St. Louis Startup Geniecast Takes Corporate Holiday Parties Virtual
The annual holiday party is a big deal to Nick Smarrelli.
The CEO of St. Louis-based IT consulting firm GadellNet said it’s the one time of year he’s able to bring all of his employees — from St. Louis and Indianapolis — together to reflect and relax.
“We’re a fast-growing company supporting other fast- growing companies, so the demands on the team are high,” he said. “It’s the one time that all we talk about is happy things.”
With the coronavirus pandemic adding even more pressure to the job, Smarrelli and his executive team decided they needed to find a way to party on — safely. Many companies are finding themselves in a similar predicament this year: How do you re-create the holiday party online, in a way that isn’t painfully awkward?
Keith Alper got a lot of calls about this earlier this month, and that has led to big business for his St. Louis-based startup Geniecast. He launched the company 4½ years ago banking on curated, virtual experiences as the wave of the future.
His business has taken off during the pandemic, as people look for ways to stay engaged from their homes. He said the company has doubled its revenue and the number of employees on staff since March, and it’s still hiring in marketing, booking and other roles.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “I have some other businesses, so I’ve been through this before but not this fast.”
When it comes to planning virtual events, Alper said he asks the company what kind of experience it wants to create, and then his producers make it happen.
“You would never just have a party and not figure out what music you're going to play, what you're going to serve, are you going to have any entertainment, are you going to give any gifts? So you have to really still go through all those things virtually — whatever you're gonna have — if it's a DJ, a magician or five Santas at one time.”
For GadellNet’s virtual holiday party earlier this month, the experience was multidimensional. Employees received boxes at their doors filled with company swag, a bottle of wine and a $50 Grubhub gift card to order in dinner.
They hopped on Zoom to hear Smarrelli give out awards, play company bingo and mingle in breakout rooms. And then there was the entertainment.
“Good Lord, if there’s one thing that we all need in 2020 is humor,” Smarrelli said.
Geniecast booked Missouri-born David Koechner, who starred in the sitcom "The Office" as Michael’s raunchy best friend, Todd Packer. Smarrelli said his sketch was a bit “off-color” at times, but he appreciated the parts that were tailored to company jokes.
“He would randomly call on people, so you got to see people at home on their couch with their families. And even though he made fun of them, everyone was a good sport,” he said.
Smarrelli said the big selling point of working with Geniecast this year was to have a professional team making sure speakers weren’t on mute, videos played on time, and things went smoothly.
“It didn’t feel like an obnoxious Zoom call,” he said.
But post-pandemic, he said he probably wouldn’t do it again. For one, he didn’t save as much money as he had hoped. Plus, there are some traditions that he feels are just better in person.
“It proved out that you can have a good time,” he said. “But the reality is, while I think technology can solve a lot of problems — and I’m totally biased as a tech CEO — it doesn’t replace live banter face-to-face, especially at a holiday party format.”
While some CEOs view virtual events as a temporary solution during the pandemic, Alper believes they’re here to stay. One reason is that speaker fees and celebrity appearances come at a quarter of the cost.
He sees a whole new market in live virtual events — like talking to Super Bowl announcer Joe Buck right after the big game or attending a cooking class with Martha Stewart.
“These are all things we’re doing now, and we couldn't do that without virtual experiences,” he said.
Alper is already looking to level up the experience, with plans to launch events on Oculus virtual reality headsets next year.
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