The magic of retail is in creating captivating experiences, so it’s no wonder retailers used to love holding in-person events to strengthen their relationship with customers. But, due to COVID-19, many brands have barely been able to open their doors to customers since early 2020. To keep the spark alive, businesses pivoted to online events – a move that likely won’t be over even when government restrictions have eased. Thanks to their accessibility and ability to reach global communities, virtual events are here to stay alongside their in-person counterparts.

One retailer that has perfected how to plan a virtual event over the last year is Waitrose & Partners. From alcohol masterclasses to fashion talks by its sister company, John Lewis, the brand has adapted a variety of formats to offer a fantastic range of virtual events examples. We caught up with Waitrose Partner and Category Manager for Drinks, Anne Jones, to find out how the retailer managed to create compelling online experiences.

Pivoting to the online space

For many years, Waitrose and John Lewis have held a variety of in-person events nationwide, like customer tastings, style consultations, and popular food and drink festivals. As soon as lockdown started, the brands moved a number of events online, hosting everything from virtual cooking classes to calligraphy workshops.

Waitrose may have adapted to the virtual world with new formats like webinars, but it still prioritised the atmosphere of a live, in-person event. “We replicated our in-home experiences with packages for wine or gin events delivered to customers for events hosted live in person by our specialists,” Jones tells Eventbrite.

Encouraging attendees to purchase drinks ingredients from its online store (and charging for some of the events) helped the retailer to boost its revenue, too. In fact, Waitrose and John Lewis have been using virtual events as an opportunity to showcase a variety of products and services in the hope of conversion. As Jones explains: “The experiences we offer link directly to our services and expertise, so customers may attend a fashion-style talk, enjoy the experience, and then book a virtual personal styling with the people they’ve learnt from.”

Prioritising customers

Waitrose’s online event ideas have gone down so well with customers because the retailer took the needs of their target market into consideration. Whether it’s make-up or wine, the brand knows the areas that customers need advice in.

“We tailor our events to the categories in which our customers want the most engagement to make purchases, like spirits and nursery and home design,” Jones says. “Beauty is a category in which customers appreciate interaction and we have run around 80 beauty masterclasses over the last 12 months.” To boost audience engagement and set Waitrose apart from the competition, such events featured live Q&A sessions.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s way of running an online event has proven to be incredibly successful. “For drinks alone, we have served over 12,000 customers, and we have also had events, such as our beauty weekends, for up to 60,000 customers. They have enabled our core team of best specialists to continue driving relationships with our customers during lockdown,” says Jones.

Simplifying event planning

Whether it’s ticket pricing strategies or new software, organisers face a number of challenges when it comes to taking in-person events online. Transitioning to online events was no small feat for Waitrose, as staff had to learn new skills and become familiar with new systems in order to do everything from finalising contracts to regulating data.

While the move can be tough, platforms like Eventbrite can help to simplify the process of organising and marketing online events. Waitrose has found Eventbrite especially useful. “We have built a new experiences site to host all our events on that then leads through to the ticketing platform,” Jones states. “It’s also helpful that when we are putting multiple dates in for the same event, it is really easy and quick to add the times and dates to the schedule.” Plus, she adds, the ability to synchronise payments and schedule emails has been beneficial.

Online events are here to stay

Having witnessed the benefits of online event streaming during the last year, it’s no wonder that retailers will want to keep just as much of a focus on virtual experiences as in-person ones. In a survey, Eventbrite found that 71% of people are planning to continue attending online events, even after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

Waitrose is among the brands planning to continue virtual experiences in the short term. The retailer is also hoping to introduce physical gatherings with virtual elements, phasing in these hybrid events over the course of 2021. In other words, a two-pronged approach that will allow creators and guests to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Host your next virtual event.

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