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What To Wear To A Virtual Gala And Other Pandemic Networking Questions Answered

Remember dressing up for real-life parties? Collete English Dixon, second from left, at an event for the Economic Club of Chicago in a past year.

The national CREW Network Convention and annual fundraiser, NAIOP New Jersey’s gala and 50th anniversary celebration, the Goldie Gala, the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate Gala — the list of CRE conferences, conventions, galas and, perhaps soon, holiday parties, gone virtual continues to grow.

Now six months into the coronavirus pandemic, the charm of the virtual event may be wearing off. But people are all still hungry for connection and conversation and want to support the organizations they have not been able to come out for all year otherwise.

As we move into a new season of virtual events, the industry’s event planners will attempt to make the most of a bizarre situation. The industry’s virtual eventgoers will chime in on how to cut down on awkwardness. They'll also bring the energy and tackle the big question of what to wear. 

Casey Flannery, a Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Advisors senior associate in Memphis and co-host of the weekly live Twitter conversation #CREChat, is no stranger to networking online. But week after week of video events is a different story and, Flannery said, Zoom fatigue is real.

Because professional networking is still very much something she wants to be doing, online or off, she has a few steps she takes in order to keep events fun and fresh — and to make sure they don't get RSVP'ed to and then completely ignored on her calendar.

“You really have to be intentional about these virtual meetings and events,” she told Bisnow. “It’s so easy to ‘overlook’ that calendar notification, especially if you are busy and something that is more important pops up.” 

She recommends logging on early to make sure your audio and visual is working, using headphones, and striking up conversation with people as they enter the (digital) room. She added that having a friend join you — remotely or in person — can help hold you accountable for showing up.

And once you are there, she said, if it is appropriate for the event, why not have a cocktail? For Flannery, a margarita helps get the conversation flowing.

“Networking during these events can be very difficult,” Shopoff Realty Investments Senior Vice President of Capital Markets Jan Svec agreed. “Some of the more interactive ones have included periodic votes or other types of responsive devices. A few take it further and call out attendees to get further input, which I think is helpful to maintain engagement with attendees.”

However, the larger the group, she said, the harder it is to participate and, for hosts, the harder it is to keep others engaged. Svec said the best events she has attended have broken attendees into separate breakout group calls where smaller groups of people can interact more freely with less of a chance of talking over one another.

This year, the Goldie Initiative, which provides scholarships, mentorship and networking opportunities to young women in CRE grad school programs, has decided to adapt its annual Goldie Gala networking event to a virtual event, slated for Sept. 17.

“We're offering virtual networking breakout groups that will each feature a top CRE ‘celebrity’ and a Goldie scholar, to replicate the connections that usually happen at the live event,” Executive Director Megan Abraham told Bisnow.

“Many of those breakout groups are already filled up. We encourage all attendees to enjoy a nice drink during the event, noting that sponsors will receive a box of champagne and small bites and instructions to open it at 5 p.m. on the day of the gala, in hopes of bringing a little of the same festive spirit from past years to this pandemic edition." 

As for dress code, she is expecting to see a lot of business attire in the on-screen crowd. 

Svec said she would consider wearing a cocktail dress for an online event if an invite suggested it. Flannery doesn't see herself going that far, but she does have a formula for virtual parties and mingling events that blends the comfort of working from home with the put-together look she wants to bring to her professional world.

“I like to put on a fitted black T-shirt, a face of makeup, lipstick and earrings and some other jewelry to spruce it up,” she said. “Jewelry makes it all look a little bit nicer.”

Collete English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate, said she is looking forward to the Goldie Gala this year. She plans to wear “a really nice top, and do my makeup.” She isn’t making any promises about footwear, though.

“Who really cares about what can’t be seen? I am unsure the level of energy will be quite the same given I will be in a room by myself, but I am intending to muster as much enthusiasm as I possibly can,” she said. “I hope to engage with a few breakout chat rooms to speak with new people, and some I already know.”

Perhaps she will run into Emily Johnson, president of real estate-focused PR agency Taylor Johnson, who plans to attend in “gala attire,” a glass of pinot grigio in hand. 

This year more than ever, Johnson said attendance at events like the Goldie Gala is important, even if it is just a Zoom call. People are craving connection, sure, she said, but “our industry also needs the support.”

“So many of these events have been taking place for years, and it is our responsibility to keep them alive,” she said.