Pandemic proofing events – how innovation kept the show on the road

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for change worldwide, both in the short and long-term. Alongside industries that relied on in-person interaction such as hospitality, the theatre and sports, the events industry has had to innovate to survive.

Despite many of us never having used Zoom or Microsoft Teams pre-2020, online events were on the rise before the pandemic saw us ‘locked down’ at home. Forbes reported that the virtual events industry was already worth nearly $78 billion in 2019. But in 2020 things certainly went up a gear, with nearly 75 million attendees registering for more than one million virtual events via Eventbrite.

While some events have moved easily online, for others the in-person experience is a key part of the offer. Education events are an example of this. Choosing which university to go to can be a daunting experience, which is normally aided by Open Days and campus events that allow potential students to explore what may become their new campus and city. When Covid-19 restrictions were introduced, the Events team at the University of Derby had to adapt quickly to ensure this need could still be met.

For Nik Emmonds, the University’s Events Manager, this was an opportunity to innovate: “There was a multitude of different online event platforms that came on the market at this time, which mainly took the form of webinars. These served a purpose, but at Derby we wanted to push the boundaries.

Nik Emmonds, Events Manager, looking towards the camera

There was a multitude of different online event platforms that came on the market at this time. These served a purposed, but at Derby we wanted to push the boundaries.

Nik Emmonds
Events Operations Manager

“We started with the idea of running an Open Day based on the format of a live television show, which became known as ‘Open Day Live’, stepping up the level of production to really showcase to prospective students what the University is all about. We hired a TV studio for live interviews and combined this with various live feeds from different parts of the campus, alongside some pre-recorded content taken from before the pandemic.

"Our hosts allowed us to link to and from the studio, resulting in a morning show feel. We worked with an external organisation to access all the necessary equipment but also engaged our Sound, Light and Live Event Technology students to manage filming the live events from campus and provide them with valuable work experience.”

Sound, Light and Live Event technology graduate Charlie Herbert was hired as the Stage Manager of Open Day Live. Commenting on the opportunity to be involved in this new way of hosting the Open Day, he said: “You’re able to reach a wider audience with online events like this which is a real positive from an ‘attendance’ perspective. They weren’t missing out on the content of an Open Day, if anything they got to see more as we were able to slot in extra parts you wouldn’t be able to see in-person.”

But the task of condensing everything potential students need to know into a five-hour live stream wasn’t easy. Nik said: “We could have taken the easy route and put out something pre-recorded, with all the mistakes edited out, looking polished and nice, but we wanted that feeling of being live so our audience could benefit from a more authentic experience. It did increase the pressure though, especially working with so many different people.

“The biggest challenge for an event like this was audience engagement. The ability for someone to just ask a question in the moment is the one thing you can miss from face-to-face interaction.”

Staff member and student using a camera at Open Day Live

The University wasn’t the only organisation in the city having to quickly pivot from in-person to online events. Derby Book Festival also made some big changes to how they delivered their summer 2021 Festival, as despite getting the green light to hold the festival in-person, Gini Smith, Festival Manager, knew they’d have to do something different.

“We were actually one of the first festivals in the country to go in-person again. It was a real learning curve, but we quickly realised that we’d need to offer live streamed events to audiences who didn’t want to attend, as customer confidence was still quite low in the summer. We were lucky to be able to offer a hybrid book festival, streaming 27 of our events.

“This gave us the opportunity to expand our audience and develop our skills and knowledge on how to deliver these types of events, working in partnership with our venues and suppliers. We also had some overseas viewers, so it was exciting seeing the festival go international. We were lucky to have support from University of Derby film students and staff who operated the cameras for us at some of our venues.”

Now that most restrictions are lifted and people can get together in large groups again, will online events be a thing of the past? Not for Nik, who says: “We will definitely be incorporating online events going forward. There will always be people who aren’t able to get to the event in-person. Whereas previously you would just loose them as an audience member, now we can reach them in another way.” This is echoed elsewhere in the industry, with 75% of event marketers saying they plan to continue running virtual events in the long term.

Charlie also sees online events as a welcome addition to in-person events: “I now work for a production company that focuses on events, including small scale festivals. During lockdown they had to adapt and bought streaming equipment as their clients were asking for this service. They love that they can play it back and that they’ve got footage for their promotional activities as well.

“I do think people will still want to go to in-person events though. You can see a concert online, but it's not the same thing as being there and in the moment.”

Authors at the summer Derby Book Festival agreed. Gini said: “So many authors at the very start of their event said: ‘I just want to say how amazing it is to be here in-person with a live audience’. You share laughs and then the excitement of meeting the author to get your book signed afterwards, but with online events you aren’t going to get that wonderful interactive atmosphere.

“However, I don’t think that having the addition of the digital option has done anything to harm Derby Book Festival, we are going ahead with digital options as well as in-person events this autumn and are talking to contractors about the summer festival next year. It will be interesting to see if it dilutes the live audience in the long-term.”

For Nik, online events are here to stay: “I can’t see them going anywhere anytime soon, as an event organiser it really gives you that second string to your bow.”

Written by Emily Bishton

Best bits from the Open Day Live - September 2020

Best bits from the Open Day Live - September 2020

View Best bits from the Open Day Live - September 2020 video transcript