In 2018, Professor Ulla Hytti and Professor Jarna Heinonen from the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Turku decided to apply to host Research in Entrepreneurship and Small Business 2021 (RENT), the most significant European research conference in entrepreneurship. The timing seemed appropriate, as Turku had hosted the conference once before in 2001, led by Professor Emeritus Antti Paasio, and this 20th anniversary could be celebrated at the 2021 conference.

The first RENT conference was organised in Brussels in 1987 by the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM), an international organisation that has more than 40,000 researchers as its members. EIASM owns and organizes the annual RENT conference as an event and continues to serve as its conference office, through which such things as the participant registrations and money transactions are taken care of.

Then the pandemic broke out and also interrupted the normal schedule of annual events related to research in entrepreneurship. RENT 2019 was implemented onsite in Berlin in November 2019, with the theme ‘Embracing uncertainty’, which foreshadowed what was to come. The plan was to hold the 2020 conference in Naples, but the conference was ultimately held virtually from Brussels, with help from Italian researchers.

Decisions were made based on facts instead of assumptions

In June 2021, the three parties responsible for the RENT conference, namely ECSB, EIASM and entrepreneurship researchers from Turku, decided to conduct a survey to determine the probability of entrepreneurship researchers travelling to Finland if the conference was held onsite in Turku. The survey not only asked about researchers’ willingness or eagerness to participate but also whether their employers would permit them to travel. The results were promising, and most intended to travel.

Another survey was conducted in August 2021, and as the results were still encouraging, the decision to hold the conference in Turku was made at a joint meeting of organisations and chairpersons at the end of August. After the summer, the infection rates in Finland were encouragingly low, and it was also estimated that the vaccination of the population would progress effectively. The reservations of the conference and dinner venues were confirmed, and negotiations were launched regarding the organisation of the welcome reception offered by the City of Turku.

“EIASM, the organisation that owns the conference, also strongly supported the onsite implementation, as experiences of hybrid conferences had shown that people would resort to online participation at the last minute. Of course, an event held onsite is more profitable business,” states Professor Ulla Hytti.

“Personally, I felt that organizing a hybrid conference would have caused double the amount of work for us. A hybrid event would also have caused additional costs to the organisers. From the start, I thought that it was an either-or situation – the event should be organized either on location or fully online.”

“Once the decision had been made, we simply had to take care of the arrangements and keep our cool,” Ulla Hytti says calmly.

Last-minute surprises

RENT 2021 was held at Radisson Blu Marina Palace Hotel in Turku from 18 to 19 November 2021 with the pre-conference day held at the Turku School of Economics. Turku welcomed 240 delegates, of whom 200 came from abroad. The nationality with the most representatives was Germans. On the conference website, the delegates were instructed to use the Finentry service, which was the best source of up-to-date information on arriving in Finland.

There was enough excitement for every day until the end. The pandemic situation gradually took a turn for the worse in Finland in the autumn, and the organisers had to follow the instructions of the authorities every day.

The COVID-19 passport was adopted for the first time throughout Finland at short notice during the week before the conference. Of course, delegates from Central Europe had had more time to get used to the COVID-19 passport, and even the delegates who had vaccination and test certificates from the USA were seamlessly able to present equivalent documents.

“We didn’t have any problems with the adoption of the COVID-19 passport. We should have started using it in Finland much earlier,” Ulla Hytti states.
However, no one predicted Turku City Hall’s employees going on strike right before the City’s reception.

“For a moment, we pondered whether we would have City personnel or our own people standing at the City Hall’s door. At the time, I told everyone that ‘yes, yes, yes, we can do it’ and decided to believe in it myself,” Ulla Hytti laughs.

“Ultimately, the City of Turku’s Head of International Affairs Mika Akkanen himself came and checked our guests’ COVID-19 passports at the City Hall’s door. And that was perfect, as he is also an alumnus of Turku School of Economics.”

“The City’s reception was very successful, and the guests considered the welcome speech given by the City of Turku’s newly appointed Deputy Mayor Ville Valkonen in particular to be representative, inspiring and suitable for the entrepreneurship theme,” says Ulla Hytti.

All is well that ends well

The RENT conference was eventually held successfully in Turku, in the middle of the darkest November. Based on the feedback survey, the arrangements went very well, and the researchers were inspired by the chance to meet up with their long-term cooperation partners after a longer break in conferences. The conference and accommodation took place mainly in the premises of Radisson Blu Marina Palace, and the hotel’s wide range of services and conference catering received also excellent feedback. The participants also praised the notebooks and delegate bags sewn from leftover fabrics that were offered by the City of Turku, as well as their ‘Urban legends since 1229’ theme.

The dinner related to the RENT conference was catered in the tall and airy Aitiopaikka Hall of the State Office Building, which allowed the principles of sustainable meetings to be followed and the delegates to walk to the location from their hotel while enjoying the evening lights of the bank of the Aura River.

“Niina Obradovic from the Aitiopaikka restaurant had a great attitude. The COVID-19 passport was also a new thing for the restaurant, but its staff immediately started using the passport without problems. And best of all, the conference dinner was one of the best dinners we’ve ever had,” Ulla Hytti praises.

“The most difficult part about the whole project was the last-minute uncertainty about whether people would actually show up or whether they would cancel their trip at the last minute,” Ulla Hytti recalls.

“At that point, I didn’t really want to listen to any doubtful comments. After all, the number of delegates who had registered for the event was as high as before the pandemic, so the starting point was excellent. After the summer, I only dared to hope for some 150 participants. The number of delegates wasn’t even affected by the fact that in autumn 2021 the international flights to and from Turku Airport had yet to return to the pre-pandemic level.”

“Well, I did have to take some ‘breathers’ in between the challenges, since backing down was no longer an option. And I was very tired during the weekend after the conference. But ultimately everything went very smoothly,” states Ulla Hytti with satisfaction.

Text: Sari Ruusumo
Photo: Friederike Welter