA’s client event, The Everygirls Rise: A Career Empowerment Conference, MTA leveraged the digital handshake feature for mentor and mentee connections. During a pre-recorded segment, attendees were instructed to shake their mobile event app if they were interested in becoming a mentor or a mentee. 

“What I think was particularly effective about this was that within the larger community of 1,500 people, there were other sub-communities of women with different needs. The digital handshake allowed each of these sub-groups to self-identify and make connection less overwhelming,” Shottes says.  

Reconfiguring hybrid events for fully virtual experiences

In December 2021, MTA was gearing up for two clients hosting national sales meetings. Both events had been planned as hybrid, with major in-person components.  

When the COVID-19 Omicron variant became more present in the US, both of MTA’s clients had less than two weeks to pivot their events to virtual. 

The MTA team was able to seamlessly transition both events into virtual experiences.  

One of these clients is now gearing up to host a hybrid event and will host the event on Webex Events.  

“What’s great about that is those attendees now are comfortable with the platform, familiar with it, had the full virtual experience, and now they’re going to have the experience of using that on-site,” Shottes says.  

MTA event experts take the hybrid leap 

The MTA team has also leveraged event technology and learnings from client events to enhance their own internal events. When it came time for MTA’s internal event in 2021, it became clear that their annual in-person team kick-off would look different than past years.

“It was a very difficult decision. We are an event planning company, and we believe that you make connections and advance your business by actually meeting with one another. That’s what we sell to our clients. That’s something that we believe in,” Shottes says.  

But at the time, not all team members were able to travel to an in-person event due to vaccination statuses and global travel restrictions.  

MTA recognized that this would be the second year in a row that the team couldn’t be together in-person. They wanted to provide the opportunity for their team to meet face-to-face. 

The choice was clear: go hybrid.  

The MTA team decided to use their hybrid event as a beta test. Some of their clients were already testing out hybrid events. Instead of hypothesizing what a successful hybrid event would look like, MTA was determined to test it out themselves.  

“There are a lot of things you can do in theory on paper, but it’s really different to actually test out and shake out a lot of different ideas,” Shottes says.  

Bridging the hybrid gap with in-person ambassadors

To ensure that virtual attendees were truly a part of the event, MTA designated each in-person attendee as “ambassadors” for their virtual attendees. The in-person ambassadors were responsible for making sure that their virtual counterpart felt included. To make this a tangible effort, the ambassadors printed out headshots of the virtual attendees, took selfies with them as they completed in-person activities, and posted them on the social wall.  

During the event, MTA also leveraged large LED screens so that the small group of virtual attendees were “in the room” with their in-person team members. When virtual attendees asked questions, their video was projected on the displays in the room.  

MTA even streamed a live video of the in-person attendees to the virtual group so that everyone was able to see each other.  

Promoting team connection with hybrid gardening activity

It was important to MTA that their hybrid event was a truly collaborative experience for virtual and in-person attendees alike. 

To achieve this, they partnered with Life Science Cares out of Boston, where the in-person group went to a farm for a gardening activity. Remote attendees participated through the program’s virtual access hub, which was embedded in Webex Events.  

Facilitating a team brainstorming activity with Miro integration

MTA opened the event early so that attendees could start connecting with each other. For a pre-event activity, MTA wanted to recreate the experience of a team gathering where they could brainstorm MTA’s core values.  

To do this, MTA chose to incorporate a Miro board as part of a pre-event activity. They set up five different virtual whiteboards, each focused on a different core value. Then they asked the team to add virtual sticky notes, emojis, gifs, and images to each board, so they could share how they lived out each core value.  

“With that flexibility of things [in the platform], like inserting the Miro board, we were establishing our core cultural values. We thought, especially in 2021 after so much unrest in the industry, and in our own company, we needed to really get everyone to drill down to the same level again,” Shottes says.  

MTA used those boards as a starting point to develop the language they would use to further build out their core values. MTA revealed these on-site via the website and embedded it in the platform for virtual attendees to see directly in Webex Events.

“It was an incredible experience to move through that process in that way,” Shottes says.

Promoting connection and engagement with gamification and the social wall

After being apart for almost two years, MTA wanted to generate as many opportunities as possible to keep their attendees connected. 

The social wall was one of Shottes’ personal favorite features, which allowed her to have a special glimpse into MTA team members’ pre-event excitement.  

“As an executive, I don’t follow our team on social [media]. That’s their private, protected space. For them to be able to let me into their world a little bit, it was an enclosed private space, and they still have privacy in their personal life, but I get to see a little bit more of what they’re like on an airplane in a fun way, or how they packed, or how their dog sits on their suitcase before they go,” Shottes says.  

The social wall became MTA’s internal social media community. As attendees shared and interacted with each other’s posts, the social wall truly embodied MTA’s belief that engagement should be continuous and reach attendees before the event even starts.  

“I think [the social wall] was the place we learned the most about our team members as individuals,” Shottes adds.

To give attendees a chance to share their own personal event experiences, MTA tied the social wall to a fun game which encouraged attendees to share and interact with each other’s posts.  After attendees posted three aspects of the event that they enjoyed the most, they received a game code.  

The MTA team was delighted with their first hybrid event and the technology that helped make it a positive, inclusive experience for both in-person and virtual team members. 

“There were people who said, ‘Even if we go back to face-to-face next year, I think we still should have [Webex Events],’ so it was very valuable,” Courtney Johnson, Social Media and Marketing Coordinator at MTA says.  

The future of events: up-leveled experiences

As the industry enters a new era and encompasses both virtual and in-person event experiences, Shottes says that leveling up your event experiences is a must.  

“It can’t just be a webcast that has no engagement. Same thing with face to face… if we’re just going to talk at you after you’ve gotten on a plane for the first time since the summer of 2020, then you might as well have stayed at home.” 

MTA’s 25th internal workshop was hosted in Iceland in 2022 and presents an exciting opportunity: what does event engagement look like when there are no meeting rooms?  

That’s right, the entire event happened outside among Iceland’s breathtaking mountain peaks and expansive fields. 

“We’ve been charged up to create connection and experience and advance company and business without the use of a meeting room; everything will be outdoors in the fresh air,” Shottes says.  

Beyond this event, Shottes is optimistic about the power of event technology. She says that event professionals will continue to heavily depend on mobile technologies that provide attendees with content at their fingertips. 

“Gone are the days where people want to see slides on a huge screen in the front of the room. I think the slides are in your hand. We really have to figure out what those technologies are that make that easy and effective.”  

Are you looking for more creative event ideas? Check out our case study on how MAD//Fest transformed their iconic in-person event into successful virtual and hybrid experiences.