“The Voters Choice awards exceeded my wildest expectations. Despite not being able to celebrate in -person, the WRAL team truly made this event just as special.”
– WRAL-TV Anchor & WRAL.com Voter’s Choice Awards Co-Host Mikaya Thurmond
The 6th Annual WRAL Voters’ Choice Awards announced the 2020 winners on Thursday, January 14, 2021. WRAL-TV Weekend Anchor/Reporter Mikaya Thurmond and WRAL-TV Meteorologist Kat Campbell co-hosted the event for the first time. The fun took place virtually due to pandemic safety concerns but still gave nominees, winners and voters a chance to gather online to see Triangle businesses recognized and celebrated.
The winners were decided in a months-long process with the nomination period ending October 11, 2020, and the voting ending November 22, 2020, culminating with the announcement of the winners on Thursday, January 14, 2021.
Adapting For a Pandemic
Last year the event took place in the new Union Station in downtown Raleigh with lots of glitter and excitement. But COVID meant not being able to physically gather for the 6th annual VCAs.
“While we were bummed that we couldn’t continue to grow the in-person event this year, we knew it was more important than ever to showcase local businesses,” said WRAL Digital Marketing Director Laura Worthington. “It also allowed us to reach an audience beyond the finalists who attend the in-person event, which has just gotten bigger and bigger.”
Nearly 600 people registered online for the virtual event which was available on WRAL.com, the WRAL news app and WRAL streaming channels.
“My favorite part of the entire celebration was seeing posts from our winners and nominees who held watch parties across the Triangle,” said Thurmond. “So many winners posted the moment we announced their category, and I felt like I was right there celebrating with them. I look forward to next year in-person.”
Besides going virtual, the WRAL VCAs included other new facets this year due to COVID. The team added new categories this year to reflect the pandemic, including Best Small Business and Best Takeout.
The 2021 ceremony also included a co-host. Thurmond, who has now hosted the VCAs for four years, was joined this year for the first time by her friend and WRAL colleague, Kat Campbell.
“Kat Campbell was a wonderful addition to the line-up,” said Thurmond. “Kat was a bright spot in the show.”
Campbell said that hosting duties required a learning curve from her usual weathercasting.
“We pre-recorded the show, and I was so excited to see Mikaya in person!” said Campbell. “She’s a good friend of mine and we haven’t seen each other much during the pandemic. I had never read from a teleprompter (I ad-lib weather) so I honed in that new skill while recording.”
Pre-produced packages from news were also included in the livestream to add variety to the show.
“Also new this year, we announced 3 of the winners in advance on the 9 a.m. news on FOX 50,” said Worthington. “That was really fun to see the live reaction, something we miss from the in-person event, but we also got learn more about the winners.”
Putting Together a Virtual Program
Going virtual meant tackling every aspect of the VCAs in a new way.
“When we have an in-person event, it’s a whole different project with different variables,” explained Worthington. “We had to shift HighSchoolOT Honors very quickly from an in-person event to TV (FOX 50) and streaming last spring due to the pandemic, so we had some experience changing gears; however, VCAs are different than Honors in multiple ways. The biggest difference is that we have about 50 Honors award categories compared to over 100 in VCAs.”
The team put together a program, which was pre-recorded, to release for the watch party on January 14.
“With events of any kind, organizers often end up wearing multiple hats,” said Worthington. “I wrote the script and oversaw graphics, among a variety of other tasks. We were all wearing many hats. WRAL Digital Marketing & Promotions Specialist Shelby Lloyd also played an important role overseeing promotions, helping ensure sponsorships were fulfilled with WRAL Digital Project Manager Jessica Collins. She also was in charge of communication with hundreds of finalists, and she even made special gifts for Mikaya and Kat’s dogs.”
The video from Studio A, along with graphics, then went to a partner for editing. The team then brought the finalized show back in-house for the livestream.
Worthington described the process, and the challenges, of recording:
Some of the new variables we experienced as we tried to execute the virtual event: contact tracing, additional safety measures, schedule changes, a slew of other major projects to juggle and holiday PTO (just to name a few). But we were in good hands with the director, WRAL-TV News Production Manager James Ford, and producer, WRAL-TV News Producer Kelly Riner. As we recorded in Studio A, I sat in Cafe 550 watching the production via in-house cable. I would text James and Kelly input. It was frustrating at times having to communicate that way, but we got it done. James had the foresight to book additional time in the studio for us in case of breaking news, and we ended up needing it.
A Much-Appreciated Spotlight
24,600 people participated in the voting. More than 23,000 nominations were made in the more than 100 categories. Nearly 135,000 votes were cast.
Sponsors were also key in the process.
“We had 25 sponsors!” said Worthington. “Thank you to sales for the big role they played in ensuring that we could continue to recognize local businesses. Special thanks to our sales champion WRAL Digital Account Manager Parker Adams!”
The sponsors and the VCAs themselves helped highlight Triangle businesses, all of which have faced big challenges during the past year.
“Business owners have had such a rough year, and I think it meant a lot to them to be recognized for their hard work and creativity navigating the pandemic,” said Campbell. “We had a lot of positive reactions on social media.”
A Total Team Effort
It took a large team to pull the event together, from the nomination and voting process online to recording and creating the virtual watch party, to livestreaming and connecting on social media.
“Everyone involved had incredible patience, and we all learned new things along the way,” said Worthington. “I think that really speaks to the culture of innovation at CBC. We’re not afraid to try new things, and we just all band together to figure it out. No doubt that mindset has helped us all over the last year when we had to put aside things we’d planned to do, be malleable to change and generally think different.”
Staffers from a wide variety of departments at WRAL-TV and WRAL Digital, from sales to master control to the newsroom to WRAL.com and beyond, participated to create the 6th Annual VCAs.
“Although I was sad to not have been a part of an in-person event, I am so honored to be able to work with a company that can quickly adapt to the circumstance and put together a great virtual event. It could not have been done without the help from every single person that touched it!”
– WRAL Digital Marketing & Promotions Specialist Shelby Lloyd
Although the official event wrapped with the livestream on January 14, the annual VCAs will continue to be a presence.
“We’ll continue to hear more about the winners throughout the year, as WRAL Out & About Editor Kathy Hanrahan leads the charge on stories,” said Worthington. “She was also a huge help the night of the livestream, doing a Facebook Live and then tweeting and posting to Instagram throughout the evening. That helped make it feel a bit more like a traditional event, as we saw photos and videos from winners. We’re still seeing posts using our hashtag days later, and for those of us that work so hard on this every year, that’s a great reminder that what we do is making a positive impact.”
Thanks to WRAL Digital’s Laura Worthington & Shelby Lloyd for these Capcom photos.