We had the most unfortunate timing possible regarding our last event, DKNOG10.
Everything was set to happen on 12-13 March, and while the COVID-19 situation was unfolding at that time, nobody in Europe was even talking about quarantine yet. It was supposed to be a grand celebration as it was our tenth anniversary.
As we approached the event, participants began to cancel one after the other, following increasing restrictions from various companies. Despite this set-back, in the morning the day before the event, we were anticipating about 150 participants out of the already registered 223 - a lower, but still viable number. Given our growth the past years, 150 would be similar to the numbers we had five years ago.
In the late evening that same day, Denmark implemented the quarantine measures that are now in place almost everywhere. I got the news while at a dinner with sponsors and speakers who had arrived early, and it was clear to me that the conference could not be held in its original format. However, looking around the table I saw enough speakers to fill up a full day's programme.
We had already planned to live stream the event, and it was too late to formally cancel anything we had already booked. So, we decided to go ahead with the conference, but run it as a virtual event. We would run as much of the programme as we could from the near-empty conference room, and have some speakers call-in, also limiting the conference program to one day only.
Given the circumstances, I believe that this was a success, although being part of it was a bit surreal. We enjoyed much sympathy and support from the community, with over 400 viewers on the stream, and many engaging questions.
At the time, it seemed like a statement to hold DKNOG10 when everything else was cancelled around us. If I were to plan a conference now, would I do the same? Absolutely not. I believe it would have been a much better solution to postpone DKNOG10. It makes me sad that nobody could meet physically, share their belonging to a common operator environment, and network with each other.
I learned a few things on the practical side of running a virtual event. Most importantly:
1. Each talk will take longer than planned
It is important to have speakers who are flexible. They need to be available for testing the technical setup, well in advance, and be prepared if their time slot suddenly moves for any number of unforeseen reasons, including technical problems and sessions running over time.
Furthermore, they need to be good at keeping their own time, as there is no proper way to signal the remaining time of a talk.
Questions also demand more time, as they need to be typed out. After asking for questions, ask people to indicate whether they have a question, and then wait for it to be typed out.
Our time schedule shifted a lot during the day, and we even had to cancel a speaker to keep up with the agenda.
2. Remote speaking is hard
Many speakers brought their own preferred video conferencing solution, and some didn't have one available.
We had generously been given some temporary licenses for Zoom before the quarantine was in effect. These were made unavailable when we needed them as the sponsor needed all their capacity for themselves. We don't blame them at all for this.
Google Meet wasn't usable, along with everything else browser-based due to sound transmission incompatibility with our streaming setup.
Speaker in front of a nearly empty room with most DKNOG10 paticipants watching remotely
3. Remote participation via Youtube and Slack was okay
We had decided to use Slack instead of IRC for audience participation. It worked okay. We had a fallback to the chat section on the Youtube stream, but that was never needed. We had advertised this quite a bit in advance, so most people had already done the registration.
4. Use the community for the merchandise
We had more than 200 very nice hoodies delivered that day. Luckily, a sponsor has stepped up and offered to store them and organise the delivery to the registered participants. We are grateful for this, and now they don't sit in boxes taking somebody's storage space away.
Outside of these operational experiences, I still don't have a clear overview of the impact of turning the conference virtual. We were unable to refund anybody, and all venues had to be paid regardless. On the financial side, it looked as if everything was held physically as originally planned.
The whole process including all the uncertainty was an extremely stressful situation for me and my co-organisers, and something I never wish to go through again.