Austin Events Become Virtual Events Because of COVID-19

Event planners are professionally prepared to anticipate disasters, but the novel coronavirus pandemic is really testing their adaptability. The events that they had been planning for months were canceled by city and state mandates for security reasons. If the organizers were to cut costs, they would have to recreate a similar experience at virtual events where people could attend from home without fear of the virus spreading – something most organizers had never done before.

Eater Austin has signed up with the three organizers – the Supper Club Elephant Table, the Texas Food & Wine Foundation (which hosts several annual food-themed events), and Texas Monthly Magazine (which hosts a huge barbecue every year) – just like theirs Has changed events to online formats so people can still have fun and stay safe during the pandemic.

In March, when the Austin pandemic really hit, the dominoes quickly fell for personal events. When South by Southwest, one of the city’s biggest money-makers, canceled its festival just a week before it was scheduled to start, it set off alarm bells for planned events for the rest of the year. Shortly thereafter, Austin Mayor Steve Adler banned events with more than 250 people, and a few days later, Texas Governor Greg Abbott lowered the maximum to 10 people. That decision still rests mostly in Austin.

With personal events off the table, the organizers have thought about how they can translate their events into a virtual format. They had to recreate the ambience of an event (music, table decorations, food, entertainment) in an environment they ultimately couldn’t control (someone else’s home), and also figure out the logistics like deliveries and costs. They also had to figure out how to get people likely to suffer from screen fatigue to spend even more time in front of a screen after long days at home.

Filming of a Texas Food & Wine Alliance Alliance Academy session starring Jackie Letelier of Casero Austin courtesy of the Texas Food & Wine Alliance

The nonprofit food and wine organization organizes chef-taught courses

“The early days of the pandemic were so confusing,” said Brandon Watson, communications director for the Texas Food & Wine Alliance (TFWA). The organization, a recent addition to the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, has a list of annual food and beverage events such as Wine & Swine and the Austin Food and Wine Festival that have all had to be canceled.

The nonprofit planned to announce its expansion across the state during its April Live Fire event, but had to quickly reconfigure the rest of the year. It also faced massive financial losses as the nonprofit receives funding from the canceled Austin Food and Wine Festival (where tickets cost between $ 250 and $ 625 per person).

TFWA’s larger events – like the cocktail-centric Official Drink of Austin, which typically occupies several hotel floors with dozens of restaurants serving drinks – would be logistically impossible to move online. One event, the Culinary Arts Career Conference, aimed at local students in culinary programs, had a format that was easily translated into an online format: keynote speeches, panels, and demonstrations. However, due to sales problems, TFWA was unable to offer the event this year.

TFWA focused on smaller events. This resulted in the Alliance Academy with recorded cooking demonstrations from Texan chefs followed by a live Q&A on Zoom. As part of these courses, the organization worked with the restaurant-food company Assembly Kitchen to send participants ingredients for the dishes and cocktails they would prepare.

Since the series started in September, Watson has been happy with ticket sales. Most of the sales go to the restaurant and Assembly Kitchen, the rest to TFWA – and that’s by design. It’s not about making a lot of money for nonprofits. Rather, it is about supporting the restaurants and local food systems. TFWA uses money from ticket sales and other fundraisers to support service industry charities such as Austin Shift Meal and Tito’s Food For Friends, and to raise $ 14,000 for grants that support restaurants and small businesses in the culinary ecosystem.

Participants created their own cocktails while attending a zoom dinner with the elephant table

Participants created their own cocktails while attending a zoom dinner with the elephant table. Chelsea Francis

An underground supper club keeps it small and personal

Elephant Table, a dinner party club series in Austin, also quickly switched to virtual events. “There was no roadmap or a timetable for how long this would affect everyone,” says founder Hope Furst, “but we felt that the personal cancellations would not be short-lived.”

Hosting dinner parties online wasn’t easy at first, with digital logistics problems and the difficulty of helping guests feel connected. Elephant Table went out of its way to get registrants to actually log into the Zoom call at the scheduled time. Part of the solution was to keep the events small – less than 30 people – and always start with round robin tutorials so everyone has the opportunity to speak and feel like a participant rather than just a spectator. “People want to feel like they have a voice,” explains Frust, “even at a virtual table.”

To foster this connection between the guests and the event, Furst also endeavors to provide the carefully decorated, personalized party packs for the participants. They contain all of the ingredients for that evening’s event (from loteria cards and tacos to a bagel brunch, depending on the theme) and are delivered a few hours before the event to add to the excitement. “We want it to feel like it’s your birthday,” she says when they receive their package.

After success in the virtual space, Furst began offering Elephant Table’s services to food and beverage brands to reach a target audience, working with companies like Oatly and Vital Farms. She reports that both branded and non-branded events are largely sold out, although non-branded events generally only cover costs while branded events make money.

Moving a major barbecue festival to everyone’s personal backyards

For Texas Monthly, which hosts the highly anticipated annual Texas Monthly BBQ Festival every fall, given the importance of the festival to thousands of meat-loving Texans, turning to a virtual event was an easy decision, but then it became a question of how to host the event Organized logistically secure for participants and pit masters. Aside from live streaming events, the team had little experience with virtual events and reached out to event production partner Duty Now for the Future and the grill restaurants themselves for ideas.

The resulting virtual festival, which takes place from October 24th to November 1st, is divided into various offers. First, there’s the delivery grill box, which includes cooking utensils and curated ingredients from the publication’s best smoked meat restaurants (think the barbecue sauce from Snow’s BBQ or mesquite-smoked jerky from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ). Then many restaurants across the state have special festival dishes on their menu from October 24th to 31st (in Austin, that means a frito cake from Micklethwait Craft Meats and a resurrection of the famous mac and cheese-filled quail from LeRoy & Lewis below other). At the end of the festival there will be a free livestream event by the grill editor Daniel Vaughn with interviews, prices and questions and answers as well as a beverage kit supplied by Spec’s.

Tori Schach, the consumer marketing manager at Texas Monthly, realized the importance of helping Pitmasters who have lost their business due to the pandemic. Therefore, for part of the festival you have to order from restaurants and trucks. The festival also works with nonprofits like Feeding Texas by encouraging attendees to donate.

The Toro Bravo Frito cake from Micklethwait Craft Meats

The Toro Bravo Frito Cake by Micklethwait Craft Meats Micklethwait Craft Meats / Facebook

Events are still events, whether online or in person

Ultimately, Texas food events have adapted to the new reality of a pandemic, which means you can stay connected while staying home. Fürst says she misses the energy in the room at personal events. “You can’t reach people on the same level with virtual events,” she says.

Watson says event guests aren’t the only ones missing out on in-person events. He found that chefs enjoy the opportunity to interact in person with attendees outside of a restaurant setting, but that they miss “the camaraderie and fun” of face-to-face events.

While it is uncertain when it will be possible to rub elbows one more time with chefs and eat meals around other people, those planning events will surely adjust along the way.

Update, November 2nd: This article has been updated to take into account that the Culinary Arts Career Conference is not taking place this year.

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