Events go ahead behind closed doors. Credit: M&IT
UK - Bristol-based association event specialist Brightelm had originally been hired to deliver a conference for 150 delegates for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) at its Canary Wharf office on 3 March. With the coronavirus rapidly spreading, the CMA made the decision to tell the audience not to come just 24 hours ahead.
However, despite the lack of a live audience, organisers realised that with a few tweaks the event could still go ahead. "They decided to uninvite the audience and turn it from a live conference into a virtual only event," says Mr Rob Eveleigh, founder and MD of Brightelm. "The event was already due to be a hybrid event, but the decision to go fully virtual had a number of impacts. Broadcasting is a lot less forgiving than filming a conference. We turned the conference room into a TV studio.
"The main learning for me in doing it was that you can't just do the same programme and switch to filming it. You need to think about the audiences and their perspective. How many cameras do you need? A panel discussion is really engaging on television but a 30-minute speech will switch people off.
"You need to think about the whole programme in terms of how it will appear if it were a TV programme. Ideally you have a host rather than somebody standing up and introducing a speaker. How do you want the audience to feel when they're watching it? It's a lot less forgiving."
With no time to find a dedicated conference emcee, Brightelm used the leaders of the panel sessions as hosts. "They became chat show hosts, they would address the camera directly at the top and bottom of the session, says Mr Eveleigh. "It was challenging, but the client was really happy. They got a larger percentage of the audience - they had 300-400 people viewing all of the time. For such a narrow topic it was great.
"We did well on sustainability too. We worked with the caterers to make sure that the food was donated to a local charity. There were lots of positives about it.
"Not everybody's situation is the same, so it won't be for everybody. However, we got excellent feedback, the clients were over the moon and their audience loved it and how engaging it was. It was a massive achievement."
So could the coronavirus outbreak be an impetus for the wider industry to take virtual meetings more seriously?
"There's an incredible value to meeting face to face", says Eveleigh. "I specialise in working with associations - some of the collaborations that have come about from specialised conferences are incredible, you wouldn't replicate them online. Plus you don't have the same networking opportunity.
"However, doing something like that proved to me how good a vessel it can be. It was interactive, we were accepting live questions via Slido. In terms of a meeting model, it worked very well.
"In terms of sustainability, as we go further over the next few years the pressure to not travel will become greater and greater. I think it's going to become less socially acceptable to fly. We have to start thinking about how we're going to adapt.
"We've not had a situation like we have in Italy in the Western world in living memory. If this happens once, it's going to happen again. We need to prepare and adapt."
This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in M&IT.