When the coronavirus outbreak canceled events, LWR Communities got to work to keep the community connected online.
Monaca Onstad, LWR Communities’ director of community relations, remembers the date everything began to change.
It was March 13, and concerns about the novel coronavirus had begun taking over news outlets and inciting a sense of panic within the community, as well as the nation at large.
Lakewood Ranch is known for its social calendar of events — whether its live monthly Music on Main concerts at Main Street Lakewood Ranch or its farmers market during the fall and winter months.
But almost overnight, socializing had quickly become taboo.
“We started talking about canceling events,” Onstad says. “It was a different time for all of us — the community as a whole. We’re just so used to having social activities, this time to connect.”
But social distancing was about to become mandated — the new “normal.”
And so the pivot began. Instead of simply putting life on hold, Onstad challenged her team to think creatively. What existing partnerships could they leverage? Which partners would need support? How could they create a sense of “normalcy” for residents?
“That was our mission within the time frame of COVID-19 — let’s do what we can,” Onstad says.
The trend toward virtual began. LWR Communities partnered with organizations including Brain Health Initiative to offer virtual “meditation moments” Tuesday mornings and with Anchor Fitness & Performance for “Fit Tip Fridays.”
It even added a Sunday brunch with live music and shifted new resident orientation meetings to a virtual format. A television partnership with WFLA turned into a live Facebook event.
“It’s about being in the same space, all seeing each other on the same screen,” Onstad says of socializing virtually.
Onstad says the results have been solid, the reach of its Facebook posts up 53%. As of May 4, about 150,000 people had participated in 35 virtual events hosted.
Of those, about 70% of viewers are logging in from Florida.
Onstad says the programs are geared toward Lakewood Ranch residents, but anyone is welcome to participate. There are still a wide variety of offerings.
On May 5, Lakewood Ranch hosted a Cinco de Mayo event through its Facebook page. MVP Sports and Social, a partner organization, hosted a virtual happy hour through Zoom. Separately, guests could watch Facebook livestreams for a cocktail-making demonstration and then live music by Tampa-based band La Lucha, which was originally slated to play for the May Music on Main concert that had been canceled.
On Wednesday nights, Ranch Nites Live replaced the traditional Ranch Nites held at the Sarasota Polo Club. Instead of listening to live music and eating from food trucks stationed at the Sarasota Polo Club, participants were encouraged to get takeout from a local restaurant as they listened to live music virtually.
“We tried our best to be able to do things like that to bring together all the elements of something like Ranch Nites into your own home,” Onstad says.
Onstad commended the creativity of MVP Sports and Social Founder Chris McComas, who found a way to have people play cornhole virtually.
McComas says players use their cellphones and a laptop, both logged into a Zoom meeting, to show themselves throwing a shot as well as where their beanbag lands. McComas moderates, so players each take a turn. More than 60 people participated in a cornhole event.
He also had more than 260 people participate in his Quarantine Cup, a series of events each week where people can earn points by participating and winning — all after just one Facebook post and an e-blast.
“I feel that’s a pretty telling sign,” McComas says. “That tells you people still want their social life.”
Events ranged from a hot dog eating contest to trivia and Family Feud.
Onstad says virtual programming isn’t as easy as one might think. It’s challenging to make sure clips are produced correctly and that there are no glitches when events go live. Even simple things like a countdown timer have to be programmed.
Onstad herself had to increase her Wi-Fi speed at home to make sure there would be no hiccups when it came time for events to go live.
“There’s so many more things that could go wrong,” she says.
It’s still too early to tell how long Lakewood Ranch will continue with virtual programming, Onstad says, but no live events currently are planned for summer.
For now, she’s envisioning that virtual events might continue as part of Lakewood Ranch’s regular lineup, though maybe not with the same frequency as social distancing guidelines are lessened.
“It’s opened up a lot of possibilities,” she says.