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As social distancing remains a necessity, organizers of major fundraising and networking events that normally bring together large groups of people are having to adapt and dramatically rethink their approach and logistics.

Such events include galas, conferences, bike rides, and walkathons. Some leaders initially considered scrapping their 2020 editions entirely, but all five contacted by The ACCJ Journal said they are pressing ahead with—or have already held—mostly virtual experiences. They came to the decision because they believe maintaining the tradition and connecting people—even if at a distance—is important at a time when so many of us are feeling more isolated.

“These types of events have enough value that something needs to be done,” said Erin Sakakibara, chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Chubu chapter’s Community Service Committee. She leads the ACCJ/NIS Chubu Walkathon, which was held in Nagoya on May 24. “These events become part of the fabric of the community, so having a virtual event—although not the ideal choice—is important for continuity.” That sentiment was echoed by this year’s Walkathon tagline, “The show must go on!”

The ACCJ Charity Ball, normally a huge group gathering, is going online this year.

But this can’t be done without a lot of extra work—the main downside cited by all organizers. Yuka Nakamura, vice-chair of the ACCJ-Kansai Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Committee, estimates she’s invested more than twice as much time and energy as last year in helping coordinate the D&I Summit.

Fearing that participants would have trouble staying focused and motivated for six hours on Webex, she and fellow organizers have broken the event that previously took place as a large all-day gathering, as the Women in Business (WIB) Summit, into three two-hour seminars on successive Wednesdays—October 21, 28, and November 5.

The approach may make the expe­rience easier on attendees, but it has meant finding three keynote speakers instead of one, as well as additional leaders for the plenary and breakout sessions. Figuring out the logistics of filming and broadcasting the speeches, and how to handle Q&As and smaller group discussions, has also required innovative thinking. “It’s been a lot of work,” Nakamura said.

Ultimately, after intense debate over three months, the D&I Summit organizing team decided to hold the event mostly for philosophical reasons—because doing so would benefit partici­pants. “We thought people need more diversity and inclusion to live in a post-Covid life,” said Nakamura. “Managing business in an inclusive way online is harder than doing it face-to-face.” Modeling and addressing that through the event was important.

The lack of personal interaction is obviously another negative. Networking opportunities were a big draw for participants at past WIB Summits, but this year that won’t be possible. However, enthusiasm and participation for this year’s seminar is the highest ever, with about 320 people registered so far—much higher than last year’s 224, Nakamura said.

She attributes the increase to a wider recognition among participants about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the new remote work style, that three two-hour online sessions are easier to join than a six-hour gathering and appealing speakers and programs each day.

There have been other positives, such as lower costs and over­heads, with no need to rent space or pro­vide refresh­ments. So that’s less work and, for fundraisers, means more money to give away.

The events can also draw from a geographically wider scope of participants, who can join from anywhere in the world.

“We don’t need to think about a location,” said Nakamura. “Before, the audience and speakers had to come to Kansai. But now it’s a virtual event, so people from Tokyo, Hokkaido, or Kyushu can join.”

One of the earliest case studies that showed how large-scale annual events can still be successfully staged amid the pandemic was the Chubu Walkathon. The event, which has morphed in recent years into an outdoor festival with food and drink stands, as well as musicians performing on a stage, was con­verted into a broadcast on Facebook that included live and recorded enter­tain­ment, people popping in to talk, and live commentary by two emcees alternating between English and Japanese.

People were en­cour­aged to walk on their own and share the number of steps they took, and to post videos or photos on social media with the hashtag #Walkathon29. Prizes were given to those who walked the farthest. At any given time, more than 100 people were watching the event unfold, Sakakibara said, and the recording went on to have several thousand views. The event was truly global as well, with participants joining from the United States and elsewhere.

Through T-shirt sales and online donations, the 2020 Walkathon raised ¥6 million—the same as last year—for children’s homes in the Nagoya area and other charities.

The Walkathon combined real-world and virtual activities.

“It somehow worked,” said Sakakibara, who is also development coordinator at Nagoya International School, co-organizer of the event. “It went off without a hitch.”

Overcoming the challenges and obstacles—not letting Covid-19 defeat them—infused the Walkathon Executive Committee with an invigorating feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment—something others mentioned as well. “When it was done, there was this feeling of ‘We did this, we didn’t let coronavirus stop the show,’” Sakakibara said. “And we got a lot of really good feedback. It was a great feeling.”

The Knights in White Lycra (KIWL), a fundraising group that counts a number of ACCJ members among its peloton, has also had to alter its events but has found participants enthusiastic. Formed in 2012 to raise money for children affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, the group now supports a variety of charities for children.

Rob Williams, the group’s chairman and co-founder, said he’s been “gobsmacked” by the positive response from cyclists who agreed to switch from the traditional group ride up north to riding 500 kilometers on their own, or in small groups.

Knights in White Lycra

Of the 42 riders who had signed up for the ride, 35 are putting in kilometers on their own. Each is paying ¥5,000 to participate, and all that money goes to the charity YouMeWe, which supports children’s homes across Japan by teaching kids digital skills.

“The riders are obviously very happy to be challenged to do something on a virtual basis,” said Williams, a partner at financial planning company AP Advisers Ltd. “I think this virtual cycle ride is going to stick, in addition to the main in-person ride.”

KIWL also had to adjust its annual 50-kilometer fundraising run up the Arakawa River in eastern Tokyo. Participants are being asked to run that distance on their own during November. The group also has held pub quizzes to raise money and hopes to do another online by Christmas.

The main drawback of doing the run individually is that participants won’t be able to visit a children’s home in Saitama Prefecture at the end. Normally, they join a party there with the kids. “That’s the connection we’re going to miss by going virtual,” Williams said.

The annual Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC), a seven-month training program that gives participants an oppor­tunity to write an actual business plan for a real-world client, went hybrid as Covid-19 struck in March—participants could attend lectures in person or interact remotely online—and will resume that choice for the next program.

The program normally attracts 50–60 participants, but the number attending lectures in person will be limited to about 30, and they must pass a temperature screening, wear a mask, and sit spaced out across a large room, said JMEC Chair Tom Whitson, who is an ACCJ president emeritus. “We don’t want to kill anybody. We want to offer some alternatives, but we’re going to try to do things sensibly.”

The program, which in recent years has drawn participants from more than a dozen countries, starts in November with Saturday full-day lectures and workshops given by experienced business executives. These sessions will run through April. In January, participants will be divided into teams of four to six and given an actual product for which they must devise a business plan for the Japanese market. The teams will pitch their plans to a panel of judges in May and awards will be announced in June.

It will be up to each team to figure out how they will commu­nicate and work together on their projects—either by meeting in person or through video calls, Whitson said.

Participation in the competition may decline, although, historically, interest in the program has usually risen “when people are concerned about their continued employment prospects,” Whitson said. “This year, the circumstances about your continued em­ploy­ment is certainly high, and I would expect more interest in JMEC because of that.”

Perhaps the biggest fundraising event on the ACCJ’s calendar is the annual Charity Ball, which will be held this year on December 5. Transforming what is normally an evening extra­vaganza of food, drink, dance, and networking into a two-hour virtual event has been a major undertaking for Charity Ball Committee Vice-chairs Lori Hewlett and Kevin Naylor, and Chair Barbara Hancock.

“The team has known how to put this together year in and year out, so we’ve become fairly efficient at it. But this is the first time I’ve ever done it virtually, so there are new challenges,” said Hancock, who has led the committee for 12 years. “We’re reinventing fun every day.”

The program is all taking shape in the cloud, inspired by the theme Welcome to Remote Paradise. The goal is to create an online experience that will be a mixture of live and pre-created segments—entertainment from musicians and perhaps some comedians, messages from our president and other VIPs, a silent auction, and a live raffle, all hosted by moderators in a virtual studio.

“It will be more of a Saturday Night Live format,” Hancock explained, referring to the legendary television variety show that has aired in the United States since 1975. “Kind of a comedy routine with a couple of emcees, and then we break away for our different entertainers throughout the evening. “We are putting all our energy into realizing the new normal for social engagement.”

Arranging the music for the gala is a daunting challenge. Live streaming from various locations is too expensive and difficult, so the team must find a location where the musicians can record, mix, and edit the performances to be broadcast online during the ball.

Working out all these challenges is where the 2020 ACCJ Charity Ball will be charting new territory to raise funds to help the community while also embracing the chamber’s growing digital focus.

In addition to assisting charities such as English counseling service TELL and Second Harvest, which provides food for the homeless, one of the Charity Ball’s key goals this year is to help local restaurants and musicians who have had long relationships with the ACCJ and have suffered during the pandemic. “Many musicians haven’t been able to do anything because of Covid-19,” Hancock said. “So, we want to support them.”

Without a physical event that requires catering, organizers will promote menus from the restaurants that would normally be supporting the Charity Ball—including Soul Food House and Bistro Vino—and encouraging participants to order food from them on the night of the ball.

For attendees, a perk of the reduced overhead is that the cost of admission this year is just ¥2,500 for members and ¥3,000 for non-members—a fraction of last year’s ¥28,000. Hancock hopes to draw about the same number of guests as in past years, about 350, and that it can raise at least ¥5–6 million.

“Our focus is raising funds for our charities, and supporting these local restaurants and entertainers who have helped us through the years in so many ways,” she said. “And to be able to have a two-hour show that may not be entirely perfect, but will leave people saying, ‘That was kind of fun!’”

Malcolm Foster is a freelance journalist who has been covering Japan for more than a decade.
No need to rent space or provide refreshments . . . means more money to give away.