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OfferZen Updates: Tech Community Chats: Conference Organisers Plan Around COVID-19
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Tech Community Chats: Conference Organisers Plan Around COVID-19

02 April 2020, by Candice Grobler

With the social and economic impact of COVID-19, our president has called to reduce all physical contact and has prohibited all gatherings in public spaces. This has a clear and costly impact on those planning and attending local tech events: Many have had to cancel, postpone or go online.

Our events team chatted to conference organisers from DevConf, ScaleConf and DevOpsDays to find out how they’re thinking about and navigating the situation. Here’s what they’ve learnt and how they’re currently adapting.

In preparing for the effects of COVID-19, the events team at OfferZen has been considering how best to support the local, tech event community during this time. We decided to get a group of local conference organisers into a Zoom room to chat about the challenges they’re experiencing in the lead up to their conferences, and the decisions they’re making to mitigate the overall risk of the events.

The goal was to start a conversation about these things, and engage the rest of the community to share their own lessons and ideas. By doing this, we can all support each other in keeping the tech community connected and growing during the difficult time to follow.

The peeps who joined us for the Zoom chat were:

  • ScaleConf organisers: Marjie Pierson and Mike Jones
  • DevConf organiser: Robert MacLean
  • DevOpsDays organisers: Adrian Moisey and Cobus Bernard
  • MERGE Conf (OfferZen) organisers: Alexandra Hanson and Candice Grobler

Here are the key takeaways from the discussion.

Talk to your sponsors and suppliers

All conference organisers get help from sponsors, suppliers or both to pull off an awesome experience. When cancellations or postponements need to be considered though, things get complicated: If you can’t manage stakeholder relationships and find a solution that helps everyone, the risk of loss is higher for all parties involved

For instance, DevConf will take place during the SA lockdown, which means it will be run completely remotely. This means Robert has been talking to venues and airlines about the possibility of refunds, vouchers or alternative postponement options.

By contrast, since DevOpsDays is only towards the end of the year, the team is still in the process of tentatively planning the DevOpsDay conference; they have already locked in some sponsors, and have been negotiating with others.

We discussed how we’re currently going about communicating with sponsors and suppliers, and these are some tips that came up:

  1. Be upfront and transparent: To do this, Robert explained, “We’re sharing how much money we have in the bank. We are talking about the impact of it, and that’s really helping as well because, obviously, a lot of sponsors are concerned about sort of return on investment.”
  2. Make a plan and share it: Before locking in any new sponsors, Adrian says that they “want to get [their] things straight, check the budget, contact the hotel, and then approach them with an open, ‘Look, this is where we’re standing. These are the possibilities in front of us. How do you feel about it?’"
  3. Make it easy to opt out of future plans: If you continue to tentatively plan events for later in the year, be sure to make it easy for sponsors, suppliers and your team to cancel or postpone if necessary. This can be done by negotiating carefully, having clear plans in your contracts and getting event insurance.

Consider the broader impact of cancellation

When a conference is cancelled, it’s clear that it affects those that have spent money on it - sponsors, attendees, and conference organisers. But those aren’t the only people affected. As, Mike Jones highlighted: “The service that we need to do, is give more focus on the second order effects of us canceling these events, and on the people that are reliant on us running these events from a societal perspective.”

For example, anyone involved in the execution of the event could be affected by an event cancellation, from venue and supplier staff to third party vendors, baristas and videographers.

By being considerate of these people who are indirectly affected, we can help them do better during this time - especially with all the economic uncertainty. If you do decide to cancel your event or conference, some ideas that could help you address the impact include:

  1. Give attendees the opportunity to donate their refunds: Allow people who can afford it to have an option to donate their ticket payments. That way, you can still afford to pay the services that will have to be cancelled, such as videographers, baristas etc.
  2. Ensure suppliers are still paying employees: Check with your suppliers and vendors to get proper data on who will really be impacted by your decision, so that you can work to mitigate that where possible.

“It’s an extraordinary time, and we need to do extraordinary things, and so in that case, that’s an easy one. Here’s this person, they’re not going to get paid if they don’t do this. We can support them. We should support them.” - Robert MacLean

Experiment with creating engaging, online experiences

One of the huge draw-cards for meetups and events is the fact that people can network with others who are like-minded and have similar experiences. While we may not be able to gather in large groups right now, there are many people sitting at home looking for opportunities to fill their time. This is an exciting opportunity for organisers to start thinking experimentally around:

  1. Running online events/conferences, and
  2. Designing engaging experiences.

Running online events/conferences:

Since only physical events are a problem, most conference organisers are considering completely remote conferences. The difficult part is that we’re all still learning what kinds of tools and formats work best for hosting an online event. The type of solution you implement will also depend on the audience’s reason for attending your events- for instance, someone who wants to network might not be excited about a broadcast-style presentation.

These are the main suggestions that we discussed:

  1. Consider which format would work best: Some events would need a broadcasting format with Q&As, while others would need to be smaller and allow for workshopping or networking. Once you know this, you will have a better idea about which tools to use (i.e. Zoom, webinar or streaming services).
  2. Determine your technical requirements: Figure out if you’re recording or streaming, and decide whether to do it yourself or hire a supplier (i.e. streaming company) who can do the entire event for you.
  3. Source speakers carefully: When picking speakers for your event, you need to consider if they’ll be able to accommodate your events technical requirements - as well as whether they’re comfortable speaking to an audience remotely.

Designing engaging experiences:

If you’ve ever joined a remote call of any type, you’ll know how easy it is to get distracted by your cat scaling the curtains, or Slack notifications popping up on your screen. This presents an interesting challenge for organisers: How can they make their online events interactive enough that their attendees pay attention and keep engaging?

While we’re still trying to figure out how exactly to replicate a serendipitous, hallway interaction online, some possible ideas that we discussed include:

  1. An interactive conference venue: Cobus explained how the AWS online events team uses customised software which allows attendees to navigate around a virtual hall, direct chat with experts, choose which talks to attend and even participate in Q&As.
  2. Send Uber Eats vouchers: DevConf organisers have arranged for all attendees to receive an Uber Eats food voucher, this means they will have more time to focus on enjoying the conference because they won’t have to worry about making lunch.
  3. Deliver a swag box with interactive items: This would be a carefully designed package containing items that make it possible to ‘enter’ certain virtual rooms in the conference, or participate in games or workshops.
  4. Experiment with different ways of interacting: Get the audience used to new ways of interacting with one another by creating opportunities that clearly add value to them. For instance, DevOpsDays Cape Town has ‘open rooms’ to encourage attendees to talk about topics they’re interested in without needing guidance from an ‘expert’.

Share your experiences and engage with others

Having this discussion reminded us that we are all part of a community that is willing to help. It’s empowering to know you’re not alone, and having people you can bounce ideas off of, and share knowledge with, is invaluable to quickly solving shared problems.

If you’re a local event organiser, we encourage you to reach out and speak (virtually) to others who are solving similar problems, share what you’ve learnt and keep caring about building connections that can help our community survive and thrive during this time. To chat more about this, you can join the ZA Tech Slack workspace where the channels #conference_organisers and #meetup_organisers will be specifically useful to you.

Let’s keep this conversation going - feel free to comment below if you have any questions, problems or solutions around running digital events!

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