Organising a Network Operator Group event is challenging at the best of times. After all, we're technical people, not event organisers. But organising a "hybrid" NOG meeting during a global pandemic has been our biggest challenge yet. In this article, we explain why we did it, how it went, and what we learned.
The last NOG meeting I attended in-person was DKNOG in March 2020. That was supposed to be an in-person meeting, but turned into a remote one within just 12 hours as government restrictions were introduced. Allan Eising wrote a horrifying story on how this happened.
In 2020, we all moved to online meetings. We had to adapt to a very different way of doing things, looking at suitable platforms for presentations and socials. Some of the NOGs shipped drinks and snacks, like we did for our New Years Drinks.
But the novelty wore off and plenty of us got bored and frustrated from sitting behind a screen all day and at NLNOG we saw the number of participants declining with each online meeting. And on IRC (#nlnog on IRCnet), we also started hearing that lots of people missed those more informal day-to-day get togethers, like coffee breaks at the office. That's why we started NLNOG Coffee Break, to facilitate off-topic chat on our Jitsi server. Even there, though, discussion often turned to “how we're really doing”. And most of us weren't doing very well, either mentally or physically or both, mostly because of the disrupted work-life balance.
In June this year, the Dutch government removed some of the COVID-19 restrictions. We knew that lots of people in our community longed to see each other again, and so did we! So right away we started talking to the NLNOG board about whether there would be any possibility to organise a hybrid event in September.
In terms of planning, our first thought was to “stick to what we know”. In recent years we've used the same venue in Amsterdam and we'd always found them to be helpful and accommodating in the past. And our A/V crew knows the place well, right down to where the power sockets are, which would be a big help. So that was our venue.
At this stage, there was still a lot of uncertainty over whether we could actually hold an in-person meeting. What if the COVID-19 restrictions changed again and not everyone who wanted to would be able to attend in person? From what we knew at the time, there were three possible scenarios:
- On-site attendance limited to around 70% capacity with the event also streamed live on the Internet
- Presenters and crew only at the venue and the event streamed live on the internet
- No people at the venue and only stream the event (like we did for NLNOG Live)
Our preference was for the first outcome, of course. Nevertheless, even in that scenario, our A/V team would need to face the challenge of making it possible for presenters to present remotely in case employers didn't want to allow staff to attend conferences, or if presenters from abroad still couldn't travel.
To make this work, we started asking speakers to let us know a week in advance how they wished to present so our A/V team would be able to get things ready. Setting up for remote presentations is still a technical challenge and we highly recommend (as organisers) to have at least one test run with remote presenters the day before to make sure presenters wear headphones, test volume, adjust the height of their desk or chairs, etc etc.
Having a week's notice would also help with scheduling, the thought being that it'd be much nicer for the audience if we lined talks up to alternate between on-site and remote presentations.
As ever, there was always the possibility that one of our presenters might get sick last minute, so we'd have to have a back-up presentations ready. Luckily some of our board members work on cool projects and are not shy to talk about them.
Live from Amsterdam - NLNOG Day 2021
As presenters started to respond, we were pleasantly surprised that the majority of them would indeed be able to do their presentations live on stage at the venue.
What's more, the earlier change in the requirements stayed the same, with the Dutch government allowing "seated events" up to 75% capacity of a venue. Further restrictions meant guests would either have to keep at least 1.5 meter distance from each other OR a mandatory QR code check would need to take place at the door to confirm complete vaccination, proof of recovery or a recent negative test result. With Dutch QR codes and also EU Green Pass QR codes being acceptable, we decided to go for the QR check, as it would be difficult to keep 1.5 meter distance during the breaks.
Communication was key here! We reminded attendees about the QR (and ID!) check several times per e-mail and on our website, well in advance. On the day of the event, all our participants (incl. crew) were scanned and we received no negative feedback at all. Fun fact: We had the ministry of health, welfare and sport present on the Open Source app (CoronaCheck) we used for the event.
Having lowered the attendance numbers from 230 (normal max. capacity) to 150, we were left plenty of space at the venue. That said, we did have to coordinate with the venue over a few unusual issues that cropped up. For example, normally the venue can't be rented out exclusively for a group (by local government rules). This posed an extra challenge for us as we didn't want to, nor would we be allowed to, scan QR codes for regular restaurant visitors. As everyone agreed that this would indeed be problematic, for once we could rent out the entire venue, including the large terrace for NLNOG.
We all know that awkward moment when you meet someone: Do I shake hands? Do I hug? Three kisses (in NL), or two (other countries)?
COVID-19 didn't make this any easier. Some people continue to be fine with physical contact, while others prefer to keep distance and not even shake hands. We saw on social media a tech conference tackling this with colour coded wristbands so people could visibly state their preference. We loved the idea, but in case wristbands might not be visible enough, we chose lanyards to state your preference.
We had some discussion about the colours though. There is no "wrong" or "right" option here, so red and green don't feel right. Also red and green are not handy for people that are colour blind. So we decided white and blue.
White: I might be fine with shaking hands or hugs
Blue: I prefer to keep some distance
Again, we communicated the meaning of the different colours very clearly. We made special banners for the entrance and reminded people at the opening to be respectful of peoples choices. One participant initially chose a white lanyard but quickly changed this to blue when he heard (15 minutes before we started) that his child might have been in contact with a child that tested positive for COVID-19. One tip here: make sure you have enough lanyards of both colours so as not to deny anyone their choice!
Of course I was very curious at the end of the day to learn what the most used lanyard was. Around 2/3 of the picked lanyards were white, 1/3 blue. However, we didn't see that many handshakes or hugs overall, as people were still generally cautious.
Fun fact: these colours also go well with this years red event t-shirt and make the colours of our national flag (red, white, blue).
Breaks and Social
With everyone longing for social contact, we knew people would have a lot to catch up on. This is why we decided that the breaks needed to be a lot longer than usual. Our lunch was 90 minutes and the coffee break 45 minutes. We heard only very positive feedback about this.
Both breaks and social events all had to be in seated form, so the venue made sure there were enough tables and chairs. There were more coffee tables, lunch was in a bag to cater for a quick pickup and short lines, drinks on the terrace could be ordered with an app with staff delivering to the table. Lots of care was taken to limit the amount of people moving around.
In the afternoon, the sun came out and it was a pleasant 22 degrees outside, so when the social started most people flocked to the terrace to eat their dinner and have drinks. There were plenty of tables and chairs outside so people would sit.
Looking back, I think we succeeded in our ambition to have a safe and fun event. We received overwhelming positive feedback from many participants who told us they felt safe and had a really good time. And so did we, as organisers.
In the lead up to the event, the board had lots of conversations about how people would react to all these measures, whether there would be people who didn't want to comply, and how to handle discussions at the door or during the event and socials. What was perhaps most vital in all this was that we all had to get aligned as organisers. We had to have a shared view of how things would be on the day so that we could communicate to participants in advance exactly what they should expect. That way, everyone can show up prepared, stay safe, and get on with enjoying the event, which by all accounts they did.
Some other last tips:
- Working with a venue that you know well pays off
- Checks for QR and ID at the entrance were pretty flawless - we had one issue with a UK QR code, but that got resolved without complaints
- People knew what to expect, followed all measures. People were appreciative and respectful. NLNOG participants are the best!
- The lanyards worked really well - we might stick with them
As always, you can watch all presentations of NLNOG Day 2021 on YouTube.
We want to thank everyone that contributed to the success of this event. Stay healthy and we really hope to see you all again soon!