“The event will be organized differently but just as well,” said City of Turku’s Manager of International Affairs Mika Akkanen at the end of June when asked about the arrangements for the EUSBSR Annual Forum. The related steering group led by Akkanen had just decided to organise the event virtually and the air was thick with question marks.
The project manager’s spontaneous but confident response has lived on as a guideline for the virtual implementation, which was considered plan C to start with. The event for some thousand participants had already been postponed from June to October due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The arrangements were well on their way when the coronavirus hit. First, we decided to push back the conference, but in June we concluded that the situation would not have relented by autumn. Still, instead of cancelling the event, we decided to make it fully virtual. Even a hybrid implementation seemed too unsure an option,” Akkanen says.
EUSBSR (The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region) is an agreement between the EU Member States and the Commission on strengthening cooperation in the Baltic Sea region. Turku was adamant not to lose the chance to host the EUSBSR Annual Forum 2020, which it applied for with considerable effort since Denmark waived the opportunity 18 months ago. Last year’s Forum was held in Gdansk, Poland.
“Our willingness to host the event stemmed form the City Strategy. Turku wants to be the most interesting city in the northern Baltic Sea region and actively involved in processes and activities related the Baltic Sea,” Akkanen explains.
The City of Turku aims to organise an international congress or event every few years, often with a theme related in some way to the sea and the environment.
“Turku has a long history in working to advance cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region, especially in the fields of environmental protection and sustainability. We are honoured to host the EUSBSR Annual Forum for the second time – especially in these exceptional circumstances when the Forum this year will be held online from Turku, for the first time. For us this is a sign of trust and appreciation for the persevering work done by Turku,” says Mayor of Turku Minna Arve.
As the host of the EUSBSR Annual Forum, Turku has the opportunity to influence the event content and its preparations. Alongside the City of Turku, the main organisers are the Council of the Baltic Sea States and the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
“As the host city, we can add a local angle to the content and impress upon the decision-makers what issues related to the sea mean here in Turku. All conferences are important platforms for communications, branding and protecting one’s interests. There is always a content-related objective in addition to the goal of gaining income for the travel sector,” Akkanen says.
Logomo demonstrates its agility and goes virtual
The EUSBSR Annual Forum will be organised at the Logomo Event and Conference Centre in Turku on 20 October. The versatile venue will remain the home base for the conference, despite the impromptu virtual arrangements.
“It is extremely important to us to ensure that even though people are participating remotely from across Europe, they can mentally anchor the event in Turku and Logomo,” Akkanen says, praising the partner’s agility in the difficult situation.
Logomo and Bright, which will provide the technology for the event, refused to be crippled by the spring’s coronavirus catastrophe and began virtual arrangements without missing a beat.
“We built a studio at Logomo, which provides an excellent technical framework for the broadcasts. This took fairly little effort, since some of the equipment was already there. We had plenty of experience with regard to streaming, but only as sideshows for the main event,” says Bright Finland’s Project Manager Sami Heikkilä.
During the Annual Forum, about a dozen people will be on location at Logomo – the opening speakers and panel moderators, in addition to the technical crew. According to Heikkilä, virtual events are in many ways like TV broadcasts.
“Webcasts are everywhere these days, but credible event production takes quality in terms of content and technical implementation. People can concentrate and keep up with a broadcast in spurts that last about an hour.
Bright’s professionals have helped the City of Turku prepare an organically flowing script for the Annual Forum. The organisers must also carefully consider what to offer participants during breaks, which conference guests often use to refresh themselves and do some networking.
“As an example, Forum participants can use their break to visit a virtual exhibit containing video and text materials related to a specific concept and provided by various operators in the Baltic Sea region. You also have the opportunity to use an app for communication,” Akkanen says.
“Networking at a virtual event takes bit more initiative than usual, but the range of seminar platforms available is taking huge strides,” Heikkilä points out.
Workshops to lay the groundwork for practical discussions
The themes of the Annual Forum organised by the City of Turku are sustainable development and innovations. The event’s project manager hopes to hear as few celebratory speeches as possible and, instead, plenty of discussion about ways to mobilise the EUSBSR Action Plan, which was updated in July.
“The strategy has three focus areas, which we have used as a basis for the Annual Forum’s programme, including the discussion panels,” Akkanen says to provide some background.
The event having gone virtual, a decision was made to hold the various thematic workshops in advance.
“We organised roughly ten virtual workshops before the event, and invited experts and interest groups to participate. The workshops provide our panellists with concrete information on what the various operators want from the EUSBSR and what kinds of ideas they can offer.
During the Annual Forum, the participants can present the panellists with questions and comments, which the moderators can then include in the conversation. One of the moderators is Peter Nyman, a familiar Finnish TV personality, who also appears in the Forum’s promotional videos.
“Virtual events must be marketed somewhat differently to entice people to spend an entire day at their computers,” Akkanen emphasises.
As for the visual and story-based means of highlighting Turku and Logomo before and during the event, Heikkilä refers to them as the “magic of television”.
“The Forum is important to the image of Turku and Logomo. It is our chance to show the international audience our mettle in high-quality event production.”
Virtuality is here to stay
The Annual Forum and its preparations present a valuable lesson for the City of Turku, which intends to share information generously with future hosts. The event model for the future will most likely be a hybrid where some participate physically and others virtually.
“People want personal contact, too, but virtual arrangements are certainly not going anywhere. It is not necessary to fly halfway across the world for every conference. Logomo is an excellent venue for a hybrid event,” Heikkilä says.
Mika Akkanen intends to be on location at Logomo when the Annual Forum begins, even though most of his work will take place before the event. The various phases of the organisation process have been too thrilling to miss the grand finale.
“I do not want to miss one second. I am very much interested in the virtual implementation and want to see how the technology works and where all the cables go. I will obviously try to stay out of the way,” Akkanen says with a chuckle.
As zero hour creeps ever closer, he is increasingly satisfied that the City of Turku and its partners were brave enough to accept the challenge despite the circumstances and ensure high-quality implementation for the event. It is a message to each an everyone of us: life goes on despite many things being different.
Text: Merja Kallikari
Photo: Jaska Poikonen
Tips for virtual conference organisers
- The content is what matters. The competition for people’s time is fierce, so consider the event’s agenda, main messages and target groups carefully.
- Do not be afraid of bringing visions to a meeting. Ideas that seem completely unrealistic may be actually possible. The professionals will tell you if an idea is feasible.
- In the case of a hybrid event, think of it as arranging two parallel and equally important events. During coffee breaks, there has to be something available for virtual participants, too.
- Webcasts are like TV programmes. Get a professional to work on the script so that the broadcast rolls along smoothly and keeps people engaged.
- Remember to include regular breaks. Concise information packages and discussions help maintain interest better than hours of intense mental effort.
- Technical quality is important. If the broadcast cuts out even for five seconds, you may very well lose up to half of your audience.
- Get a professional moderator or host to maintain proper pacing and move things along with support from the studio director. The host can also be an avatar. Your imagination is the limit.
- If the nature of the event permits, you should also include engaging elements, such as polls, message walls and chats, to keep the audience involved and make the experience more personal.
The tips are courtesy of Bright Finland’s Project Manager Sami Heikkilä.