How Swansea University fell in love with virtual events
When experienced event organisers Ellie Carpenter and Penny Lauder went on their Christmas break, they were disappointed yet unsurprised to hear neither of their annual, spring event series would go ahead. When the pandemic had broken the previous year, the University had cancelled in person events for the foreseeable future following government guidelines. But they were hoping 2021 was going to be different. With the five-year project, Cherish-DE ending, it was supposed to be a time of celebration.
Nobody wanted to cancel but, as multi-day events, there was a feeling that if they couldn’t be held face-to-face, then they couldn’t be held at all.
When Ellie and Penny returned after the break though, the project Director had a change of heart and suggested holding them online.
“It was a daunting prospect because there was so much to do and so little time,” says Penny.
With neither having organised a virtual event before, let alone a series, and with less than eight weeks to pull it off, Ellie and Penny invited three companies to provide quotes to digitally support their events.
“We had that initial meeting with Axiom and we both immediately felt they knew what we wanted and could deliver,” says Penny. “It was such a short turnaround, with these two very different multi-day events running in parallel, but Axiom just has so much experience. They made their resources readily available, were very understanding and they led us to a great outcome.”
Ellie adds, “We’d always come away from our meetings with Axiom thinking ‘I’m so glad we are working with them’. There were loads of things they prompted us on that I hadn’t even thought about. They’d ask questions like: ‘What are you going to do if this happens or if this fails?’ They gave us loads of ideas from their experiences of other events. We really benefited from that handholding. Without Axiom these events wouldn’t have been as successful as they were.”
Yet while both wanted something as special and memorable as an in-person event, at the outset both organisers shared a similar fear; that these events would feel like a compromise and that delegates would fail to come away with the same knowledge, network or experiences as those from previous years.
The format was adapted from day-long events to a series of shorter ones to avoid screen fatigue. The team also got creative in helping participants build a sense of community and have some fun.
In advance of one of the events, participants received a DIY pizza making kit. Then, at a virtual social evening, everyone made, cooked, and ‘enjoyed’ their pizzas together.
The most important outcome for this multi-day event was that the participants built their own professional networks and embarked on collaborations.
“It wasn’t just turn up to the event and leave,” says Penny. “The interactive virtual event platform was live the whole time between sessions, so participants could maintain contact, nip in and out to get to know each other. We even had virtual social sessions – they weren’t compulsory to attend, but they were informal and fun.”
The participants also submitted a short video in advance, introducing themselves and their research area. These clips weren’t anything fancy, just shot on a desktop or smartphone, but they were great. They were hosted on the platform, which helped people seem more real before the event even started.
The team did lots of little things like this which, enabled by the right tech, cumulatively built up to have a great impact. Not tied to any one tech provider, Axiom selected the best platform to meet the projects needs for these events.
And the biggest benefit of migrating to the virtual world? Both Ellie and Penny agree it was the extended reach.
“One of these events would usually have seen us welcome 25-30 people on campus but we were able to open it up to so many more by hosting it online. We even had international participants for the first time. That international aspect and the inclusivity of it was great,” says Ellie.
The first event series
Just shy of 400 people registered for the University’s ‘Festival of Ideas’ public event series.
These events, spanning four short days, showcased Cherish-DE’s work and its partners, to the University and its wider community.
The series boasted a wealth of sessions and speakers, including former professional rugby union and rugby league player, Gareth Thomas CBE.
“Feedback from colleagues, attendees and the speakers themselves was really positive. I don’t think this will ever go back to being solely an in-person event. It’s changed the face of it by having it online,” surmises Ellie.
The second event series
Nearly double the number of early career researchers than ever before participated in the University’s Cherish-DE ‘Crucible’ event series, including international participants joining for the first time from Canada, Mumbai, Miami and Berlin.
“These events by no means felt like a compromise. Collaborations have come out of it, which is exactly what we wanted. And so many said what a great experience it was, I’m happy we did it,” says Penny.
What our client says
From Ellie Carpenter, Marketing and Communications Officer:
“Virtual events have changed people’s perceptions. Organising these with Axiom certainly changed mine. It just seems crazy now to ask anybody to travel across the world for one or two days when the same impact’s possible from your desk. I see a future with far more virtual events, and I certainly wouldn’t rule them out going forward.
I was personally very surprised by how well things went and how well received everything was. After we did that first public event we were on a high; that then gave us the confidence to do more. I can’t thank Axiom enough because we wouldn’t have achieved what we did without them. There are other events in the pipeline being organised elsewhere in the University, including one with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and I didn’t hesitate to recommend Axiom.”
From Penny Lauder, Research Engagement Officer:
“I would absolutely recommend virtual events. I no longer think ‘well that was a good ‘patch’ when things weren’t really working’, virtual events are so credible. Ours really looked good and we just had so many compliments about that and how they came across.
We couldn’t fault Axiom. They were always available, they always made time for us. We trusted their experience and judgement and they led us to a great conclusion. They were also great fun to work with. I want to mention that because we did have a lot of fun with them and that was a lovely extra dimension, which just made this whole experience enjoyable.”