Five Learnings from Hosting an Event During a Pandemic

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Jun 02, 2020
by Ruth Richardson and Pablo Vidueira
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Five Learnings from Hosting an Event During a Pandemic

Ruth Richardson, Executive Director and Pablo Vidueira, Blue Marble Evaluator, at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food reflect on the Salzburg Process Ruth Richardson and Pablo Vidueira reflect on the Salzburg Process

This article was first published on the Global Alliance for the Future of Food's Medium account.

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food is a learning organization. By taking time to reflect and to critically analyse, a learning organization is arguably more adaptable, less prone to making significant mistakes, more aligned in their collective ambitions, and able to better meet future opportunities and challenges.

In March 2019 the Global Alliance started the planning process to convene 300 key global stakeholders on “The Climate Emergency and the Future of Food” in Salzburg, Austria in May 2020. In March 2020, as the team watched the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, it was clear that we would need to either cancel the event or pivot to host it online.

In the spirit of innovation, adaptability, and collaboration, the Global Alliance and our partners — Salzburg Global Seminar and Meridian Institute — quickly embraced the change and hosted what we now call “The Salzburg Process.” The Salzburg Process might well have been one of the first global online convenings on food systems transformation and action on the climate emergency to take place during the pandemic.

We’ve since been asked numerous times about what we’ve learned from having to switch from a face-to-face meeting to a virtual event. Here are our top 5 key takeaways for others to learn from:

1. Diverse, inclusive participation requires an intentional, high-touch approach. Online convenings open the door to people all around the world to take part — especially those who can’t travel, for whatever reason. Yet, that participation becomes limited to people who have stable access to computers, electricity, and the internet. Scheduling to suit multiple time zones is also key. Though our funding partners offered high-speed internet reimbursements and we scheduled sessions at different times of the day to enhance inclusivity and engage diverse perspectives, participation in The Salzburg Process from the Global South was lower than we expected. Looking ahead to next time, we know that an even more in-depth intentional approach will be required.

2. Think physical convening; act digital convening. Getting to know people at your table, having time to discuss issues over a coffee, swapping stories, and making connections are all the great “extras” that come from an in-person event. Our original plan was to host a three-day convening, with high-profile keynotes, author panels, informal receptions, and breakout discussion groups and workshops. Instead, we parcelled up the schedule to rollout over 3–4 weeks and got creative with the networking possibilities. To give the convening that human touch, we asked a number of our partners to host informal “meet and greet” sessions, inviting participants from similar time zones to sign-up and connect over a coffee or a glass of wine — depending on their preference and where in the world they were. We had great feedback on this social approach.

3. Move slowly, don’t break anything: identify your technology needs and choose wisely. There are a lot of different platforms on the market which are designed to enhance participation and engagement in online convenings. These platforms can either be key accelerators or key stumbling blocks. In the case of The Salzburg Process, Zoom breakout rooms during the webinar sessions were essential because of the high pay-off and almost zero learning curve. Meanwhile, the online collaboration platform Hivebrite was a heavy-lift and a steeper learning curve. As more of us host events and test various platforms, there will inevitably be a convergence towards platforms that are more effective and that, crucially, participants will be more familiar with. Always have your participant’s needs in mind and share your learnings so that we all continue to adapt to working virtually.

4. Feed the system with information, lots of information. Organizers and participants both need to have time and all relevant information well in advance in order to really benefit from the event experience. Unlike face-to-face meetings, online events do not lend themselves to garnering the full attention of participants, even more so in the midst of a global pandemic. And it’s not always as obvious what to do, when, and with who as it is at a conference. It is crucial to have everyone — participants and organizers — on the same page to ensure clarity and reduce stress from uncertainty. Information on process design, expectations, roles, and expected actions need to be more deliberate, more accurate, and more actionable than in face-to-face convenings where there are less inputs to handle. Crucially, information needs to be communicated in a timely way.

5. Don’t underestimate the value of the right people at the right time, in the right place. The right capacity is essential for any convening but even more so in an online environment where discussions are more dispersed and lack the “physical glue” to bring outputs and outcomes together. We composed a robust team of lead facilitators, auxiliary facilitators, technology support, note-takers, Hivebrite monitors, as well as cross-cutting teams assigned to different “meeting rooms” who listened for priority messages and other common themes. We met regularly throughout the process with clear, highly-detailed instruction on what each person was responsible for and when.

Ultimately, reflection and learning is an important mechanism to generate collective knowledge that can be applied to future actions. Sharing insights generated also contributes to building more collaborative social change — especially for those, like us, who work in a complex environment.