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Black Tie Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 5 months ago

Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation pulls off virtual gala

Staff switched to an online format shortly before the gala's debut.
by: Harry Sayer Staff Writer

They would have nine work days.

That was one of the first thoughts that popped into Sally Schule’s head when she was told her nonprofit’s upcoming 2022 Hospital Gala was switching from an in-person to a virtual format. 

It wasn’t an unheard-of move. Schule and the rest of the staff at the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation had switched their annual fundraiser — which hosts more than 500 people in The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota ballroom and often raises more than a million dollars for Sarasota Memorial Hospital services — to be a streaming event last year.

But there were a few months of prep before that show. Here the decision was made on Dec. 24 — right before Christmas. Schule, the director of community and donor engagement with SMHF, was on a long car ride back to Sarasota from Georgia when she was told that almost everything for the event on Jan. 8 would need to be changed. 

“I hopped in the back seat (with my laptop) and told my husband I had some work to do,” Schule says. 

What followed was a flurry of activity to make the rapidly approaching event a success. That involved contacting the 450-plus attendees for the nearly sold out gala, coordinating with vendors to regroup around the new format, and even writing a script for an hourlong program showing the impact of the local hospital. 

By all accounts, the finished production went well, Schule says. The 2022 Hospital Gala on Jan. 8 raised more than $1.1 million in funds for the hospital’s Critical Care services.

But it was a challenging nine days to get to that point. 


Starting Again

Work on the 2022 Hospital Gala started shortly after the 2021 event finished, with hope among staff that a return to an in-person event would be possible. Schule, SMHF Director of Communications Ticia Mahler and others continued working through the months before having to eventually face the reality that the surging omicron variant would make it impossible.

“Looking out and getting a feel for what was happening with the variant, we thought it was best to go virtual,” SMHF President Mason Ayres says. 

“The hospital is a leader in the pandemic to some degree. It’s a trusted source of information,” Mahler says. “Anybody looking at the numbers (would think), ‘How would it look to have this event and have something not go well?’ It’s a belief on behalf of the hospital to lead in these situations.”

The good news was that after planning out and executing the 2021 event, the nonprofit had the virtual event template: a talk show featuring Ayres, Sarasota Memorial Hospital President and CEO David Verinder and gala Chairwoman Ariane Dart in the Ritz ballroom. Staff planned a virtual segment to complement the 2022 gala from the outset this time around. 

The bad news was they had little more than a week to pull it all off. The decision was made at a particularly challenging time where many of the vendors and attendees alike were harder to contact from Christmas through New Year's Day. 

“We hit that trigger (letting attendees know) first thing Monday morning after Christmas,” Schule says. “For some (vendors), their people were all gone through Jan. 3.”

For Schule, that meant sitting down and working through a wave of emails and connections to reconfigure the event and working with vendors. The audio and video teams were in close contact in setting up the talk show space in The Ritz, while Schule coordinated with Michael’s On East to provide charcuterie boards for ticket buyers. All in all, she estimates around 2% of attendees requested a refund. 

SMHF staff worked with an audio and video company to make sure the event ran smoothly. Courtesy photo.

She chalks up the existing virtual playbook as the reason she and staff got it all done. 

“If we didn’t have that template, there would be no way,” Schule says. 


Putting On A Show

Mahler and Community Engagement Specialist Rachel Williamson worked on writing up a script for the show, which would heavily focus on Ayres, Dart and Verinder to entertain the viewing audience. It was important to all involved that the show be no longer than an hour, though Schule says she aimed to have it be closer to 55 minutes. 

A grace note was that the foundation had already filmed video segments of hospital care and health workers from before omicron surged that were to be played at the live gala. It was easy — and helpful — to roll those into the talk show production. 

Ayres, for his part, spent time preparing to act as host for the talk show rather than a brief speaker at the in-person event. 

“It’s really different than being up on stage and speaking for one or two minutes,” Ayres says. “Now we’re on stage and have to have content that’s interesting and I have to be interesting in some ways.”

SMHF President David Ayres, gala chairwoman Ariane Dart and Sarasota Memorial Hospital President and CEO David Verinder served as the night's hosts. Courtesy photo.

The gala presentation went well, with the hosts keeping people watching and having a band energetically perform even without a live audience. Guests were able to donate live during the event and the number ticked into the hundreds of thousands during the hour. 

A quiet joke of it all was by the afternoon of Jan. 7, the day before the show, Schule and Mahler had finished much of what they’d needed to do. The two joined staff at the Ritz in watching video and audio tests for the show, both enjoying the moment of rest while being excited for the night to come. 

Schule says at one point Williamson noted how little there was left to do. It gave Schule an idea for what to do next.

“I told (Williamson) to clear her email,” Schule says. “There’s work to be done on (upcoming SMHF event) Rock The Roof.”

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