How Toast Skyrocketed Attendance to 92% for their First-Ever Virtual Kickoff Event

July 8, 2021

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2020 was a rollercoaster year for field marketers but for Michael Powers, the industry switch-arounds were the beginning of a wild success story.

Like every seasoned Field Marketer, the Director of Employee Experience & Engagement at Toast is used to adrenaline-fueled projects. And when the pandemic began, and Toast’s client base was hit hard, he knew it was time to direct that marketing energy straight back into the company.

As a hospitality SaaS company, the team at Toast worked hard to make life easier for their clients — but in order to keep the clients moving forward, Michael had to keep wind in the team’s sails too.

“We continued to push through and make sure we could solve some of the problems that the industry was having and understand the best way forward. It was a lot, but it was a fun challenge,” says Michael. “The passion and drive of every single Toaster, how we all lean into our mission, and how that's rooted in our values, comes alive in everything that we do.”

We caught up with the field-marketer-turned-people-ops-leader to find out how he brought Toast employees together during a time when we’ve literally never been further apart. Plus, we get the lowdown on how Michael created a data-driven internal event that smashed his in-person KPIs by up to a third.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

The backstory: From field marketer to employee experience superhero

A year ago, Michael’s role didn’t even exist — but as the pandemic’s effects on the hospitality industry became clear, he realized Toast’s employees (or ‘Toasters’ as they’re affectionately known) needed a boost of “that inspiration factor” to help them continue to serve an industry hit so hard.

Toast’s mission is to empower the restaurant community to delight their guests, do what they love, and thrive. And that comes to life through their core values (what they call their core recipe 😉): act as one team, embrace a hospitality mindset, lead with humility, always be hungry, drive with purpose.

And that’s exactly what Michael knew he needed to do.

“I felt as an employee that there was a need for someone to be fully dedicated to how we were thinking about the overall employee experience. How are we communicating to Toasters about the programs we put together for them? And how are we ensuring a marketing driven approach to the cohesive story and narrative we're telling throughout the year?” he explains.

There was only one thing to do: Michael took his passion for marketing and applied it to architecting an out-of-this-world employee experience in his sparkly new role as Director of Employee Experience & Engagement.

From there, the dedicated B2B marketer knew he needed to find out exactly how to drive his teams into inspired action.

“My main focal point was ‘How do we drive this forward?’, ‘How do we remind people of our mission?’, ‘How do we get them back to that inspiration factor when we were serving an industry that was hit so hard?’,” he says.

As the effects of the pandemic continued to impact the hospitality industry, Michael knew he’d have to put the pedal to the metal to inspire his teams and drive for real (human-focused) results.

The challenge: Building a meaningful employee kickoff event in the post-pandemic world

As an experienced Field Marketer, Michael knew straight away how to achieve his goal of getting remote employees re-energized and re-focused: with a killer employee kickoff event. 💪🏼

“First, we think about kickoff as an opportunity to re-align ourselves with company goals. Secondly, we aim to really lean in with our people. We ask, ‘What's happening with our teams?’, ‘How do we understand that?’ and ‘How do we build content to combat it?’” explains Michael.

Lucky for Michael, as a culture-driven company, Toast already had some solid listening channels to help understand what employees really want.

“Our listening channels include open Q&As, 1:1s with managers, conversations with our success team around industry trends, and our ERGs that are there to help us build and foster an inclusive community across the organization. And then we use Culture Amp as our survey tool. We’d done three pulse surveys in 2020 to see core trends across the organization and then build action plans against those. And those action plans I brought directly into kickoff,” explains Michael.

Michael looked into all those channels to start building a roadmap for the next five months.

Here’s what he asked himself as he sifted through the data from Toast’s employee listening channels:

  • What do we do to help transition our messages?
  • What could that mean for employees, and for who we are as Toasters?
  • How do we bring our teams back to where we were before the rift, from a sentiment and an excitement standpoint — especially now we’re in a remote environment?
  • How do we listen and build a program in a way we know will impact Toasters in the best way possible?
  • How do we ensure every single Toaster knows the impact they’re having on our company initiatives?

But to create a truly meaningful kickoff, Michael knew there was another important element he’d need to take into account: Toast’s company goals.

“We also had to focus on how to ensure Toasters understand that when we focus on community and lean in with one another, that we truly deliver better products, better opportunities, and a better time with one another,” he says.

Combining his learnings, Michael’s kickoff theme was clear. It had to be Better Together.

“We also took a really strong and specific focus on career development. So, we focused all of our sessions and directed them to career development,” he adds.

But the work wasn’t over. Next Michael needed to figure out the logistics to make sure the kickoff hit maximum ROI.

The solution: Centering your big-picture vision before, during and after the event

He got to work defining the three core areas to tackle to build a meaningful event and leave Toasters feeling pumped up and ready for more:

  1. Which sessions should we run?
  2. Which virtual event platform do we go for?
  3. How will we track our KPIs virtually?

Let’s break down exactly how he tackled each area to successfully replicate his in-person event success in a virtual setting.

Planning: Make sure every single session has a reason to be there

For Michael, the virtual event format was pretty new — but how they decided on sessions remained the same.

“The virtual environment allowed us to really focus on quality over quantity. We used this as an opportunity to make sure that every single piece of content was what a Toaster needed, and that they would have actionable takeaways to skyrocket their career development in 2021. That was the mission for me in this year's kickoff,” he says.

To make sure your sessions hit the perfect note, these are the questions Michael says you need to ask:

  • How do you tell a meaningful story?
  • How do you combine all of your elements and goals?
  • What did you do in your last kickoff that really worked?
  • What are your North stars?
  • How can you push all of that forward?
  • How do you weave your customer elements into all of it?
  • How can you inspire your audience?

From inspiring customer stories and interactive cooking demos, to an ace-in-the-sleeve appearance from Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy, each one of Toast’s highly-engaging sessions grew from Michael’s deep employee research — and he even broke down his audience understanding further by segmenting sessions into employee types, based on info from Toast’s Culture Amp pulse surveys.

“We broke down sessions into different segments: leading teams, leading with influence, and leading yourself. Leading yourself, is for employees who are likely 2-4 years out of school. Leading with teams is for newer managers. And leading with influence is for folks at the senior manager director and above level who are just trying to push forward to that next element in their career,” says Michael.

“The virtual environment allowed us to really focus on quality over quantity.”

Execution: Choose an anti-Zoom fatigue event platform

The next piece of the puzzle was which platform Toast would use to host their kickoff event.

“My biggest thing was that I did not want this event to create Zoom-fatigue. I needed something different. And I wanted something that was going to show that connectivity and community building element,” says Michael.

But he didn’t find his perfect virtual event platform straight away.

“I actually landed on another event platform and we were pretty far down the path with them. And then I heard from two of my previous Marketo bosses about Goldcast — they insisted I should take a look at it. And so I did, and I stopped my contract with the other platform, we moved forward, and that was it,” he says.

For Michael, Goldcast’s boundary-pushing features and continuous updates were the biggest pull.

“The platform took a lot of the fundamental thoughts and ideas that we knew needed to change in virtual event programming, and pushed forward on a lot of the limitations that you're seeing in other platforms. It's really cool to see how the platform has continued to evolve and I knew it was going to be the right tool for us as a company,” says Michael.

After all his hard work, it was time for Michael’s kickoff to… well, kick off.

And the results were through the roof.

“The Toasters showed up more than I could have asked for with pom-poms and fireworks. From the second that everything started till the very end, the chat was going absolutely bananas. And it wasn't just being excited about the content that they were seeing. It was truly celebrating one another,” he says.

It wasn’t just attendee engagement that was a hit. Their choice of tool was too.

“The visual ratio of presenter to deck or whatever you're presenting was awesome. I also liked the flexibility in the platform —it was super easy to use. I really liked how it pointed people to where they were supposed to be, no matter when you logged into the platform it put you where you're supposed to go. And that's important to me because you want to make this as easy as possible for the user,” he explains.

Post-event: Collect meaningful data

For Michael, the last (but not least) factor was how they’d collect audience data.

Once he’d settled on Goldcast, the answer was simple: The platform would do it all for them.

“The analytics behind the platform were one of my biggest drivers in moving forward,” says Michael. “Because I’m a field marketer at my core, understanding what the overall metrics and engagement looked like throughout the event is so important to me because I immediately go into the lead scoring world.”

Here are the must-have KPIs Michael chooses to measure:

  • Where did they engage (or not)?
  • How many of them went to booths?
  • How many of them went to sessions?
  • Did they go to the whole session?
  • What did they think about those sessions?

The results: 17K+ attendees, 92% attendance, >500 in each breakout room

Michael knew that to understand the event's true impact he’d have to ride the post-event wave, so he created some pulse surveys to tie back to the engagement data they’d gathered via Goldcast.

“We were very prescriptive about the questions we asked based on the goals that we set out to hit through the program — and we saw some really amazing results from it. In my opinion, it helped us as an organization get back together and really understand that we are better together,” explains Michael.

The outcome? Some pretty mind-blowing results.

“We found at the end of the event that we had:
  • A 92% participation rate across all of our main sessions (27% higher than the last in-person kickoff).
  • An average of about 450 to 500 people attend each of the breakouts.
  • About 1,700 attendees.”

Plus, thanks to the Culture Amp pulse surveys, they had some great qualitative data to back up their numbers and prove event ROI.

“For an internal event, it's really difficult to justify the money that you’d normally spend for a customer event. So being able to run the event virtually was really cool for us because we definitely saw the numbers last year [at the in-person kickoff] and we could make estimates, but we didn't have definitives. So, the transition between the two years was a 65% attendance rate in previous years versus 92% at our virtual kickoff this year,” says Michael.

New role, new format, new platform: The start of something special

With this year’s kickoff, Michael had a high stakes situation on his hands — a traditionally in-person event going online, all Toasters in one place, oh… and not to mention Dan Levy showing up.

But with his determined (and dare we say fun) outlook, and his new data-driven virtual event platform, the event couldn’t have gone better. And for Michael, it was just the first step towards ultimate Toaster success.

“It helped us all as an organization get back together and really understand that we are better together,” he says.

And Michael insists he couldn’t have done it without Goldcast.

“We knew that the Goldcast team was with us and that our success was their success. And that is so important to me in a vendor relationship — that they're not just our technology provider but they were truly partnering with us on the event.”

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