Even with sufficient notice, pivoting a real-life tech conference to an online forum comes with a lot of challenges: Organisers need to ensure that their digital events are accessible for different audiences as well as start thinking differently about how to enable attendees to engage with speakers and each other in authentic ways. Our events team spoke to Jos Gerards, Head of Events at Frontend Love in Amsterdam, and Robert MacLean, Director of DevConf in South Africa, about how they tackled these challenges in moving their conferences online.
To find out more, you can check out the video, transcription or podcast of the discussion.
Transcript of discussion:
Alex Hanson (00:00:10):
Maybe then I’ll just jump into our reason for meeting. So, at OfferZen, we strongly believe that tech events are super important to help create an awesome tech ecosystem. They help people connect, learn from each other, and actually share useful experiences. So we’ve been sponsoring many meetups and conferences within the tech space over the past few years in South Africa, and last year, we also started running tech events for the SA tech community at OfferZen. Due to this, we’ve become super aware of how COVID-19 and its aftermath are now affecting the tech event space. Very sad. But we do think that it’s super important and useful to come together in times of crisis so that we can learn from each other and share experiences for others that can benefit from this.
Alex Hanson (00:01:01):
So that’s kind of why we’ve been chatting to other event organisers within the tech community over the past few weeks. Robert, you’ve been part of one or two of those chats already and you’ve been super valuable. And it’s also why we’re actually here today, to deep-dive into some of the challenges you’ve encountered in moving your conferences online and how you’re addressing them. So, since these experiences are so valuable, we’d really like to share your learnings with as many people who might find this useful as possible. So we’ll be sharing the video and transcription of this discussion afterwards for others to benefit from.
Alex Hanson (00:01:39):
But now that we’ve covered the technicalities and I’ve reminded you why we’re here, perhaps we can maybe do a little round-robin of introductions. I’ll start – maybe you can say your name, the conference you’re involved with and your role, and just to make things fun, a mishap or awkward moment that has happened at your conference in the past, just to get you guys thinking a little bit.
Alex Hanson (00:02:03):
So I’ll go first. My name’s Alex Hanson. I’m involved with OfferZen’s MERGE Conference, and as mentioned, we’ve run a series of smaller events before that. I’m kind of on the events experience side. And an awkward mishap, the day before our MERGE conference in Johannesburg, all of our printing and branding was printed incorrectly, and we had about 40 posters and designs that had to be put up that had to be reprinted. Candice, that night, the day before our conference, I think we had two hours of sleep waiting for the new posters to come. So it was exciting, very stressful, very glad that it’s over. We’ve moved past that, but that’s kind of my mishap. Robert, I don’t know if you want to go next?
Robert MacLean (00:02:54):
Sure. Thank you. So my name is Robert MacLean. I help run DevConf, which is, I guess, the largest community conference in South Africa for software developers. And mishaps. I mean, I think the one that comes to mind for me as the most stressful, and at the same time, funny, was at our 2019 Johannesburg event – somebody in the kitchen left something on a bit too long and set off the fire alarm, and we had to evacuate the entire building. So, we had 800 people at Vodaworld have to be evacuated out and then stand in the car park in the middle of March summer heat, and then be brought back in and then try to fix the agenda halfway through. So, that was fun. I feel like I wish I could have had an actual fire because that would be a bit more interesting. It’s so annoying to have just a, “Oh well, somebody burned something. I’m so sorry this has ruined your afternoon, moment.” But got through that, so all good.
Alex Hanson (00:03:57):
Oh my goodness. Okay, that’s another level. I’m sorry if I pronounce it wrong, but is it Jos? Did I get it right?
Jos Gerards (00:04:08):
Jos. Yeah, you said that correctly. Maybe you sound a little bit like Joos but that’s fine as well. That’s more the Dutch version of Jos but then it would be J-O-O-S usually. And I’m involved within the Frontend Love conferences organisations. We run Frontend Love, Vue.js Amsterdam. We’ve done NodeConf NL last year, and we actually stem from a community meetup background. So, that’s where I was initially involved and that evolved into conferences.
Jos Gerards (00:04:49):
Mishaps. Last year, we had a new colleague of mine joining the emcee team. He’s a really energetic person so that’s really great to have for somebody as an emcee on stage of course. And we had some technical difficulties but what we didn’t discuss with him is that we were sold out. So, what we do is to keep everybody seated for as structurally as possible – like catering-wise, you cannot just let anyone get up and get out. But we had some technical difficulties so his solution was, “Ah, just go, just get up. Grab a cup of coffee. Do whatever you feel like.” But of course, he didn’t realise you cannot just get 1,200 people out of their seat and let them do whatever they want in a conference building. So, the whole conference management team wasn’t very happy with us at that moment in time, but it was all solved eventually. Yeah, luckily no fire as Robert had, but this was our little mishap of in total, 45 minute of delay by the end of the day. So, yeah.
Alex Hanson (00:05:57):
Oh, wow. Yeah. Delays and conferences seem to gel quite a bit. There’s always something that pushes the time out, sadly. Candice, do you maybe want to introduce yourself next?
Candice Grobler (00:06:08):
Yes. Hello everybody. I’m Candice. I am the event producer at OfferZen, so I take care of speakers and the agenda and the production of the event. In terms of my awkward moment, this happened last year at our first MERGE conference in Cape Town. I was backstage because we had such technical difficulties. I was stressing with the AV guys, trying to fix the screens and suddenly I got a WhatsApp from one of our speakers who had to be on stage in 15 minutes, and he was like, “Yeah, no. I’ve got a stomach bug. I’m not pitching.” And we just had this moment where you feel like your head’s going to explode or you’re going to cry or something. You’re just not sure. So, I just put my head down, trying not to cry, and walk out of the room to try and solve the situation.
Candice Grobler (00:07:01):
As I get out the room, this guy is standing there with the biggest smile on his face as if this is the greatest joke in the world. And I was just like, “No. This is not okay.” Yeah. So, that was maybe not a mishap, but a very awkward, upsetting moment for me as an organiser. But you learn. I think I was way less stressed after that happened though because I was like, “Well, what more could go wrong really?” Yeah. So that was great. But I think we can just jump into the conversation from here on. I’m going to be just asking a few questions that I have sent to you guys before but I’d like… If you have any comments or questions, please just jump in. This isn’t a structured conversation or anything. I’m mainly here to be useful. Okay, cool. So I think what would be really nice to start with is to kind of get an idea of what your conference plans for 2020 were looking like before the whole lockdown crisis and coronavirus. Jos. Sorry, Jos. Is that right?
Jos Gerards (00:08:12):
That’s correct, yes.
Candice Grobler (00:08:13):
Yeah, Jos. Yes. Okay.
Jos Gerards (00:08:14):
Don’t worry about the name.
Candice Grobler (00:08:15):
No, no. I want to say it properly. So Jos, will you start us off?
Jos Gerards (00:08:20):
Yeah, of course. We were slightly lucky, if you can call it luck of course in this situation, but we were fortunate enough to have our conference in February. And this was before the whole lockdown situation, or before we realised that health issues or safety issues for our attendees weren’t feasible anymore. So we were able to organise Frontend Developer Love and Vue.js Amsterdam on the 19th, 20th and 21st of February. But of course, we have more plans for this year. We also had Angular NL planned and React Live, and of course those have both been canceled. And right now we’re looking into the possibilities to take those online. Directly after [we realised we had to take everything online] we moved our meetups straightaway online. So I believe one week after or two weeks after we started launching weekly meetups online. Yup.
Candice Grobler (00:09:31):
Okay. And just quickly on that, the two conferences you said Angular and React how many attendees were you expecting for those/?
Jos Gerards (00:09:44):
I think last year for Angular NL we had 300 plus. And for React Live, last year we had 890, 880 about. This year I think we would have expected a little bit more for both. But it’s always a little bit of speculation of course, it’s always easier to said the afterwards or when you cannot organise it. But I do believe that this year were our first additions of both [events] last year. And they were really well-received. The feedback was great. So, I think we would have done slightly better or for React Live in that case I think a lot better this year. Yeah.
Candice Grobler (00:10:28):
Okay. Awesome. That’s really interesting. And Rob, I know you have already had your conference, but do you want to tell us what your initial plans were and also your attendee numbers and how you started changing it for the online version?
Robert MacLean (00:10:45):
Absolutely. So our initial plans – this was our fifth year of running the event – so we had been planning to increase it. Cape Town was going to be increased from, I think we had 350 in 2019. We were expecting to do about 600 people in Cape Town this year. And Johannesburg we were going to be, I think 800 or something for Joburg – bigger venues which always brings in all kinds of new things. We had more tracks in Cape Town, so it was great, that progression of it. And the sort of constant trying to find things that are going to be really exciting and different – I think for us, one of the things we put a lot of work into was a magazine. So, it’s like actually having a physical magazine with interviews with speakers.
Robert MacLean (00:11:35):
And the layout of the venues and the agenda rather than just what we’ve done in the past, which is just a single page agenda, have this thing that would be really useful for people to take in and with them and be able to carry around and potentially after the event get value from it. And so there was a lot of that planning, a lot of thinking around that. The event is also known for its swag now. So we kind of put a lot of work into making sure we had good swag set up and getting all of our infrastructure ready for the event at a completely new scale as well.
Candice Grobler (00:12:10):
Awesome. And just to that point, I know, especially with the magazine you had planned etc – how long did it take you to pivot your event from all these physical plans into a virtual space?
Robert MacLean (00:12:27):
So, we started sort of high level discussions about three weeks before lockdown. And it took about three weeks of work to get the bulk of it done. But it was absolutely, it was manic stations. I’ve never worked so hard, so close to the conference before. Normally there’s a sort of natural ebb and flow to a conference which is for us it was like the last two weeks before a conference, everything’s ready and done and dusted and it’s just small things you have to worry about. And we were working crazy hours right til the end. And so yeah, it was lots of things. I mean, we got very lucky that one of our early decisions was to identify people might not feel safe. So even before lockdown, before people couldn’t gather we realised people might be safe and we made the decision to livestream the event or we’re going to livestream at Johannesburg event.
Robert MacLean (00:13:26):
And so we were able to engage with a company that specialises in doing live streaming. And then I think it was on the Friday and then on the Sunday it was announced. Okay. No events, more than 100 people and then we were able to go back to that company and say, “Look, we’re going to have to change this completely. Actually we’ve paid for you already, so you’re still going to be with us. So we’re doing this. It’s just going to be a bit different now.’ So, we got a bit lucky with that, but yeah, it really came together in about three weeks. And a lot of it was just okay, how do we take this thing we’ve built and how do we do the online version of it?
Candice Grobler (00:14:03):
I can imagine the manic panic stations there must’ve been to hustle and get everything done. Jos, I’m actually quite interested to find out more about the way your team is used to working for setting up these sorts of events – more physical events – and how that has had to change now that you are doing way more digital events?
Jos Gerards (00:14:28):
Yeah. I think I agree with a lot of Robert’s points as well. I think you will never be able to compare an in-person event towards a virtual event, but it does bring a lot of new challenges or maybe exciting challenges as where we can come close to this experience for people to still learn. And have the feeling they’re part of a community without being actually present in an actual venue or office or wherever you usually organise these kinds of things. So, I think this has been our biggest challenge since setting up of course is important in the beginning, but once it’s set up or once you have found a nice structure, it’s just about fine tuning, right?
Jos Gerards (00:15:20):
Maybe you get some feedback, you adapt some things, you create maybe separate Zoom channels for Q&As or we’ve seen a lot of things pass by now. But I think the main thing for us that changed, well – first of all – was working completely remotely. We have an actual office. So, we are used to working in the office every day, basically. Although this type of work and working with developers in general comes with a lot of remote work, so that’s something that’s slowly changing.
Jos Gerards (00:15:54):
I do think not having that day to day touch with each other, if you’re used to that, can bring some challenges and also some motivational challenges in the beginning. So, I think that’s what we have to get adapted to first of all. Second of all, changing the ways we work. Yes and no. I think we’ve actually become more creative, even more creative than before with the [organisational side of things].
Candice Grobler (00:16:25):
Could you give me an example?
Jos Gerards (00:16:27):
Yeah. Of course. Let me think. We are planning a lot of things, so I need to be a little bit careful of what I release at this stage. But I think we’re finding way better solutions on how to handle Q&As. In a big conference center, we skipped a lot of Q&A sessions just because it’s simply too many people. So now, we’re really looking into how we can stream – now we want to make separate Zoom channels for instance, or maybe not Zoom, but not a digital solution for having actual Q&As – but if you have a few thousand people perhaps watching your stream, this all needs to be organised. So, we’re actually looking into an up-voting system. They’re not new, not at all. But we think this could be really interesting for skipping the least favorite questions.
Jos Gerards (00:17:27):
I think this has happened a lot already in real conferences as well. But I think for us, this is something that is becoming interesting at this stage. We’re looking into more and more ways to find that personal touch you get with an audience that you can usually only have at real conferences, at the “after party” and during break sessions. So we’re actually making lists and lists and lists of what we want to do and then we’re just going to strike off what will not be feasible or feasible – not because it’s tech-wise but because it’s not feasible money-wise. So yeah, I think we’re really now exploring every aspect of our time as we were before – maybe we weren’t exploring every aspect of our space.
Candice Grobler (00:18:27):
Yeah, that’s a very good point. You have limited options so you have to figure out how diverse they can be and how deeply I suppose you can use them. That’s a very, very interesting point. I’m actually quite interested in that point. You said that feeling of community, it’s really hard to think about that in a physical space to force people to network, especially developers, is quite hard sometimes. So have you started or have you found anything that really works for building that feeling of community and encouraging that friendly engagement with attendees?
Jos Gerards (00:19:09):
Candice Grobler (00:20:28):
Definitely. Just to clarify, when you say chat, do you mean Zoom chats or YouTube chat?
Jos Gerards (00:20:34):
Oh, no, sorry. I meant the literal YouTube live chat. When you do a live stream on YouTube, you have a live chat available. So that’s what we have kept available up til now. We wanted to test it if it was 99% positive or overall positive, let’s put it like that. And it has been. So that way we could really keep this an open conversation even on the live stream, which was nice. Yeah.
Candice Grobler (00:21:04):
Awesome. I’m super curious to ask the same question to you, Rob. How did you guys work to encourage that sense of community and people to engage?
Robert MacLean (00:21:15):
So I think the chat for us, we ran a Slack at the same time as the event and added everyone to that and – talk about things happening really last minute – we came up with that idea two days before the event. So – and I knew going into this – I very much have been of the opinion that online events can’t compete with in-person events. That feeling of community, that feeling of conversation is important. But also people get different things. I personally found when I was starting out, going to sessions was useful because I would learn about things, but now it’s the ‘passage’ conversations where I get more value out at events and yeah, having a Slack channel – or having a Slack with multiple channels – we had one per track, and we had some big ones.
Robert MacLean (00:22:06):
People could break off into their own chats. We had some speakers set up their own channels to also talk to people and carry on the conversation after their event. That was amazing. It made it feel so much more alive and people could talk during the event or they could get feedback straight away. And some of our speakers did pre-recorded videos and they were onscreen answering questions while their video was playing, which was amazing as well. So it really, I think that brought people together and it seems we often feel like developers are very introverted but over Slack and nobody seems to be that introverted. And I looked at the numbers off there, but we had a lot of people on it who never sent a single message. They just sat there and consumed. And that’s a great form of engagement as well. They got a lot of extra value out, which I think really helped with bringing some of that feeling to a digital event.
Candice Grobler (00:23:01):
I actually wanted to ask about that because I was exploring Slack as an option for events and I know Slack can be noisy and also quite troublesome to set up and get people to actually join. Are there any tips that you can recommend to make using Slack more streamlined and easy for attendees to join in and also for you guys to manage?
Robert MacLean (00:23:27):
I mean we set up a special Slack for this. So we have like – I think it’s devconfza.slack.com – so it’s a specific one. We set up ahead of the event, we set up specific channels. We had that pinned and made everyone join into the announcement channel. And made everyone join into that and had made that very clear. I don’t think there was anything really specific, I think adding people. I exported everyone’s names out of our database and manually added them into that system. And that was how I got them in. And that was, I think that comes down similar to physical events – people aren’t going to think about the event until maybe the day before, probably in the morning of the event, and then they’re going to have to look for the address and put that in their GPS and drive there.
Robert MacLean (00:24:17):
Doing this – making sure that instead of sending out an email saying, "Oh, you can join our Slack here” – sending out other things saying, “Here’s your invite, you just click” helped with removing those barriers for entry and making everyone a bit more aware helped too. Also, making sure it was mentioned in the welcome – the thing existed, people could join it – those were all big things [that helped]. But really what I actually think, as much as it sounds like I want to take some credit for me coming up with a clever idea of having Slack, I think a big success with it was just how other people jumped in. So a lot of our speakers just jumped in and started helping out. We had a help channel where if you had technical problems or couldn’t get something working – every time I looked in it, somebody else had already answered all the help questions and people were just being a community and helping each other, which was great.
Alex Hanson (00:25:04):
Yeah. Rob, one of the things I wanted to mention because we actually attended DevConf online, which was really, really nice and really lucky. And it was actually so cool. It sounded so bad, but I was wanting to listen to the talks, but Slack was so interesting and the community just didn’t stop. They were constantly going on and on and even post-event, the conversations were going, I mean speakers at some points, there were so many questions from the audience that speakers were like, “Here’s a Zoom link, jump on, let’s chat about this further.” So it was so cool to see how Slack almost enabled even another dimension of networking to the original conference that maybe you guys hadn’t anticipated, which I think was really cool.
Robert MacLean (00:25:46):
Yeah, definitely. It was totally unanticipated. But yeah, definitely, we even had people who spun up Zoom sessions during the event and pulled people into that. And it became, instead of just sitting and watching and just consuming an event, it was now being part of it and people could go off and do interesting things that way. So yeah, it was great. My biggest surprise of the event easily.
Candice Grobler (00:26:10):
It was also quite surprising to me, but I loved it and it was very interesting – new tick and way of attending an event. I also, I love that you mentioned barriers to entry there because they are quite a lot, especially considering we’re remote now. So, I’m not sure – in South Africa we definitely have data and signal problems, which can create a big barrier to entry. Jos, are there any challenges you’re encountering right now with a big barrier to entry for your attendees?
Jos Gerards (00:26:46):
I sure agree with Robert that we are trying to make it as easy as possible for people to jump in straight away and participate in any type of the conversation we have going. So that’s why we now chose the live chat. But I love the idea of a separate Slack channel. We also have a separated Discord channel, but it’s, well, it’s potatoes, potatoes – it’s just whatever your community or whatever the people prefer to use. So, I do believe [when it comes to easing] barriers to entry, we’ve tried to gather everything in one channel. And we have chosen now to do everything via our YouTube channel and just to get a little bit more stimulants, we stream at that same time to our Facebook page. But that’s more just to gain some traction over this platform than really a specific choice.
Jos Gerards (00:27:53):
But I believe – don’t make it too difficult, don’t make too many channels. When it comes to video, you see sometimes that a community starts separate channels again to organise something new and then they are in the hope that this new channel is going to grow again. And I don’t know, just keep it simple. Just stick to what you have and everybody’s used to it already. You probably already have greater traction on the platform you were already using. So don’t change a winning concept. When it comes to getting people to interact in conversation. Yeah, I believe keep it as easy as possible, with as little tooling as possible.
Jos Gerards (00:28:40):
These are some things we’re looking into now – how to streamline all tooling under one roof if you want to organise a conference. So that’s for sure interesting listening to Robert as well, how they solved this or how they approached this. When you have 1000 or more people watching live, how do we streamline them into participating in all the things that happen? So of course, yeah, we are very charmed by the idea of a Slack or maybe build an interactive webpage or things like this.
Candice Grobler (00:29:17):
Definitely. And Rob, are there any barriers to entry that you weren’t expecting to have at the conference that you guys ran?
Robert MacLean (00:29:31):
I think obviously South Africa being where the internet comes to die is always going to have bandwidth issues. And we did see that throughout the day that people do come in. I know there are people that can’t attend because they don’t have enough bandwidth on their cell phone or mobile device. For us, picking the tech and the solutions we did was very specific – we picked things that are pretty much widely supported. So, when it came to browsers, we were those people who were going, “Okay, well it’s going to run on like IE7 that nobody uses, hopefully, because that’s just sort of a requirement. I’m trying to think of a really good example of something with a barrier to entry. One of our barriers to entry was IP addresses. So this was obviously when we were planning this, we were worried that some people would still be at work.
Robert MacLean (00:30:26):
Or still in a work environment and that their companies might block streaming, might block YouTube or things like that. So, we actually worked ahead of the event to get all the IP addresses for all the services we had running and put that into a document, send that out to all the attendees so that they could easily go to their IT and go, "Can you make sure this all works? These are the porters of IPs”, so we did that sort of kind of boring technical stuff just to try and help there. But beyond that it was I think the only other one is just around general accessibility. If you have site impairments, things like that, things like Slack are just horrendously hard to use. And I know that our choice of streaming tech wasn’t the best. Right?
Robert MacLean (00:31:16):
We had a webpage, it was functional. You could use it, but it really wasn’t great. And I think if you are going to be building a platform and you’re going to have people on it and you’re going for something custom or something more specific to conferences, then making sure it’s really accessible to people with sort of visual or audible issues needs to be something to be considered. So yeah, we didn’t have closed captioning for instance. So we lost out on people who might’ve had sound problems there. That’s why a big advantage for going for proven platforms like YouTube is a really good one because they’ve already fixed up a lot of that thinking for you.
Candice Grobler (00:31:57):
Yeah, that’s a very good point. And that sharing of information actually proves to be so vital, especially when you’re working with a community that is trusting you to take them on this journey with you. And I’m quite curious to know what the impact of not canceling and actually moving digital has had on your community and on your teams. Jos, I don’t know if you want to go first, if you have a point on that.
Jos Gerards (00:32:27):
Yeah, sure. Could you give me a little bit of a direction, what you were aiming for? Sorry.
Candice Grobler (00:32:33):
Yes, sorry. So now that you guys have decided to move those conferences that are later online and also your meetups online, has that had an impact on your community? Have they expressed gratitude or been upset or has there been any response?
Jos Gerards (00:32:54):
Yes. Well, some of our conferences or like React Live were still far ahead. And for Angular NL we actually canceled before official measures were taken because we didn’t feel like we could maintain safety for everyone involved at that period of time and afterwards it seemed like we indeed couldn’t because the government forced us to cancel. But we reimbursed everyone straight away when we did, so I think that has come with a lot of gratitudes from the community seeing that actually we didn’t keep any of their money behind. That’s not something that we wanted. We’ve seen a lot that conferences might choose to or to move dates. That could be an opportunity of course for waiting with reimbursements. But for us it was more like better safe than sorry.
Jos Gerards (00:33:56):
And right now it’s all still doable, so let’s reimburse everybody before things get out of hand as well. So I think on that part we have really gotten gratitude. Overall, everybody has been very understanding and positive about it to be honest. Specifically because it has been government enforced as well now. So there is nothing else anybody can do about this. And especially when it comes to guaranteeing safety, I think that’s something priceless that you need to be very certain of before you do an event. It doesn’t matter what size it is, but the bigger, the bigger the worry, of course, in case something is wrong and how are you going to guarantee safety for so many people combined in one space? For us, that’s not a risk we’re willing to take. So I think we always stood behind that release we made due to that as well. And I think everybody has been very understanding about that.
Alex Hanson (00:35:02):
Jos, I wanted to ask – I know your conferences were scheduled for later in the year. Did you have any sponsors lined up and now that you’ve had to cancel, how were their reactions to it because I mean, obviously they put money into the conference. How did you handle that situation?
Jos Gerards (00:35:20):
Yeah. Luckily we have been building an online presence for a long, long time as well. So yes, of course we indeed had sponsors involved already with the events that would take place in future and they would have the option to be reimbursed. But we also offered another solution where they could have a way longer online presence until our next event even, and this way maybe even get more exposure than they would usually get from a normal event. And I think that’s something that we really, really tried to communicate. Usually when you say, we have this many followers, we have these many views – it never was that important to a client or to a sponsor because we usually say like, “Oh, I just want a booth and I want to be there and I want to talk to people.”
Jos Gerards (00:36:21):
Of course that was really important at the time. But right now everything is shifting towards a different direction where you can really see like, okay, now these kinds of little things where you can contribute on other platforms has become really important to companies as well. So, luckily, everybody has been really understanding. We didn’t sign anybody off, let’s put it like that, due to it. So we have been very grateful to that and we hope to of course keep them with us for the rest of the year. Yeah.
Candice Grobler (00:36:51):
I love that. I’m glad that you managed to come to a solution with them that worked for everybody. I want to actually just direct the same questions. Rob, how has your response to how to ran your event affected your community and your sponsor relationships?
Robert MacLean (00:37:15):
I think from the community side, we definitely got push-back early on with it. I think the biggest one was people felt very hurt that we weren’t refunding everyone or giving people discounts even though we had switched from a physical to a digital event. A lot of that really came down to managing just how we spoke and how we shared. So, my co-organiser Candice and I went to extreme transparency. We wrote long emails, we really explained to people, “Hey, this is what’s happening. These are the real constraints. There’s a lot of things that we don’t have control over and we still want the event to go ahead. We can give you 20% back or 30% back, but in the end, the event is not going to happen.”
Robert MacLean (00:38:05):
And I think overall we came out with quite a positive experience with the community – I think the people involved have been very happy and we still have work to do there. We still have like 1200 swag bags that are sitting and hoodies and all of that. And we really want to get those out to people. So we’re going to be running a smaller thing now to try and get that done as well. So there’s going to be more opportunities to work and build up that relationship again with the community. But I think overall, it was very positive. Sponsors were very interesting. I mean, I think we saw quite a variety across them. A number of them, like Thinkst Canary and AWS, said to us early on, “We can’t send our people [to the event] – it’s too risky from a safety side but we’re still going to sponsor it, don’t worry about the money. We believe in you. We believe in your community, you’ll do a great thing.”
Robert MacLean (00:39:09):
And that was great. I think we only really had one sponsor who came to us with a negative experience and they came in and – with our contracts with sponsors we try to be quite understanding – so we had a clause in our contract that said if crazy things happen you can pull out. And once again, that started off quite rough. I found having a company come to you and say, “Okay, we’re pulling out and we’re not going to pay you anything and it sucks for you.” And then going back to them saying, “Look, we’ve got all of this stuff that’s done that’s got your name on it already and all of these parts, how can we help that and what can we do to make this better? How can we find a good middle ground?” So, just being transparent and talking. And so, yeah, I mean, I think that’s probably the lesson of remote first is you might be physically separate, but you’ve got to spend probably more time communicating and sharing to help there.
Robert MacLean (00:40:06):
Ultimately, essentially to Jos’s points, there are a lot of good opportunities in a remote event. One of the things we did was we knew he had 10 minutes between talks, which would normally be for a movement break so you can go from room to room, so we kept the agenda the same and decided to run adverts in that time. And I cannot tell you the massive, overwhelming success that was. Not every sponsor took part in it, and I feel very bad for the ones that didn’t. But the ones that did have seen such good feedback on that. We got a lot of good feedback from people on the day. When moving from physical to digital, it opened up a whole bunch of new opportunities we’d never even thought about. And I think that for our sponsors who took advantage of that they got a lot of benefit out of that and they were very happy with it.
Candice Grobler (00:40:59):
Yeah, I thought that was a lovely addition. I mean, I’ve never seen it before and it was also really nice to find out more about the sponsors in a really attention-grabbing way, if you will. I actually want to go back to one of the challenges you mentioned, Jos, in terms of working remotely. I know now that we’re remote, a lot of the people we communicate with for the event – speakers, you do that remotely so it’s not a big difference – but as an actual team – I know Alex and I have experienced some collaboration difficulties and we’ve had to adjust. Is there any way, Jos, that your team has adapted to lessen the negative effects of remote working?
Jos Gerards (00:41:53):
So positive outcomes of-
Candice Grobler (00:41:58):
Jos Gerards (00:41:58):
… Of remote work? Okay.
Candice Grobler (00:42:01):
While conference organising. How do you remotely organise a conference together?
Jos Gerards (00:42:06):
Yeah. To be honest, of course we always had that moment in the office where you could grab somebody. So actually maybe let me start with the negative and then we can move forward to the more positive side of things. I think the ability to just walk over to somebody and have a quick three minute brainstorm is priceless because the amount – or the increase in the amount – of phone calls I’m making nowadays is beyond anything I ever expected. And [because of that] you lose a lot of time because you’re making way more phone calls to clarify everything with everyone. And that also involves now everybody being in that chat and if everybody is in that chat then the tech is not always working, et cetera, et cetera. I think we all have been there. I think the positive outcome is that we have way better documentation.
Jos Gerards (00:43:11):
Whereas before, you would sit in a meeting and you would walk out of the meeting and you would think this is great – it’s going to be the most awesome event ever! And then a week later, or even three days later, you’re like, “What did we discuss again in that morning plan?” And then nobody remembers. So, actually right now everything is documented or even recorded. First of all, you save all the ideas you had and second of all you can hold people more accountable to what was said and what was agreed, which is a big benefit as well.
Jos Gerards (00:43:48):
So, I think when everybody’s really used to remote work, moving forward, going back to the office, this could be a really great opportunity to keep more structure in our day-to-day job and even to provide more possibilities with being flexible with working hours, whereas maybe before you would stick a little bit more to traditional hours. You can really see the benefits right now of that not being necessary. Of course, it also all depends on how the world moves back to their own offices. Again, a bunch of positive outcomes to it. Yeah.
Candice Grobler (00:44:26):
Definitely. No one knows when the world’s going to go back to and how we are going to go back, or what we’re going to go back to. I suppose it’s going to be very interesting to see what we’ve learned now will affect that space and what will change it. Rob I’m curious, because I know you and Candice have other full-time jobs other than organising conferences, was that a benefit to you guys now that you had to plan stuff remotely?
Robert MacLean (00:44:56):
Yeah, as you mentioned both of us have full-time jobs. Candice works for Rand Merchant Bank and I work for Equal Experts. We’re also in two different cities. She’s in Johannesburg and I’m Cape Town. So we’ve kind of always been a remote team, so our planning meetings have always been at like half past seven in the morning on a Wednesday or half past seven on Tuesday type thing. We kind of get onto a Zoom call and talk and do lots of chats and, to Jos’ point, I mean it made me laugh – just how much documentation. I mean, DevConf is entirely run on Excel spreadsheets. We have hundreds of them. But yeah, it really is. I can’t imagine going from working in an office with somebody and running events like that and then being pulled apart and having to figure out how to run events and get everything ready. That would have been massive. I think we were really lucky that this was just how we’ve always worked and we’re able to put it all together.
Candice Grobler (00:45:56):
Definitely. And what you mentioned there is very interesting that the tooling, like you said, Excel sheets. I’m curious to know what strategies, resources or tools absolutely saved you in the past few weeks? Rob, do you want to go first?
Robert MacLean (00:46:12):
Sure. Yeah, I think from an organisation perspective, email’s been really big. So obviously emails coming to us through our email provider and mailing list software. So we used two for various different things. And that’s really important because sending [things] out like we did – UberEats vouchers for everyone who attended the event so that they could have lunch at the conference during the day – [meant we had to be] able to mail merge and doing that for people is really important. And you can’t just do that on Excel and Outlook on your own machine when you have 1000 people, it’s just, it doesn’t scale. So we definitely had that. I think other ones – Excel – we have a lot of Excel spreadsheets in a One Drive that we will access and edit and many folders and lots of documentation with that.
Robert MacLean (00:47:04):
We also make heavy use of a thing called JotForm for capturing surveys and feedback from people, which is really great. I’m really a big fan of theirs because they give community discounts and they’re really easy to use and they’re quite cheap. And then another one we’ve been using a lot more is also Air Table, which is kind of a hosted Excel, which would be really pleasurable to work with because you can if somebody filters or changes something on their side, it changes for everyone. So we could sit in a Zoom call and be working collaboratively over data and working out things like who the speakers are for the event. Track planning, things like that, which is really, really useful.
Candice Grobler (00:47:43):
That’s amazing. Great. So I’m going to go check out those tools myself and just jotted them down here. Jos. Sorry. Jos, Is there any tools that have saved your life, recently or resources?
Jos Gerards (00:47:57):
I haven’t used Air Table recently, but it has been really, really useful in the past. A colleague introduced me to it. It’s amazing. I would for sure check that one out. It’s actually a shame I’ve left it for so long, but it takes a little bit of a learning curve and some time to migrate things into it if you don’t fully use Air Table all the time. But I couldn’t agree more that Air Table is a great way to organise, even to visualise a lot of things, database realisation. So yes, I agree on that point. Trello has really helped me in the past few weeks to organise a lot of boards – a lot of different aspects we are working on or different conferences because we organise multiple conferences and multiple meetups for multiple communities.
Jos Gerards (00:48:48):
It’s handy to split those out. So I really found Trello useful also to work as a team, from simple updates to [more complex ones like] website updates – you get a new speaker that needs to be updated on the website and not everything is in a CMS so sometimes you need a developer to do it for you real quick. All these kinds of things and to keep track of all the details – that is really useful with Trello. Email automation is really useful, whether that’s MailChimp or Campaign Monitor or any other service that is available to you if you already have a database, of course. Right now it’s a combination of people we already had within our newsletters and of course, new attendees from current events.
Jos Gerards (00:49:51):
Next to that we used a ticketing platform, which of course at this stage is less important but we still want to keep it to streamline things. We used Eventbrite for everything. The benefit about Eventbrite is that if you’re running free events or you’re selling free tickets, there are also no costs involved with the platform. So the attendee doesn’t pay for it and you don’t need to pay for it. You have a lot of options to put your tooling within Eventbrite as well, such as your mail automisation, part of your planning you can run over Eventbrite. They give you a lot of tips and tricks on how to run events. So, I would look into that if that’s something you’re interested in. And Excel sheets. Yeah. I think everybody I speak to, I still think sometimes we should go to really, really professional software. But then literally every organiser here and every event manager I speak to likes Excel sheets. It’s like their heaven. So I’m like, yeah, why should I change a winning concept? Actually, I’m just going to stick to the Excel sheets because they work perfectly for me. Yeah.
Candice Grobler (00:51:08):
Definitely. And you can do whatever you want with it and change it and make it customised. Yeah.
Jos Gerards (00:51:15):
Nobody judges you in your Excel sheet. So that’s fine.
Candice Grobler (00:51:17):
It has to look ugly. It’s like the rule. You said that at one point that ticketing is less important now. Is that because of the online forum or?
Jos Gerards (00:51:30):
Yes, especially with meetup events or for meetup community events, they’ve all been for free for the community. So right now we haven’t used Eventbrite for that because we send them directly to YouTube to remove that barrier – what we discussed earlier actually. And that’s the main reason actually. We’re not sure yet about future events. Maybe we do want to streamline people over a texting platform for our future online events. Mainly, so you can inform them a little bit better mail merge more factors into those systems instead of running it over your own email server, which is going to block you after a few emails. So yes, the main reason right now has been is because we didn’t need it for the events we have run. But I’d for sure not delete it or anything. I will for sure try to keep it for the future again.
Candice Grobler (00:52:36):
Definitely. What was interesting to me is that in all of this, I’m realising that while digital is proving to be an obstacle for a lot of people – there’s a lot of barriers, you have to remove a lot of those barriers for attendees, and then even just testing tools – there’s a bazillion and five million articles telling you what to use – and I love how we’re just going back to Excel anyway – but I wanted to know, because of the new state of things and, as we mentioned earlier, we don’t know what’s going to change: What opportunities do you guys see that we have as part of the tech community in all of this in events, having to go remote? Rob, do you want to go first?
Robert MacLean (00:53:24):
Absolutely. I mean there are massive amounts of opportunities, especially for South Africa. For us to get speakers here from overseas is really difficult. It’s a 15 hour flight from North America. It’s expensive. The ability to now run events remotely and have speakers from all over the world interact and understand the South African context is really great. As well as have attendees from all over. I also run a user group – The Developer User Group – and we’ve been doing some monthly meetings online since lockdown. Previously, we’d do a Joburg event and then we’d do a Cape Town and a Pretoria event and we’d have 20 people at each, and now we’re having one [event]. And people from all over are joining and people who’ve never been to them, they’re coming from Durban and they’re coming from Bloemfontein – they’re coming from all over because they’re able to access it, which expands the number of people.
Robert MacLean (00:54:20):
So your audience is bigger, the number of speakers you have is bigger and those are great opportunities. There’s also a lot of opportunities for just speakers to present content in a different way. I look at our events – we have a stage and you’re on the stage and the lights are dark and you have 500 people in front of you or 1000 people in front of you, and you’re doing a presentation and now when you’re on Zoom and you’re presenting this [same content] but it’s far more intimate. It’s far more personal, so you can really get into a different conversation, and you can also show a lot more detail. I think Clifford de Witt who spoke at DevConf did this really well. We had two cameras set up and swapped between them. This obviously takes a bit of setup to do, but he had physical hardware and he could swap between and really zoom in on the hardware and show you it.
Robert MacLean (00:55:10):
And it was really easy for him to set that up at home and practice and get it right. So, I think that’s going to bring in another level to what you can do at events and what sort of quality and content you can do that you would never be able to do. And also, Jos’ example from early on that Q&A stuff. You can’t really do great Q&A in a big hall. You got somebody running around with a microphone, it’s really difficult. Nowvonline, you can open up a whole bunch of new options for that.
Candice Grobler (00:55:44):
Definitely. Totally agree. Jos, do you have any ideas on where the opportunity lies?
Jos Gerards (00:55:50):
Yeah, I think there are indeed multiple opportunities when it comes to attendees and companies. I think from the attendee point of view as Robert says, you have way more opportunities to go deeper into certain conversations, and really offer that one-on-one experience that you cannot really create in bigger, bigger venues where you are trying to create other ways to have meeting areas or sidetracks or afterparties of course, that’s what you don’t have at this stage. So maybe now you can really contribute more in depth tech experience or maybe even the review style of video making as where you weren’t doing that before.
Jos Gerards (00:56:44):
So yeah, I agree on that. I think from the company perspective, as I said earlier, actually, yeah, our online presence wasn’t that important for them earlier on as it is right now. It’s really become an opportunity for them to advocate to a niche market via an online platform. So I think that’s where there’s a lot of growth opportunity still and where a lot of companies are not focused on at this stage but are really moving towards too to see how they can expand that because they don’t have a way to reach that audience that they would like to reach of course via your conferences usually. So I think there are a lot of advertisements possibilities to be honest. And I think these opportunities will also stick around afterwards still. I think we will see a lot of more digitalisation of current conferences as well.
Jos Gerards (00:57:50):
Because I think for a lot of people, this will be a great example of how you can run a regular business online. So, I think there will be way more opportunities offered after this to have the in-person experience of course, which will never be replaced because yeah, sometimes you want to go to a rock concert in-person instead of from your living room. But I do believe that way more people now will also think about the other opportunities out there for as many people around the globe to attend these events whereas before maybe that wasn’t a focus necessarily. So, it was just left out and I think from now on further this will be integrated way wider all over the globe in my opinion.
Candice Grobler (00:58:39):
Yeah, I 100% agree with that. I absolutely love what you said. I was just thinking about it. Rob some more about speakers in tech – if you have a speaker in America, you don’t have to pay 90k to get them to come to South Africa. You can get them to present and if they want they can do a movie style presentation from their living room, which could, I mean it might not be useful, but there is room to explore these new things. And I think for companies as well, there’s opportunity to sponsor in new ways. I also love the advertisement example, if you can give them that air time, compared to a conference, a TV ad would have been hugely different for companies like the return on investment there.
Candice Grobler (00:59:26):
So I think that’s also really, really interesting and I’m excited to see where things go after this and how many more people keep using more online forums, which is great. I’m kind of curious to know if you guys have any questions for each other. I want to provide that option in case you’ve thought of anything that we haven’t addressed, and Alex, feel free to chime in if you have any questions too. Any questions? I’ll do a dance in the meantime.
Robert MacLean (01:00:02):
I don’t have any questions off the top of my head. No.
Candice Grobler (01:00:03):
Jos Gerards (01:00:06):
No, not directly. It’s more Robert, you already of course ran now a full conference. I think you can agree that it will never replace a one-on-one conference. As you said, a lot of other opportunities come along. What did you love about organising this type of conference over in-person? If you had to pick something, was there something that you preferred organising in this way, compared to how you would do it in a venue for instance?
Robert MacLean (01:00:37):
Oh, that’s really good. I don’t know actually. It’s such a blur because we did everything in about three weeks. It was just panic. It was just every day where we had-
Jos Gerards (01:00:54):
Robert MacLean (01:00:54):
… Daily calls. Yeah. Daily meetings and troubleshooting and trying to figure things out. And trying to get enough info. I think I’m very blessed with my co-organiser, Candice. We’ve been doing this now for a couple of years and we’ve just got such a good relationship. It was so great, after the event we were sending each other photos of us drinking wine and just relaxing and just chilling out. I think for me, I mean there are lots of aspects of running the physical events that are just always tiresome. Doing things like health and safety checks at venues and stuff like that and I just, I don’t care. I really don’t. But at the same time, yeah I don’t know if I would trade off any of them. This is my personal thing, but I really just, I think the in-person events, there’s something special about them. Or maybe the future is more just some sort of combination of these.
Candice Grobler (01:01:59):
I must say I’m quite surprised you didn’t say that your favorite part was that you can attend your conference in your pajamas because that’s what most people are saying at the moment.
Robert MacLean (01:02:09):
Oh yeah. Well, actually I never have attended as many sessions as this because normally at an event I’m running around from room to room because we’d run multitracks events. And so I’m running around from room to room. I’m trying to see what’s going on, making sure people are happy. I’ll often go during talks to all the sponsors’ tables to talk to them, thank them and spend time with them. Because then it’s nice and quiet. And so this was the first time I watched most of the content, which is quite amazing. That was quite an experience. That was a lot of fun to do.
Candice Grobler (01:02:45):
That’s awesome. Jos, I’m quite interested to hear your answer to that though as well. What’s your favorite part about organising virtual events?
Jos Gerards (01:02:55):
Yes. So we would do the meetups now. So to be honest, a big, big online event, is yet to come and that’s what we’re planning and thinking of execution at the moment. But my job has become way more – I don’t how do you say that in proper English – way more untouchable, intangible. I don’t know how you say it in the proper English word, but-
Candice Grobler (01:03:25):
What’s the Dutch word?
Jos Gerards (01:03:26):
Candice Grobler (01:03:27):
What is the Dutch word? Maybe we’ll know.
Jos Gerards (01:03:30):
Yeah. Well you cannot touch it, right? It’s all on paper. And I’m actually from a hospitality background, so since I’m 16, I’m used to nurturing people and being one-on-one with them and planning events of course on paper. But then you’re working towards that moment where you’re executing something all together as a team and from A to Z. And then after that you’re going to think about how we’re going to measure the success of this event. And then you’re going to think about quantitative measurements and qualitative measurements. As we are now, these are almost the first steps you’re doing compared to what you did before because before, every little detail from venue to health and safety checks to booking flights was a big part of my job. With where we’re at now, that moment building your relationship with attendees and speakers is way more focused online and then pre-attended calls or the meetups building up to your bigger events.
Jos Gerards (01:04:39):
So yeah, it really gives me an opportunity to explore different or to explore better in a better way, different types of my job, which before seemed less, maybe not less relevant, but you didn’t execute them as often. So now that whole importance of planning, execution and measurement has really shifted to almost 90% of your job. So, I think that’s something that I really enjoy. And to be honest, usually you would wait to communicate with people in-person until the event – as we are now you’re really trying to build up a relationship way earlier. So that’s really nice. I actually speak way more often to people than I used to before because before, you were really invested in making sure everything was organised 150%, whereas now, you’re like, okay, let’s make sure I’m really in touch with this speaker way too often beforehand – maybe up to the point that they’re done with you already before the time – but it’s still, you really have that time to have one-on-one conversations like you have right now.
Candice Grobler (01:05:53):
Definitely. Are these people mainly speakers or are they also sponsors and attendees?
Jos Gerards (01:06:01):
Yeah, both. So it’s speakers and sponsors and from a deeper perspective, we always strive to gather in-person feedback, which is most valuable to us of course. We also send out a survey, which is usually perceived well, but as with every survey, there’s a challenge to get a high participant rate on it whereas you really try to engage with people one-on-one. You get way more feedback and if people feel comfortable, you also get way more honest feedback. [Even more so] when they feel like they can win something.
Candice Grobler (01:06:37):
That’s a very good point. “It’s like free stuff, answer my questions or just tell me about your feelings.” They’ve got very different impact I can imagine.
Jos Gerards (01:06:49):
Candice Grobler (01:06:51):
Okay. Awesome. So I think that’s the end of the questions I had for today. If no one else has any other questions then I’m just going to say thank you very much for joining us for this discussion. I think it’s been really insightful and really good to know how both of you have prepared for and dealt with these online experiences and also are preparing to. I think that’s very, very useful and going to be useful to others as well. Thank you guys so much for your time, especially after hours. I really appreciate it and I look forward to hearing from you guys in the future.
Robert MacLean (01:07:29):
Thank you so very much. This was really valuable.
Alex Hanson (01:07:32):
Thank you so much.
Candice Grobler (01:07:32):
I’m so glad.
Jos Gerards (01:07:33):
Thank you very much for the opportunity. Thank you.
Candice Grobler (01:07:35):
Of course. Thank you so much guys. Goodbye
Alex Hanson (01:07:39):
Robert MacLean (01:07:39):