Our Campus

More than a Meeting

An interview on the campus shift to virtual events with Shanelle Glasgow

Like most universities, UWI is a centre for all kinds of events and activities – meetings, workshops, seminars, special lectures, concerts, sporting events and others, as many as 200 a year on the St Augustine Campus alone. This regular part of campus life was suddenly stopped in March because of COVID-19 and the official lockdown that followed.

Yet UWI St Augustine did not go silent. Campus events have made the move from the physical to the virtual space. And even though virtual events are not new, the scale of the transition has been challenging. Challenging but also rewarding, says Shanelle Glasgow. As Team Lead of Projects and Events within the Marketing and Communications Office, Glasgow is one of the key persons involved in planning, coordinating and executing events at UWI St Augustine.

UWI TODAY spoke with her about the transition to virtual.

UT: Prior to COVID-19, could you tell me what events were like on campus?

SG: Event management in higher education is very dynamic and that has been the experience at the St Augustine Campus. Each semester we are involved in the planning of conferences, symposia, statutory meetings, workshops and open days. For annual signature events such as Graduation, Matriculation and new student orientation programmes, we typically are part of a committee of stakeholders. Roughly, over an academic year we are involved in 150-200 events.

UT: How was the plan for virtual events developed? What were the major considerations?

SG: One thing for sure is that the principles of event management still apply to virtual events. It really happened pretty organically and evolved day-to-day. We started sharing what we learned and how we could apply it to what we do at the university. We asked ourselves:

  • Can the agenda for this event be translated to a virtual setting, or is an in-person event required for you to achieve the goal?
  • Do we have staff who can support and manage the technical aspects of a virtual event?
  • What virtual solutions does the university use already that we can tap into to host virtual events?

UT: How many virtual events have taken place?

SG: We got back into a groove and started planning events in April. To date we have executed over 20 virtual events, the majority of them have been topical and related to the work the university is doing in different areas as it relates to the pandemic.

I anticipate however that the number of events will continue to increase as we fall into the new norm, get more acquainted with the technology and adapt our programmes to an online audience.

UT: What does it take to put on a virtual event and how is it different to a physical event?

SG: When producing an event, you need to first know the purpose. To be impactful, you have to think about your attendees and the experience you are trying to create for them. What do you want them to know or feel after they leave your event? It’s the same thing online.

For in person events, rehearsals, pre event setup and briefings are held. This is required online as well and is a more involved process. As presenters/speakers are joining from remote locations you have to work with them to test their audio/ visual, lighting and presentations. You don’t have an audio/ visual provider on site who can set this up for you. So you have to work with people using whatever they have available to provide production value. You also have to ensure presenters understand how to navigate the platform being used.

People are not gathering in a physical space. They are “attending” from the comforts of their home (sometimes while still in pajamas). So it calls for us as event planners to work closely with our clients to create an event that are engaging and keep people watching.

UT: What are the specific benefits of virtual events?

SG: What I must say is that virtual events aren’t new. Due to the current landscape however they have become more prominent. Virtual events have several benefits but for us at the university I think we benefit from the fact that they are sustainable and environmentally friendly, allow for unlimited participants, have a potentially global audience, are more cost effective, and make it easier to collect feedback.

UT: What have been the main challenges with virtual events?

SG: I think I may just mention two. There are even more limits now to what we can control as event planners. We would often hope for good weather when hosting physical events, now we have been praying for strong bandwidth connections. Insufficient bandwidth can ruin an otherwise well planned session if attendees cannot hear presenters due to the static that comes with a poor connection.

Another challenge has been managing the technology. A lot of our time now is spent in coaching our remote presenters on how to use the technology and on our end, testing the capabilities of the platforms we use so we can apply them properly during our virtual events.

UT: As COVID-19 restrictions are loosened, what is going to happen with events in the future? Will they remain virtual, go back to physical or a combination of both?

SG: For now we are still in the realm of executing virtual events and I hope we can certainly do more. On campus in the months to come we may explore hosting hybrid events which is something we have been doing already, for example the annual graduation ceremonies are held at [the Sport and Physical Education Centre] but streamed to a wider viewing audience via social media. We will utilise our event spaces, though not at full capacity due to physical distancing, and stream to an online audience.

UT: As an events professional, what has this experience of moving to virtual been like for you?

SG: At first, it was a bit daunting. Seeing the downturn in events, knowing that a lot of the suppliers and peers we work with were out of work. It was scary, wondering about job security in an industry where you are literally restricted from hosting gatherings.

Three months later though I would say it has been rewarding. Through coordinating virtual events, I was called to interact more closely with my colleagues across the campus. I have learned how to apply my skills in a different way. And to be able to have a part in the university adding to the conversation on COVID-19 with the events we’ve held over the period gave me a renewed sense of purpose.

UT: Is there anything you would like to add?

SG: People tend to take virtual events for granted. This is not your average online meeting. These activities are live event productions so we need to treat them as such. It is the only way we will be relevant and keep our audiences engaged.

Also, we could not transition into the virtual space without the support and technical expertise of the Campus Information Technology Services (CITS) team.