This year, with Covid-19, has been an incredibly difficult one for event organisers in our industry and all across the world. However, it has also been inspiring to see the resilience, agility and creativity displayed by these same event organisers in bringing people together through new virtual event formats, experiences and technologies. While so many of us miss greatly the in-person experience, these virtual events have kept us connected, informed and together at a time of great change.
Here at European SharePoint, Office & SharePoint Conference our goals and plans changed many times in recent months. The most challenging aspect of all was having to postpone our main event, due to take place in Amsterdam in November 2020. As fellow event organisers will know, the work and investment for an event of that scale and quality begins many months, often years, in advance of the big day. Bringing the Microsoft 365 & Azure community together from across Europe and the world, is our main service to the community, and one we take enormous pride in.
In the absence of an in-person conference we took the decision the show must go on and in 2020, through our first ever virtual conference, ESPC20 Online. It is fair to say this proved to be a steep learning curve, with many new considerations and complexities compared with a physical conference, but one the team took on with great energy. After researching numerous virtual event platforms, we were absolutely thrilled when Microsoft’s Karuana Gatimu offered us the opportunity to host ESPC20 Online through Microsoft Teams and the Microsoft Community Tenant. To bring everyone together through the phenomenon that is Teams and as one of the core products that unites our community, was an offer we simply couldn’t pass up. In a difficult year, we were so grateful to be able to host our wonderful speakers, sponsors and delegates on Microsoft Teams.
Given Microsoft Teams isn’t designed exclusively as a Virtual Event Platform and as our team specialise more in event organisation as opposed to the technologies themselves, we had to work quickly and decisively to figure how the event and Teams would look and work for attendees, from speakers to sponsors to delegates. Having the opportunity to work with Bryan Hart, again with huge thanks to Karuana, was an enormous boost in this regard. We organised the event in relatively short timelines and our weekly call with Bryan and Microsoft’s Sarka Kohoutova was absolutely invaluable in testing our assumptions, asking technical questions and making better platform and production decisions. During the event, having Technical support and genuine expert guidance on hand from both Bryan and the truly awesome Tracy van der Schyff was enormously helpful.
Teams Team (Support to Build the Team)
Overall, the event was hosted on an ESPC20 Online Team in the Microsoft Community Tenant. Community Tenant Guest accounts would manage attendee, speaker and ESPC Team access rights, while we used several Channels in the Team to house the core elements of the event. For example, an Event Home Channel, an Agenda Channel, a Sponsor Channel, Speaker Channel, Community Channel and so on. Within these Channels were the out-of-the-box Posts and Files Tabs and then various Tabs we created as appropriate for the different Channels. Meanwhile, individual pages were built as SharePoint Pages displayed within these Microsoft Teams Channels and Tabs. We had to very quickly get to grips with all the intricacies of building the likes of SharePoint Lists and pages. As we know, SharePoint is hugely flexible and with Bryan’s help we found many solutions to our different goals. For example, to host and style an Event Home Channel & Tab, to create the Agenda as a SharePoint List, with Teams ability to filter and style different elements from Session Times, to Area of Interest, Levels, Speakers, Joining buttons, Add to calendar links and so on. A sincere thank you at this point to a member of our Programme Team, Melanie Culver, for her SharePoint magic in styling the Speaker page and elements of the Agenda. Little touches like this really took a lot of work, but brought great vibrance and user friendly functions for attendees.
We had seen from Build back in May, the role of Production in a top class virtual conference, to create more of a show and knit the experience together. In line with this we took the decision to a) host a Live Stream through the event, b) run Sessions on Teams Live Events, c) for the most part run pre-recorded sessions, but with speakers online to host Live Q&A with an ESPC Team Member acting as a Moderator, d) take the bold move to host two of the Keynotes live, with the truly phenomenal Jeff Teper and Karuana Gatimu, e) bring a little bit of the ESPC Team into the event as well, through recorded segments.
In essence the Live Stream was another Agenda track in its own right, with a huge number of activities and sessions to coordinate across the two days of the event. With so many sessions for attendees to enjoy (100+), the live stream had to compete with these and perhaps in future we would create more space for guests to enjoy this, as it covered a variety of different formats such as Community Reporters Live segments, a 3 Questions Interview Series, Panel Discussions, the Keynotes and more. As ever, Christian Buckley and the Community Reporters Team of Heather Newman, Maarten Visser, Michael Greth and their many MVP contributors brought huge energy and excellent commentary to the event, in spite of the challenges of time zones, schedules and being spread across the globe.
As the ESPC Team is a small team, we divided ourselves across the 6x Session Tracks and the Live Stream and this broadly took our full efforts through the event – to support speakers, help moderate Q&A and oversee the Live Stream. For the Live Stream, we also went to a local studio to record a host of session welcomes, introductions, small adverts for event activities and thank yous. Again, this type of work is no small undertaking from finding suppliers to organising studio time to writing scripts, branding, setup, channelling our inner Meg Ryan or Tom Cruise and recording on camera, never mind the complexities of the ever-changing Covid-19 situation to manage around this! However, it was so important to bringing a human element to the event. Meanwhile, with Bryan’s help, we hosted the Live Stream on Vimeo and embedded Vimeo Chat alongside this on the Event Home page. Using Teams Live Events here wasn’t really possible given you can’t currently run two concurrent Teams Live Events, but also given the sheer volume of changing content in the Live Stream across the event. All in all, there is a lot to consider in the show element of a virtual event, but it really does play a role in knitting the experience together.
Teams Live Events
Hosting the sessions on Teams Live Events took a while for all of us as a team to get the hang of, but a lot of testing, training and technical support was key to making this work. We used the Production software, OBS (Open Broadcast Software), to schedule and push live the different elements for each session, moving seamlessly from holding slides to the session video itself and back to holding slides. Broadly this worked well during the main event, a lot of preparation leading to a more straightforward process, but there were surprises with video and audio quality early into the main event, in spite of all the preparation around these topics. Having some technical support on hand was absolutely key, unless you really understand these topics and the technology yourself. It is also important to factor bandwidth and venue as well as the platform for hosting the virtual event, especially if running several sessions at any one time.
Teams Meetings vs Teams Live Events
While we used Teams Meetings for pre and post event Tutorials and broadly this worked very well, we decided Teams Live Events was more appropriate for sessions to drive the best experience and manage numbers, Q&A, privacy and perhaps, a more appropriate and consistent experience for speakers and attendees.
For networking we pointed guests towards Chat in Teams, but also the Posts Tabs in certain key channels. As the Posts Tab is in every Teams Channel by default, this was a little difficult to manage, but broadly conversation took place in the Community Channel as we suggested. A recommendation would be to have Moderators on hand to help guide the conversation. Where we had team members working on the Event Helpdesk Channel – in particular helping attendees get access given the several security steps to access the Community Tenant – and most of the rest of the team moderating sessions, it also requires time and effort to help facilitate the all-important networking side of the event and especially in a virtual event scenario.
In total, against a pretty challenging backdrop of remote working and Covid restrictions, we learned so much and were absolutely delighted to bring so many people from the community together through Microsoft Teams for ESPC20 Online. A sincere thank you to our magnificent Programme Team, Speakers, Sponsors and Attendees for their continued excellence, kindness, togetherness and support. We remain deeply indebted to Karuana Gatimu, Bryan Hart, Sarka Kohoutova and Tracy van der Schyff for their incredible help and generosity in helping us host our first virtual conference through Microsoft Teams.
Please do reach out to the team if you would like to find out further information on any of the topics above.
We enter 2021 with uncertainty still on the horizon, but also great optimism that we can all be together again soon, whether through the continued evolution of incredible technologies like Teams that unite us in the first place, or in-person in beautiful places in Europe and across the world. We can’t wait!
Tracy & the Team at ESPC