For the first time in recent memory, Colonials Weekend will be held virtually.
Patty Carocci, the associate vice president of alumni relations and annual giving, said the virtual event will include “key elements” of typical offerings during past Colonials Weekends, like a political discussion on the upcoming election and reunions for classes celebrating an anniversary. Officials have seen success in virtual alumni events over the summer and hope to reach alumni across the globe during the weekend, Carocci said.
“We hope that, while the format is different, we will have a strong turnout, if not greater than we have in past years,” she said in an email. “The virtual format allows alumni and GW community members who are not in the DMV area to participate virtually.”
During the event, which will be held between Thursday, Oct. 1 and Saturday, Oct. 3, alumni will be able to attend programs ranging from alumni celebrations to an auction of Thurston Hall room plates. This year’s event, titled “BYOBB – Bring Your Own Buff & Blue,” is open to all affiliates of GW.
The weekend will also include an update from University President Thomas LeBlanc and Provost Brian Blake, a comedy show hosted by alumna Yvonne Orji, a champagne celebration hosted by the GW Black Alumni Association and a virtual 5K challenge, the event website states.
Carocci said the Thurston plate auction will allow alumni to have a “piece of their GW history.”
“Many alumni who lived there freshman year have a strong affinity and love for Thurston,” she said. “We planned to have a celebration in Thurston prior to the start of the renovation, but the pandemic put a halt to that event.”
She added that GW Alumni Association Executive Committee members will serve as hosts of the event.
Alumni relations experts said virtual alumni weekends may struggle with gaining engagement and donations from attendees compared to in-person events but will likely be here to stay even as the pandemic wanes.
Michael Griffin, the associate vice president for alumni relations at Fordham University, said the biggest goals of an alumni weekend are to increase alumni engagement, steward existing and potential donors and identify new volunteers.
Griffin said virtual events can be beneficial in reducing expenses traditionally associated with in-person events, allowing more people from around the world to attend events that include alumni, faculty and panelists. He said a successful virtual alumni weekend should feature a combination of standard programs taken to the virtual space and a mix of creative and opportunistic programming.
“For many institutions, it will be a process of a trial-and-error,” he said.
Francine Capaldo Lynch, the reunion and class programs associate director at the University of Rochester, said the purpose of an alumni weekend is to connect people with their institutions, but a virtual reunion weekend may not allow those connections to form.
“Although Zoom has made it easier to connect, it still doesn’t come close to the in-person touch that so many of our alumni cherish,” she said. “You truly cannot get the feel of a reunion with only virtual events.”
Lynch said while there may be interest in attending a virtual alumni weekend, many may be hesitant because of “webinar burnout” from participating in extensive virtual events and meetings in recent months.
Dave Schueler, the vice president of alumni engagement at the University of Michigan, said officials should be open to suggestions and feedback from members of a university to host a successful event.
“Any engagement, virtual or otherwise, is better than no engagement,” he said. “But over time, a lot of these events won’t have the same impact as an intimate in-person conversation.”
He said the ability to obtain larger gifts and gauge prospective donors are not available during virtual weekends because alumni don’t have the same opportunities to sit down with university leaders as they would during an in-person event.
“There might be a caution or difficulty in making an ask for donations so there is going to be a revenue shortfall that can impact any institution for years to come,” he said. “That is akin to having an economy right now that is just struggling for the same reason.”
Schueler added that virtual alumni weekends eliminate certain barriers like travel and availability, allowing for more alumni to attend events “even when the world opens back up.”
“It’s giving us a glimpse of what the future holds,” he said.