Karin McKenny reflects on the challenges the events sector has faced in the last year
Over the last year the impact of Covid-19 has been catastrophic to the events sector. For the third sector, where many rely on events as an income stream, it’s been a bit of a double-whammy. As a result Children in Scotland, like many, have had to adapt.
Following the initial lockdown in March 2020 it was clear in-person events were likely to be off-limits for some time. All of the events we had scheduled from April onwards (of which there were many!) were unlikely to go ahead unless we could find a way to deliver them in a new, innovative and digital way. We had to pivot, and we had to do so quickly.
Before we identified both short and long-term action, it was crucial to remind ourselves about what it was that made our events programme so strong.
Our programme is large and diverse. As a membership body representing the whole of the children’s sector, it has to be. But at its heart is connection.
Individuals arrive for training – and leave with so much more.
They connect with our values and vision. They connect with the evidenced examples and achievable practice. They connect with experts whose careers they’ve followed. They connect with the voices of children and young people at the very heart of what we do. And they connect with each other.
Maintaining this connection as we moved our whole programme online was, and is, no easy feat. There were a number of challenges around delivery and utilising new online platforms, as well as around accessibility, time and resource limitations for our potential attendees but also for us as an organisation. Working remotely, with many also juggling caring responsibilities, added another dimension.
However, I am incredibly proud of how quickly my team responded. We spoke with our collaborators – and speak we did, for this was not a time for email – and explored our options. Large-scale events were put on hold, including our annual conference, and instead we identified where and how we could reduce full-day training courses to 90-minute webinars.
We had previously dipped our toe into the waters of webinars as a means of facilitating, and maintaining, a connection with those who were otherwise struggling to attend our face-to-face training offers, but the adoption of this way of working was accelerated. But it has not been without its challenges - online platforms can be costly, many charities have no budget and few staff were trained to use it effectively, to name just a few.
The cost of webinar licenses often proved prohibitive for us in delivering what we wanted to versus what we were able and equipped to. Whilst some basic webinar licenses and software was affordable and low-cost, those required to deliver the same high-quality experiences our delegates were used to were often outwith a third sector budget. The move to digital has evidenced that if content was king, then money (or availability of it) was the ace in the pack. As a result, there have been times we have felt the work we had done to level the playing field between ourselves and our less frugal competitors was quickly being undone, but our reputation and relationship with our membership base, and wider network, has proven to be invaluable.
The response so far has been hugely positive. In the first month of our webinar programme around 1,500 people engaged with us and we have delivered more than 60 online events over the last 12 months.
In doing so, and planning for the future, we are mindful of the challenges still facing many of those in the workforce, from caring responsibilities and Zoom / webinar fatigue to restricted budgets and even more restricted time. We have adapted our events offering to also now include pre-recorded sessions, and sessions which are accessible at a later, more convenient time. We are working hard to ensure that all of our content meets accessibility guidelines and our pricing structure remains affordable.
Later this month we will be delivering our first Learning Week. The five-day series of events really showcase how far we have come in the last 12 months. We hope it strikes the balance of providing the type of quality event we would usually be hoping to deliver in person, but with added flexibility to engage around other commitment and time pressures.
It looks like it will take some time to return to delivering in-person events, and I am incredibly proud of how we have adapted to the most challenging of circumstances. I am grateful to our members who have responded with encouragement and enthusiasm, and to our trainers who have moved online with us. Our own learning continues, and we will strive to be innovative in our delivery of top-class training and CPD events which will always place progress, connection and communication at its core.
Karin McKenny is Children in Scotland's learning and events' manager