Jill Garcia of The Hutton Group: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher. Original Post

Make it fun. We have a high-end Pittsburgh client and it was our first time hosting a virtual live event. One hundred fifty people from all over the country were on “the call.” After the meeting, we held a cocktail demonstration during the event’s cocktail hour. In advance of the meeting, we mailed all attendees the ingredients necessary to prepare the beverages and other fun delights, such as mixing glasses and snacks. This extra step made everyone feel included, even if they were on the other side of the country. It was fun to watch everyone making drinks at the same time.


Asa part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Garcia.

Jill Garcia, owner, president and chief inspiration officer of the Hutton Group — Inspired Meetings & Events, has more than thirty years of experience in the meetings and hospitality industry. This knowledge allows her to offer a broad range of services to meet the most demanding needs of the organization’s clients. She works with associations, corporate and SMERF (Social, Military, Educational, Religious, Fraternal) clientele, providing solutions as diverse as the people and industries served. From large-scale events to focused retreats, Jill has planned meetings globally for groups ranging from 10 to 10,000 attendees.

Jill purchased the Hutton Group in 2020, which represented a culminating moment in her career after working for hotels, theme parks, destination management companies and as a long-time independent meeting planner. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the proud parent of three children and dog mom to a 7-pound Morkie named Zaydee.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up outside of New Haven, Connecticut, not the mecca of hospitality but a fabulous location to become cultured with Yale University nearby. After college in Central Connecticut, I took a leap with a friend and moved to Orlando, Florida in 1988. That was the beginning of my almost 35-year career.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

Living in Orlando, I had the opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful resorts in the United States. And Disney! The first time I walked around Magic Kingdom as a 22-year-old young adult, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to plan its onsite parties.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Hmm, there were quite a few, hard to choose just one-LOL. I told a well-known client at the hotel where I was working that what he asked for was nearly impossible to make a reality. I quickly learned from my first boss Sheldon Codd that the client is always right. Even if their vision may not work in the hotel space, as a Service Manager, it was my job to make it work.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

ET — The Extra-Terrestrial. I admire Steven Spielberg. He is a movie-making genius. I met him when I was working at Universal Studios, Florida. I was nine months pregnant with my first child and almost went into labor when he spoke to me. The message of the film is so simple yet so complex. To this day, it is still one of my favorite movies, right alongside The Wizard of Oz.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you believe, you can achieve.” Very simple. I started saying that quote right before my 14-year career in hotel site selection began and did not realize how it would hold true. Having been a program manager, I was not sure if I could sell services. Two years later, I was awarded The Presidents Club recognition for exceeding $1 million in sales. I continue to live by this principle and greatly support manifesting. My kids and team members are tired of hearing me talk about it. But in all seriousness, it works!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

I started working in the hotel industry as a Convention Services Coordinator at The Stouffer Orlando Resort in 1988 and was continuously promoted within the hotel. After three years, I left to pursue an Event Planning opportunity at Universal Studios Orlando. When I had my first daughter, I worked at a nationally-recognized Destination Management Company (DMC) in Orlando. I then moved on to Independent Meeting Planning. From there, I ventured into Hotel Site Selection. In February 2020, one month before the pandemic, I committed to purchasing The Hutton Group, a full-service meeting planning company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I circled back to my first love — the meetings industry — where I can combine my past experiences into one product. I also own a Destination Management Company, a division of The Hutton Group.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Hosting live virtual events was definitely a learning experience. Eventually, we understood the process by partnering with several companies that focused on virtual events. It took creative and innovative teams to make sure the first few events we ran were a success.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

We partnered with a wonderful small company, Perla Hospitality & Event Group. Founder Maria Zavala, who I had known from my hotel days, made the process easy to understand and guided us through the unknowns. She explained things in straightforward terms versus utilizing technical terms for us non-technical professionals. There are so many experts out there. Find a partner that will explain the good and the bad. It is technology, after all and not 100% guaranteed.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Not talking to their AV team to ensure everyone is on the same page. Speak to the appropriate professionals, such as the behind-the-scenes producer and/or team managing the equipment.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

We have worked on several very successful events with Cvent/Encore and Zoom in conjunction with one another. I was hesitant to use these platforms together, but the meetings, minus minor glitches, were well executed.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

My advice would be to partner with a knowledge company to ensure success of any event.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Make it fun. We have a high-end Pittsburgh client and it was our first time hosting a virtual live event. One hundred fifty people from all over the country were on “the call.” After the meeting, we held a cocktail demonstration during the event’s cocktail hour. In advance of the meeting, we mailed all attendees the ingredients necessary to prepare the beverages and other fun delights, such as mixing glasses and snacks. This extra step made everyone feel included, even if they were on the other side of the country. It was fun to watch everyone making drinks at the same time.
  2. Communicate. Talk to your partners in advance — AV, the meeting planner and executives. I strongly recommend a complete run-through of the speaker’s technical abilities before the event. It was difficult at the beginning of the pandemic when company executives did not understand Zoom/virtual technology. We encountered a lot of muted discussions and video calls where the speaker was distracted or confused.
  3. Nothing is 100% guaranteed. Hope for the best and expect the worse. Let the experts run the event with the client’s best interest in mind.
  4. Advise guests to use their mute buttons and turn off their cameras (on Zoom) — especially if they are getting their hair cut and colored while on a call with their CEO. This happened during one of my planning client calls. One of our client’s C-suite leaders was on video as we discussed a large meeting. She did not realize her camera was on and we could see her at the salon.
  5. Be creative in the wake of possible technical problems. Go with the flow. After all, we are only human.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

I cannot state this enough. Find a meeting planner that has expertise in this realm. Please do not take this task on yourself or ask a volunteer without technical knowledge. It is worth the extra money to consult with an expert.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If every person would do one kind gesture for a stranger each day that would be phenomenal. Simple gestures make such an impact. Bringing a smile to another human’s face feels so good. It is so easy to pay for someone’s coffee or hold a door for another. How about walking by someone and saying hello? You never know what the next person is going through; your smile could make someone’s day.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Yes! Oprah! From her early beginnings to pushing forward in an industry where women of color were invisible, she is truly an inspiration. My favorite interviews are when she is makeup-free and at home with her dogs by her side. I am spiritually in the same space and have followed a similar journey to enlightenment and a better understanding of who we are beneath our skin. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with her on this topic. And, if she wanted to bring along her friend, Michelle Obama, that would be a bonus.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.