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.”

Sign with a description of what's happening on the street

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.

And this is not Amy’s only success. In 2018 she received a Dean’s Award for her great academic performance, in June 2020, Amy was commissioned by Derby Live to create a public sculpture based on the Silk Mill, and in July 2021 Amy was one of five students to win a Banks Mill student residency award.

Banks Mill Studios is an innovation space for creative and digital industries, established by the University and its students and graduates, as well as supported by other creative entrepreneurs. The residency award winners were provided with access to shared studio space with free rent for a year in order to help the artists develop their creativity, knowledge and skills.

“Before I got the award, I wasn’t very confident in my work but the staff from Banks Mill Studios continuously helped me gain that confidence needed,” says Amy. “I cannot commend them enough. They encouraged me to apply for things, such as the council fund and have been motivating me to work towards my goals.”

Amy says she has always known art is her passion: “I’ve always been arty. My mum’s an artist and my sister is very creative. It’s always been something I’ve loved; I had just chosen the wrong courses while at school. I did woodwork instead of art and I was awful at it,” she laughs.

Before getting into the arts, Amy says she had a stressful job which impacted on her mental health.

“I left the job, took a break to improve my mental health and now I’m at the University of Derby studying what I love and am passionate about.

“I get up in the morning full of inspiration, thinking that I want to do things; I’ve got so many ideas that I want to realise. Art helped me recover from my mental health issues and if I carry on doing the art in my way then I can find a way to a nice and positive life.”

Find out about BA (Hons) Fine Art studies at the University of Derby.

Written by Ellie Masena

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