As community practitioners, we often serve communities that we don’t necessarily belong to. But how would you approach designing a community platform, events, and policies for a demographic that you don’t belong to? Alexa Wahr, the COO of Revel, a community for women over 40, says that she and her co-founder build by putting their community first. “We absolutely listen to our members. We don’t try to pretend like we know what exactly our members are going through or what it’s like to be a woman in their life. That doesn’t mean that we can’t help to build the community and build the tools that help them connect.”
In this episode of Community Signal, Alexa shares how the policies that govern the platform, Revel’s approach to safety during the pandemic, and Revel’s acquisition of The Woolfer, are all grounded in putting their members’ needs, safety, and experiences first.
Alexa also discusses how Revel, an in-person events-based community, shifted entirely to virtual events in light of the pandemic. Through this model, Revel members have continued to have meaningful interactions, build friendships, and support one another through COVID-19.
Alexa and Patrick also discuss:
- How Revel is encouraging their event hosts to stay safe now that in-person events have resumed
- Revel’s plans to introduce paid events into their community
- The differences between the Revel and Woolfer communities and how they’re balancing the needs for both
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Building the Revel community with member needs first (5:10): “We don’t try to pretend like we know what exactly our members are going through or what it’s like to be a woman in their life. That doesn’t mean that we can’t help to build the community and build the tools that help them connect.” –@alexawahr
Virtual events are impactful and here to stay (12:20): “We’ve seen that over [virtual meetings], you can actually form really deep connections. We now have members who have formed really great friendships across the country. Can’t wait to travel to meet one another. … [I’m] happy to say that virtual events are definitely here to stay. We have yet to see what the final balance of in-person versus virtual events will be at scale, but certainly, a large percentage of our events will continue to be virtual.” –@alexawahr
Fostering the events that Revel members want (14:50): “If our members start to perceive that going to a Revel event is being pushed products or services in a sneaky way, they simply won’t come back. We take it very seriously and really err on the side of our members first and our hosts secondary when it comes to violations like that.” –@alexawahr
On the future of Revel (24:40): “[Revel is] a community for women over 40. The community shares that identity and we’re about making connections, finding friendships, supporting one another, and really bringing light to women in midlife and all of the amazing things that they’re doing. That doesn’t mean that women within the community don’t have their own interests, feelings, and identities and allowing every woman over 40 to join Revel, but then find her niche, her group within the community, is also something that we think will be a big part of what Revel is and [we’re] excited to build that out.” –@alexawahr
About Alexa Wahr
Alexa Wahr is the co-founder and COO of Revel Gatherings. Previously, Alexa was a senior director in operations at health insurance startup Bright Health. Prior to Bright Health, Alexa worked in strategy and business development for Target and was an healthcare investment banking analyst at Piper Jaffray. Alexa has a BBA from Emory University and a MBA from Harvard Business School.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Alexa Wahr on Twitter
- Revel Gatherings
- Nina Collins, founder of The Woolfer
- Nina Collins on Community Signal: Moving a Community for Women Over 40 From Facebook Groups to a Paid Subscription App and Building Inclusive Communities, Workplaces, and an Inclusive Profession
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We’re joined by Alexa Wahr, co-founder of Revel, a community for women in their 40s, 50s, and beyond. We’re discussing creating community with the demographic that you weren’t a part of, how they shifted from 100% in-person events to virtual events overnight when COVID hit, and their plans to introduce paid event hosts into a community built around volunteer hosts.
Thank you to Jenny Weigel, Aaron H., and Paul Bradley for supporting our show via Patreon. If you’d like to join them, visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Alexa Wahr is a co-founder and COO of Revel Gatherings. Previously, Alexa was a senior director of operations at health insurance startup Bright Health. Prior to Bright Health, Alexa worked in strategy and business development for Target and was a healthcare investment banking analyst at Piper Jaffray. Alexa has a BBA from Emory University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Alexa, welcome to the show.
[00:01:43] Alexa Wahr: Hi, great to be here.
[00:01:21] Patrick O’Keefe: When I talked with you and your co-founder Lisa Marrone before the show, you both talked about building community for a demographic that you yourself are not a part of, but that is core to the community’s purpose in an authentic and respectful way. How did you approach that?
[00:01:36] Alexa Wahr: It’s a great question. I think what’s funny is that when Lisa and I started thinking about building Revel, it wasn’t something that we necessarily were thinking about upfront. We just saw a problem that we wanted to dig into and start to solve. It wasn’t until we started getting questions of women who came to us and they were in their midlife and saying, “I absolutely love what you’re building, but why would two women who are in their early thirties choose to do this?” I think from there, we just realized that we needed to approach it from a really honest and upfront standpoint, which is we started talking with women who are in midlife and realize that there was something that we could help build with the skillset that we had developed over the years, like going to business school, having some experience in tech, to begin with. We’re going to be women in midlife in not too long. Making our community realize that we’re building this completely from an authentic standpoint, we are not women who want to be in the forefront and necessarily known at every meeting or talked about. We want to be behind the scenes, building the technology, building the platform that allows members to connect, get to know one another, build community. I think we just approached it in that way, putting it out there. Our community knows us, but they also know that we don’t try to participate as if we are a part of the community.
[00:03:14] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve seen this play out in different ways. I think it varies by demographic and who you’re serving. Some audiences might feel less inclined to trust or want to contribute to a platform where the audience that the community’s focused on isn’t the one owning and operating the community. Certain demographics make a lot of sense. I think this one makes sense to me, although I’m not in that demographic so it’s not really for me to say.
In my own life, I manage a community of martial artists, I have for 20 years, I’m not a martial artist. I think that the way to approach that is always, like you said, to just be clear about that, and then people can decide for themselves. I’ve never hidden that, I’ve always been super clear about that. I don’t participate sharing my martial arts expertise. I’m very clear on what that is, who I am, and what I bring to the table.
Then I rely on a great team of volunteers that I have, some of which had been with me for 10, one for 15 plus years and they’re martial artists. In those cases where I need that, to tap into that expertise, those are the people I trust. People who know the martial arts that can help me and guide me. I’ve also been in jobs where we would have a distributed remote team globally, and someone would complain to one of the executives about us having someone in a foreign country and wonder why they’re not in America. Then those business owners would have that person change their LinkedIn to appear not to be in that country. I’ve seen people try to hide things and I’ve seen people be outright honest about it. It seems obvious, but it’s always better to put things out there rather than let people discover them later.
[00:04:44] Alexa Wahr: It’s interesting because my mind often goes to this fact, which is someone, a physician or a scientist is developing a new drug or technology, medical technology. Most people don’t say, “Oh, you can’t develop that drug for diabetes unless you have diabetes.” I think Lisa and I feel about it in a similar way, which is, we absolutely listen to our members. We don’t try to pretend like we know what exactly our members are going through or what it’s like to be a woman in their life. That doesn’t mean that we can’t help to build the community and build the tools that help them connect.
I think in addition to that, there’s something special about the intergenerational piece of this, which is, I think a lot of women are members that we’ve talked to who are in midlife are excited to connect with the next generation below them and instill in us the wisdom and just help educate us on what to expect when you get to this time in your life. How you can prepare for it and help support the cause. This is a demographic that is marginalized in a lot of ways. The more that women or men who are in it or not in it can come together to bring light to it and help support women at this time in their life, I think is a great thing. I think our members do that too.
[00:06:11] Patrick O’Keefe: This is a platform that only recently launched online discussion groups and was substantially built around in-person events and founded in August 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic would hit. I want to talk about COVID in really two parts. I think the first part is the first year of COVID before most people would have been able to get vaccinated and it was frankly unsafe for people to meet in person, especially given that a substantial portion of your community would have been at a higher risk group. When COVID hit early on, how did your efforts shift?
[00:06:41] Alexa Wahr: It’s a great question, and really they shifted overnight. In March of 2019 when the lockdown hit, which San Francisco, where we’re located, the Bay Area was the first city really to put in a quarantine order. We could deal with it right away, and of course, we put our member’s safety first, which was all in-person events were shut down on the platform. That was step one.
Then step two was immediately thinking through how do we help our members continue to connect? Not only to help our business survive and pivot, which is of course important but more importantly, we have a lot of members who don’t live with families, who aren’t living close by the people that they can really lean on. People whose most of their interactions were going to work every day and now they aren’t. It was most important to figure out how we can help support everyone, our members during this really difficult time when there is so much fear and uncertainty.
What that looked like was immediately putting on our website some Zoom meetings, some virtual meetings, and of course, I’m sure a lot of in-person communities did the same thing. What we realized is that it was something our members immediately gravitated to just being able to get on. We saw two separate event types start to bubble up very quickly. One was, I don’t want to talk about COVID. I want to go and be a part of a group. I want to play games and get my mind off of everything scary that’s going on in the outside world, and the other set that really wanted to talk about it. I don’t want to ignore the fact that I can’t see my kids. I’m scared about my parents, all of those things.
We just shifted our in-person events to virtual ones and the members as they do. I think I’ll mention that we are at events platform, that our events are created by our members, and so we just let our members create the events that they wanted and members could sign up for those. We shifted our engineering time to building out capabilities to allow for easy virtual events to be integrated with Zoom, and we’re off to the races.
[00:09:00] Patrick O’Keefe: I think, at the time, it was the right decision. Looking back, it’s even more so the right decision. Not to be too black and white, but I tend to think that folks who had businesses that revolve so heavily around in-person meetups, there were two choices. You either did the right thing or lives were lost. It’s hard to look at it that way, but that’s how it was, so in that moment, I think that’s the right decision, the right thing to do.
Let’s talk about where we are now. According to Bloomberg, a little over 60.7% of the US population is now covered by vaccination. I am sure that percentage goes up in the areas where Revel has its strongest footing, major cities in the West Coast, and places like where I live in Los Angeles and Southern California. What are you telling your hosts now when it comes to responsibly meeting in person?
[00:09:41] Alexa Wahr: First and foremost, we require that all hosts follow any local and federal guidelines in terms of mask mandates and or showing vaccinations if you’re going inside, especially here in San Francisco, where that’s required. Beyond that, we really allow our hosts to dictate the level of safety that they really want at their events. What that has manifested as is that most hosts who are hosting an in-person event, which is still a small percentage of our events on the platform today. I think it’s about 20%. Majority of hosts are only hosting outdoor hikes or going to a restaurant where they’re seated outside and they require that anyone who’s going to attend needs to be vaccinated. We fully support that. We obviously believe in all those that can get vaccinated should and allowing our hosts, who are hosting events to feel as safe as possible. That’s really where we’re at. I would say majority of our in-person events require vaccination.
[00:10:41] Patrick O’Keefe: It sounds like to me requiring that they respect local regulations, ordinances put in place as sort of a minimum safety requirement. Then if they want to be even stricter than that, then they’re supported in doing so.
[00:10:52] Alexa Wahr: That’s correct.
[00:14:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause here to talk about our generous sponsor, Vanilla.
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You said about 20% are now in person, which is a healthy number, I would say at this stage. Before COVID, was it 100%? Did you have any virtual events at all?
[00:11:33] Alexa Wahr: It was 100% before COVID, which is actually really interesting because when Lisa and I started Revel, and what we heard from others was there was this belief that genuine connections and community are best formed face-to-face in person. We felt very strongly that our events should be in person, that that’s how we were going to build our community. I’m happy to say that we were proven at least somewhat wrong after the launch of virtual events in that we still do believe that there is something wrong with the Facebook social media model of just being behind a screen and one in a million people that you’re not really getting to know on the platform.
We’ve seen that over Zoom and connecting a virtual meeting, you can actually form really deep connections. We now have members who have formed really great friendships across the country. Can’t wait to travel to meet one another. Also, people are happy to meet from the comfort of their own home on a Friday night happy hour or chit-chat on a Sunday afternoon. Happy to say that virtual events are definitely here to stay. We have yet to see what the final balance of in-person versus virtual events will be at scale, but certainly, a large percentage of our events will continue to be virtual.
[00:13:03] Patrick O’Keefe: Even before safety considerations, you have host guidelines for hosting events, expectations that you have for people who want to use your platform to get together with other people. How do you handle host misconduct or what’s your process for receiving a report investigating it? How do you look at that?
[00:13:16] Alexa Wahr: That’s a good question because we actually have been continually updating this. When we first launched the platform, we noticed right away that a lot of women or a lot of hosts that came onto the platform had a service or a product that they were looking to sell. That really is not the purpose of Revel. The purpose of Revel is social first, community first, getting together sharing information, really to support the community and not to make money. As we saw this happening, we realized that we needed to put real guidelines in place.
[00:13:51] Patrick O’Keefe: We didn’t want to inadvertently get invited to a Tupperware party.
[00:13:54] Alexa Wahr: Exactly. We understand that there are certain services that our members are looking for. If it’s a one-on-one conversation and a member has reached out to another member saying, “I noticed that you’re a divorce attorney. I’m looking for one,” we more than support that type of connection and conversations and taking sort of that business off platform. If we get a report that a host has put up an event and was hiding the fact that she was selling something and is pushing a product, if she doesn’t have any other events up on the calendar, we’ll reach out to her. We’ll simply have discussion with her, first and foremost, around making sure she understands the guidelines.
If she does have an event up, we usually put it on pause until we talk to her because it’s really important for the quality of our community. If our members start to perceive that going to a Revel event is being pushed products or services in a sneaky way, they simply won’t come back. We take it very seriously and really err on the side of our members first and our hosts secondary when it comes to violations like that.
[00:15:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Sticking with money for a second, so far, events have typically been hosted by Revel or by volunteers, but you are planning to launch Revel Experts, a paid tier of hosts in the first quarter of 2022. Can you talk about that?
[00:15:21] Alexa Wahr: Correct. We’re really excited about it and this goes back to we know that there are certain services that our members are looking for and potentially willing to pay for. We really want to have a distinction between what is social and for fun and not about money. Then really test out things like yoga classes or healthy eating workshops, things where there’s a professional who has real experience. We know that our members would be potentially willing to pay for that type of workshop or service. We’re going to start out small and TBD on what exactly those events will be and who will be running them.
We’re excited to give a place for women who deserve to make money based on the services that they’re providing, be able to do so on our platform because we also really want to support the women who are in midlife that maybe were pushed out of the workforce at a larger corporation and has started an amazing company on their own. We have a lot of entrepreneurs and we absolutely want to help support those women in their businesses that way.
[00:16:31] Patrick O’Keefe: Have you started to talk to potential hosts who might be a part of the program?
[00:16:36] Alexa Wahr: We have here and there, we haven’t officially launched it that’s coming in the next month or two so it’s been very general conversation, no deep ones yet.
[00:16:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think it’ll mostly be members who you know right now who are part of the community or are you also looking at say I don’t know there’s chains of yoga studios, for example?
[00:16:52] Alexa Wahr: TBD on what the breakdown will be, I anticipate it’ll probably be a mix of both. I think first and foremost, we want to support our members that are in the community and so that is going to be where we start. If we know that there’s a type of activity or service that our members are really interested in and there doesn’t seem to be a member currently who’s the right fit for the Revel Expert, we certainly will go out and try to find that person to come on in.
[00:17:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Is there a risk that paid events could make other events or just events as a whole seem more transactional especially to newer members?
[00:17:26] Alexa Wahr: There’s always some risk in it. I think that the way that we’re designing the program, we hope to minimize that risk and that when you come to the Revel website it will be very clear what the purpose of Revel is. It’s about community first, it’s about women getting to know one another, supporting one another, having fun. Then there’s a separate section on the site where if you’re looking for deeper education or deeper support you can go to for it. A lot of it has to do with the messaging and really design of the website of how we roll it out.
[00:17:58] Patrick O’Keefe: When I was thinking through the challenge and the opportunity that this thing represents, I found myself thinking about how to continue to incentivize people to host free events on the platform and not getting lost in the paid events. I don’t know if you’ve given that much thought but does that bring up any ideas, spur any thoughts, it’s something that you’re pondering as you figure out how to lay it out and design the offering?
[00:18:21] Alexa Wahr: What I think is potentially surprising about it is that what we see from the hosts who are hosting today is that majority of them are motivated 100% from an intrinsic value. They are excited to go on that hike and they want other women who are interested in it to go on it with them as well. Or sharing a book club or a movie screening and they really don’t care about making money or necessarily other incentives.
I will say that the biggest incentive is really recognition and not to the broader community, but simply getting a piece of feedback or a note from someone who attended your event that says, “That was absolutely incredible, thank you so much for putting that on. You’re wonderful. I love meeting the other women that were there,” is really what we’re looking for. We want to know that we’re helping other people that they had a good time. The more that we can make sure that women are getting that feedback understand how they are valued in the community is really where we’re focusing.
[00:19:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I can see the downside of what I’m about to ask because you don’t want people who host a free event to get really bad, nasty feedback and get discouraged by it. Do you facilitate that process at all of requesting feedback and then sharing that feedback with the person who hosted the event so that they could have that moment of reward that you’re talking about?
[00:19:48] Alexa Wahr: Yes, we do. The process isn’t perfect yet and it’s something that we’re actually working on now. We do have a automated feedback loop that comes just in the form of an email after you attended an event, “Is there anything you’d like to share with your host?” We get that and then the process is manual today, share that feedback out to our hosts. We’re hoping to make it automated in the future. Exactly how that process works is to be defined, but it is something that’s hugely important to our hosts. We know that getting that feedback is really what keeps them going in terms of hosting more events.
[00:20:24] Patrick O’Keefe: I could see the value of that being manual. Manual in the sense that you need to read the negative too because it could be the way that you find out if someone should be hosting events. You want to read the positives so that you can share that as well.
[00:20:36] Alexa Wahr: Exactly. Yes, and sometimes the feedback has nothing to do with the host. I couldn’t find the Zoom link and the website was difficult to navigate. Not that we get a lot of those but happens from time to time. When it has nothing to do with the host, we filter those ones out as well.
[00:20:53] Patrick O’Keefe: In August, Revel announced that they had acquired The Woolfer which was founded by Nina Collins, who has been on the show a couple of times and I like Nina a lot. That’s why we’re talking because I had reached out to her for guest ideas and she mentioned Lisa, which led me to you, and in our pre-show conversation, I’m going to quote you. You told me that, “We are currently in the process of bringing a separate community, The Woolfer, onto the Revel platform. One that is on average, a little younger, more East Coast-based compared to our majority West Coast-based membership, and has a different culture. The Woolfer have a strong identity with their community and our Revelers do too. How do we create one overarching community and identity for these groups while allowing them to keep their individual identities as well?” You mentioned the different cultures. How do you see those two communities culturally?
[00:21:41] Alexa Wahr: Yes, that’s a great question. I would say, and not to stereotype the West Coast versus the East Coast. In simplest terms, I think our West Coast members are a little bit more laid back.
[00:21:53] Patrick O’Keefe: I lived on the East Coast my whole life until three and a half years ago. I still take crosswalks like a New Yorker.
[00:21:57] Alexa Wahr: Yes, exactly, exactly. Woolfer community is a little bit more East Coast. They’re a little bit louder and out there. The number one word we sort huddled on that we realized is the biggest difference between the two communities is really around candor and so The Woolfer community really values their ability to say what they think, when they’re thinking it and not filter themselves. I would say our Revel community is a little bit more reserved in that regard. That would be the main thing that we’ve been monitoring as we bring the two groups together and really been thinking through about, how do we make sure that the collective gets along and feels like a community while of course allowing our members to be who they are? Authenticity is actually one of the values that both of us – The Woolfer community and the Revel community had independently before we ever started conversations.
[00:23:01] Patrick O’Keefe: As you try to create that overarching community and identity for these groups, while allowing them to keep their selves, backing up to the platform perspective and platform design, how have you started to incorporate The Woolfer into Revel and how do you see that playing out in the short term?
[00:23:20] Alexa Wahr: Yes, one of the main things and features that we wanted to have launched by the time we brought The Woolfer community on, and I’ll say that with brought The Woolfer community in a beta fashion, their original app is still running and will be shut down in the next few months or so. When we brought them over, we wanted to make sure that we had launched our groups feature, which is brand new area on the site where women can launch a group based on any topic or interest, and then other members can join that group. It’s a little bit like a discussion board where people can comment, post photos, share events, and be together within that interest area. We launched groups with Woolfer being one of the main ones that is part of our beta testing.
The Woolfers have been able to come on to the Revel platform and experience Revel as it is today in its entirety, see all the events, meet other members, browse through our directory, while also then being able to go and join the specific Woolfer group within the broader Revel group. That’s really our intention as we grow Revel into the future, which is we’re a community for women over 40. The community shares that identity and we’re about making connections, finding friendships, supporting one another, and really bringing light to women in midlife and all of the amazing things that they’re doing. That doesn’t mean that women within the community don’t have their own interests, feelings, and identities and allowing every woman over 40 to join Revel , but then find her niche, her group within the community is also something that we think will be a big part of what Revel is and are excited to build that out.
[00:25:18] Patrick O’Keefe: We talked a little bit about what Revel was pre-COVID, the initial vision, however you like to term it and the transition after, and leaning more into virtual events. It sounds at first like a lot of people, how can we make this work right now without programming something entirely new? Let’s do Zoom calls. Let’s get to use our existing event platform and then make it better. Now you’re launching discussion groups on the platform, leaning more into online engagement over the internet versus face-to-face.
Is that something that you think will continue to happen even as vaccination rates go up and then hopefully COVID numbers go down and we confront this pandemic in a more serious way? Do you think that you’ll continue to lean into not just more going back to in-person events, but also building out a more feature-rich portal and application for deeper online engagement?
[00:26:05] Alexa Wahr: The way that we’re thinking about groups interactions on the platform and on the discussion boards is really in service of our original mission, that continues to be the same, which is making genuine connections. We hope that or what we believe is that these discussion groups help women more easily share an idea that they have for an event and find the other women that are interested in it or follow up with photos from an event that they went to so that the rest of the community who might not have been able to attend can see them and feel good about them.
We don’t want Revel to become a Facebook where majority of the interactions are simply happening on the site with no actual connections or meeting up, whether that’s in person or virtually. We’ll continue to build out our features and our platform to support that. That’s really how we’re building it out today and the focus continues to be on making those connections with other members.
[00:27:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Alexa, it has been a pleasure to have you on. Thank you for spending some time with us.
[00:27:13] Alexa Wahr: Of course. Great to be here.
[00:27:16] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Alexa Wahr founder and COO of Revel. Find them at hellorevel.com. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
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