When COVID-19 struck, African Agenda and our longstanding client the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) were faced with an enormous challenge: cancel their flagship annual conference or find a way to deliver it virtually. Boasting more than 1,500 attendees, 57 speakers, breakaway sessions, a 3D virtual exhibition, slick chat functions, and seamless Q & A sessions over three days – the outcome far surpassed everyone’s expectations.
The Courage to Go Virtual
In early 2020, the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic became all too clear to those of us in the conference hosting and organising business. The life blood of conferences is the human exchange: the connection, networking, and interactions of the traditional in-person conference – without the ability to gather under one roof anymore, what’s left?
Plenty of organisations experimented by taking their conferences online using Zoom webinars and other platforms. But it rapidly became clear that this experience was prone to falling flat. It’s all too easy to zone out of a Zoom room, to turn off the camera, to multi-task. A viable virtual conference that can replicate the engagement of a real-life event and hold the attention of attendees requires a total rethink of how to conceptualise and stage a conference.
At African Agenda, we believed that tapping into our extensive international network of professional conference organising colleagues, researching global best practice, and innovating with a local tech team could help us deliver a flawless virtual conference. Greenlighting our ambitious game-plan and embracing the concept of a fully virtual conference required significant courage on behalf of the client too. Fortunately, the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA), which had been a client of ours since 2007 and whose flagship annual conference was under threat of cancellation, was willing to believe alongside us.
Virtual conferences are a good substitute when the main aim of a conference is to educate and share information.
Some global conference organisers were quick to pivot their business model to take their events virtual, but in South Africa, the uptake was a lot slower. The reason being that it is a complex and expensive endeavour – and it’s not easy to change the way you do things overnight. But African Agenda directors Keith Burton and Kristen Tremeer were determined to pioneer the concept locally and took themselves back to school to learn from the ground up how to rethink their offering.
“What we experienced as we learned to plan and execute flawless virtual conferences was a step change,” says Keith. “We brainstormed, researched, tested, and researched some more, trying to find out what a virtual conference attendee wanted, and crucially, how to avoid what they didn’t want. Early in 2020, we sat through a few virtual conferences which simply did not deliver, on any level. Audio-visual and tech missteps, loss of sound and picture faults, and that all too obvious lack of ability for conference attendees to interact, kept us searching for the virtual platform that truly could provide an interactive experience.”
We also drew heavily on our relationships with colleagues in the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) to ensure global best practice was rapidly absorbed into our working models.
“We also needed to keep our other key stakeholders, namely the conference sponsors, happy with their positioning and access to attendees, and had to work closely with them to ensure their expectations were met. And focussing on that key differentiator that makes a good conference great – the ability to engage and interact with conference content and fellow attendees – was paramount” says Kristen.
At the start of every conference year, Convention project manager Lisa Vickers meets with ASSA management and the Organising Committee to decide on that year’s goals, planning timeline, and key fundraising deliverables. 2020 was different in that we had to reimagine each element of a highly successful annual conference as it would be in the virtual space. African Agenda then creates a conference project plan while the OC develops programme themes and shortlists keynote speakers.
Channels included website, social media, email newsletters, and direct membership messaging by ASSA. Our dedication to the attendee experience meant sharing detailed “what to expect” information, lots of FAQs, and the development of all new communications language to capture virtual. Unique attendee benefits like couriered refreshment packs and a virtual dinner were important in selling the “virtual package”.
It takes a surprising number of real people and real hardware to produce a virtual conference! We chose Century City Conference Centre to host our studios, offices, and the control room. In all, we had 3 live studios with 2 hosts and 7 producers and technicians each, plus our team of 6 – 33 in all.
1,500 attendees, 57 speakers, 3 concurrent live streams, a virtual dinner, mindfulness sessions, special delivery refreshment packs, a virtual exhibition hall with 3D stands, a help desk, live Q&A and polls, and gamification including bingo, a treasure hunt, and a quiz to keep attendees engaged and interested.
Although we couldn’t meet in person, we could still gather in the virtual space to continue learning, growing, and contributing to South Africa’s recovery.
By October 2020, we were ready to produce ASSA’s 2020 Virtual Convention – a premium event with the highest expectations from the client, exhibitors, attendees, and sponsors. Ultimately, we produced a conference with more than 1,500 attendees, 57 speakers, 3 concurrent live streams, a virtual dinner, a virtual exhibition hall allowing for 3D exhibition stands with videos, brochures, and interactivity, a help desk, and gamification that included bingo, a treasure hunt, and a quiz to keep attendees engaged and interested.
The Convention was a huge success and far surpassed the expectations of all involved. Our client Jo Coetzee, head of events and logistics at ASSA, said “Especially with the new way of producing and offering the Convention, African Agenda did a stellar job! With the complexity of the programme, around 33 sessions that ran over the 3 days, national as well as international speakers, hosts, and moderators, I would suggest no one else”. And attendees felt the same way – the post-Convention survey asked attendees to rate the virtual Convention and 77% of respondents said it was “excellent” or “very good”.
The sponsors were also very satisfied with the service provided by African Agenda, with one sponsor commenting that, “The service was awesome, as always. We’ll definitely sign up as a sponsor and exhibitor should the Convention remain virtual in 2021.” Another sponsor agreed that it was a great platform for attendees, presenters, and sponsors to connect and network.
Achieving such rave reviews is not something that happens accidentally. “Imagine a CNN news studio,” says Keith, “with a professional anchor, an actuarial subject expert, and remote presenters and panellists brought in live from all corners of the globe. Now, imagine 3 such studios in 3 different rooms, staffed by a technical team of 20 people, overseeing millions of rands’ worth of equipment. The intensity levels are through the roof because once the production begins, it runs like a freight train that only stops at the final destination. We’re online, we’re live, we’re rolling – and there is no room for error or do-overs.”
In addition, in a logistical feat that is arguably a first in virtual conferencing in South Africa, 1,500-plus snack boxes were delivered to attendees around the country before Day 1 began, containing hot chocolate, brownies, coffee, and rusks so that attendees didn’t miss out on the traditional tea break of conferences “in real life”. Moreover, on Day 2, some 300 attendees who had signed up for the virtual dinner each received a box of dinner ingredients to assemble at home, while a magician, sommelier, and professional chef entertained and guided them through the experience.
After every speaker and presentation, the Q&A function developed for the conference was widely used. “Attendees could post questions which were conveyed live to the speaker who would answer in real-time. Interestingly, we found that these sessions generated dynamic discussion and interaction, certainly livelier than any we had encountered previously at in-person ASSA Conventions,” says Kristen.
Keith says that a huge amount of the credit is due the tech team, a group of specialists adept at providing the highest quality online audio-visual experiences. “We engaged the services of a technical director because of the complexity of a production with 3 live studios running simultaneously, streamed through a virtual conference platform. This allowed our African Agenda team to try on some new hats: supervising courier deliveries, help desk, on-boarding remote speakers, and running a quiz and very competitive bingo game!” says Keith.
Thanks to our close relationship with our IAPCO colleagues, we could pick up the phone and trouble-shoot virtual conferencing snags, even inviting international colleagues to log on as objective viewers to ensure quality and that we were meeting global standards. One of our “mystery shoppers”, a colleague from New Zealand, commented: “Some really nice features. Overall a very good site. Well done even if virtual conference management isn’t what any of us signed up to!”
This helped us deliver a virtual conference that was highly rated by attendees and by our client. According to Jo Coetzee from ASSA, the experience was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. “Trying something new is always uncomfortable, but thanks to our longstanding relationship with African Agenda we knew that we could trust them to deliver a knockout event. As a society, we are committed to the value of connecting and learning as a profession, and although we couldn’t meet in person, we were thrilled that we were able to still gather together in a virtual space to continue learning, growing, and contributing to South Africa’s recovery.”
Jo CoetzeeEvents and Logistics, Actuarial Society of South Africa