How we managed our first-ever digital Festival of Work

By Sinead Costello, Head of Partnerships at the CIPD.

In June 2020 the CIPD and Haymarket ran our first-ever digital Festival of Work, bringing people professionals content on the future of work at a time when they needed support and guidance like never before.

In less than two months we developed a new online festival, including a multi-stream conference and free learning programme with a full exhibition, networking chat and wellbeing zone, bringing world-class content and connections to over 26,000 customers, resulting in us trending at #2 on the first morning of the show on Twitter UK.

Here’s how we did it, and what we learnt along the way.

Our principles

Covid-19 had turned our working lives on its head. Furloughs, redundancies and home working were commonplace; a recession and mental health crisis were expected imminently; and the killing of George Floyd shone a light on the institutional racism in our culture. Businesses were turning to their HR, L&D and OD teams for support and guidance like never before.

In April 2020, we agreed with London Olympia that we wouldn’t be able to welcome 7,000 customers to London Olympia on 10-11 June for our face-to-face Festival of Work event as planned. However, as experts on the world of work we had a responsibility to support our customers somehow, and so we approached the planning of an online event using a customer-first set of principles:

  • The time is now.
    • If the 2009 recession put the spotlight on the finance profession, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic did so to the people profession. From understanding furlough to supporting the wellbeing of employees going through personal, professional and emotional challenges caused by Covid-19, and the trauma felt by many in the black community due to the killing of George Floyd, we needed to lean in, provide support and inspiration for our profession at a time when the people agenda had never been greater. Postponing until things ‘returned to normal’ was never an option.
  • We’re flexible.
    • Our exhibitors fell into two categories: (i) Those who were continuing to invest in raising the profile of their products and services to customers, and (ii) those who were having to make difficult decisions about where to invest their funds during a challenging operating period. We made the decision to offer all existing exhibitors the opportunity for a full refund, to roll over their booking to next year’s event, or to be part of a brand-new digital offering
  • We’re here for you.
    • As with our exhibitors, many of our members were facing individual hardship, while most were challenged professionally in ways they’d never anticipated at the start of the year. We wanted to gift our members with great content, so we made the conference freely available to any of our 150,000 members who chose to register, while significantly reducing the price of tickets for non-members.

Our planning

We were advised that our sub-teo month turnaround would be challenging, but we achieved it by leveraging a strong event partnership to bring experts from both businesses (CIPD and Haymarket) together to work on the following streams:

  • Content: We re-wrote the conference programme to only include content relevant to our customers in the current environment, which could be delivered online and in a manageable volume for our first ever large-scale digital conference. We ran over 40 sessions across our free learning and three conference streams (down from an original six), focussing on Leading through Adversity, Learning & Development, and Wellbeing & Technology. We worked with over 70 speakers, including some of our expert keynotes – John Amaechi, Dr Hannah Fry, Caroline Criado-Perez, Simon Anholt, Prof Andrew Scott and Duncan Selbie – who together provided fantastic coverage of Public Health England, economics, technology and AI, diversity and inclusion, and learning cultures.
  • Hosting: Delivering a presentation online requires a different set of skills to standing in front of a room full of delegates – the audience is bigger and you seldom get the same reaction to work with. However, as experts in learning philosophy we have access to world-class facilitators who were able to chair these sessions. They ensured the content was delivered in an engaging way, encouraged audience participation, and knew how to fill in the gaps when a speaker’s internet connection failed (it happened, but luckily not too often).
  • Timings: We know a lot about online learning, so we know that customers can’t be expected to sit in front of a computer for hours on end digesting content. They need and want bite-sized content. We also know that our customers have busy jobs, so we needed to provide a sense of balance throughout the day , especially when sessions ran concurrently. That’s why we spread the festival over three days rather than two, while also making all content (bar two sessions at speakers’ requests) available for registered delegates to view on-demand for one month after the event.
  • Platform: We knew we needed to find something special here, as Festival of Work isn’t just a ‘chalk and talk’ event – it has conference sessions, exhibition stands, wellbeing zones and showcases stages. After researching market options at pace, we decided to work with vFairs, who already had the ideal platform. vFairs recommended a minimum of a 12-week turnaround for clients to integrate data for registration and plan site design and functionality, but we did it in six. We had some issues with live streaming on the second morning (which made our hearts beat a little faster), but we got the show back on the road so that our customers didn’t miss out, and were thankful for our 30 days post-event access plan.
  • Delivering a festival experience, online: We endeavoured to make the show an immersive experience by including Q&As in conference sessions, chat functionality with exhibitors and other delegates, and a wellbeing zone to encourage calmness and rejuvenation.
  • Marketing and messaging: Our CIPD and Haymarket teams spent a lot of time (virtually) together to develop the communications plan. Building an event audience in a brand-new format was always going to be a challenge, but they far exceeded targets by attracting 26,000 customers to sign up.

Next piece: Six learnings from the CIPD's first-ever digital Festival of Work

Join the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, on 11-12 November 2020, for an exciting online format. Blending inspiring and thought-provoking speakers with digital networking and a range of industry-leading suppliers.

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