How to Bring the Gala Experience to the Living Room

In March 2020, the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area was three days away from their biggest fundraiser of the year when COVID-19 struck. But in only 72 hours, Special Events Manager Ashley Bartol managed to pivot and take the gala experience entirely online. This virtual experience still allowed guests to bid on the silent and live auction items from the comfort of their home.

While the BGC didn’t quite raise the $200,000 that had been their live event goal, it showed Bartol that virtual events worked. With an entire year to plan it, they decided to host a virtual event again in 2021. Donors were feeling nostalgic for the way things used to be, so Harris wanted to bring that traditional benefit auction experience right to their donors’ homes with their virtual “Around the World” event.

But they would need to be clever and strategic to keep guests tuned in for the entire stream if they wanted their live auction to succeed.

How to Bring That Gala Magic to Your Virtual Event

What makes the traditional benefit gala such a fun, unique attraction for donors? Bartol prioritized three components within reach for a virtual event:

– The look, feel, and sound of a live auction
– A fun, entertaining, and cause-oriented program
– Offering guests dinner and wine to enjoy while bidding

Selling the concept

To sell the look and feel of the virtual gala to guests who missed attending events, Bartol’s team recorded and posted short videos teasing the visual appeal of the livestream to social media.

Hire an emcee or auctioneer for your virtual event, just like you would for an in-person event. Guests always had a ton of fun at the BGC’s live auction, making it one of their big money-makers. Bartol knew entertainment played a big part in keeping guests tuned in to the livestream. She brought on professional auctioneer Steve Wagner to host the live auction. He called out high bids on the stream as they came in, giving the event the look, feel, and sound of past in-person auctions.

To recreate the energy and atmosphere of the live event, bring in visual touchstones and annual traditions that remind viewers of the gala experience they know and love.

How to design a fast-paced program and keep guests bidding

The Boys & Girls Club’s stream started off with a 15-minute pre-show, professionally produced by a friend of the organization. This portion brought the fun and humor guests expected from their typical live event—and set the tone for the rest of the night. To simulate the ballroom feel, The Boys & Girls Club live-streamed their auctioneer presenting on a brightly lit stage.

Maintain guests’ interest by keeping the program short. Bartol and the team limited their livestream program to just one hour.

Hold guests’ attention all the way through the important stuff. The event team raffled off an exciting prize and promised to announce the winner on the live stream, giving guests a reason to stay and watch the whole thing.

Set an exciting pace to maintain the energy. Ask your emcee to announce when each silent auction section is going to end and highlight desirable items and high bids.

Staggering closings throughout the program keeps the momentum going.  Doing this can also engage guests in bidding wars that drive up those important final bids.

Wining and dining brings that exclusive “gala” feel

There’s a formula for fundraising galas because it works. Guests love to drink wine and eat dinner as they socialize and watch a fun and entertaining program. Offering dinner, wine, cocktail, or another at-home dining experience makes it feel like an event.

The BGC worked with local grocery stores to put together a simple dinner for their sponsors and VIP guests. Many ingredients were able to be sourced at a discount or simply donated. Now everyone at home could sit back and enjoy the livestream while they wined and dined.

With the help of all of their partners, donors, and vendors, the BGC hosted a wildly successful virtual fundraiser.

Read more about the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area’s virtual gala experience, and the valuable strategies that helped them succeed.


Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area

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