While some are breathing a sigh of relief that they do not have to attend the party conferences, the reality is that unless other activity is put in place then a valuable engagement opportunity has been removed.
The virtual conferences will certainly be different but, carefully considered, they can still help play a role.
The cancellation of the ‘in-person’ conferences does not mean that the conferences are not going ahead. Instead, the parties are planning for virtual conferences. The shape of these has yet to be fully decided but there are some immediate consequences of moving online – the lack of a captive audience, less of an attention span, the loss of networking opportunities, and the inability to bump into people for a catch-up.
So what other considerations are there and what might you need to do. Arranging a Zoom fringe meeting is one thing but how can you replicate the full party conference experience and get the most from it?
The fundamentals of a good fringe will remain: whatever the format of the fringe the fundamentals need to be in place. In other words, you need a diverse panel, at least one political speaker, a relevant and interesting topic and a Q&A that draws people in. It is probably not the best idea to make a party conference fringe your first online event so make sure you have done a few practice runs.
Who is your audience? this is really the heart of the challenge this year. Normally a fringe event will benefit from having an audience comprising party members, officials, interested stakeholders, elected representatives and other stakeholders. If you are thinking about a virtual session then you need to work out who your intended audience and how to get to them involved.
Timings: the parties are all still working on what a virtual conference means for them. All being well there should be some clarity soon but the longer before they make decisions, the less time you have to organise your session. As we get closer to August, the less likely it is that politicians will be able to respond to invites. So that could mean that we only have a few short weeks in September to really pull things together.
Advertising: the parties may well offer ‘fringe listings’ of one type or another, potentially at a cost. However, you are also going to have to consider how else you get information ‘out there’ about your virtual session.
Party events: the parties are considering if and how they can work on their own events so there will remain choices about the options available to you. It could be that you think seriously about attending business events rather than holding your own session.
Rather than just thinking about the downsides of virtual sessions there are some upsides as well. You can, for instance, record the session and make it available as a permanent resource. There is also the prospect of potentially a lower cost being involved but if that is the case then be careful to assign the saving to other parts of your engagement rather than risk losing it.
We are working with a number of organisations to help them plan this year’s activity so would be happy to talk to others as well. This is all new so no-one has all the answers but it offers the prospect of being innovative and different. Who knows, maybe some of what happens this year will become standard practice at future party conferences as well.