Organising a virtual event in a global pandemic… an interview with Dimple Sokartara

We sat with Dimple Sokartara, Communications Manager at the EGI Foundation, to talk about how it was like to organise a virtual event – EGI Conference 2020 – during the corona pandemic, lessons learned and take-aways for future events!

Q: Hi Dimple! Last year you were the main event organiser of the EGI Conference (a virtual edition!) and it happened to be in the middle of a global pandemic! Was this your first big event you were in charge of?

A: Hi Iulia! Last year was quite a challenge, especially if it’s – indeed – your first time to organise a big event (750 attendees). I have been involved in such events in my career, but not as the main organiser before.

Q: Was the original plan to organise the event physically? And if yes, how was it like to switch from a physical event to a fully virtual one? How did this happen?

A: We originally planned to organise the conference in Lyon, France. I even went to look at a few venues with our liaison partners from IN2P3, and we found a very exciting one (I won’t spoil it, who knows we can still organise it there in the coming years!). We soon came to realise that it was going to be difficult to organise an event abroad due to the pandemic, and thought we could at least host it at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. Unfortunately we even had to cancel that last summer, 3 months prior to the conference. It was a wise decision to make, because it left us with sufficient time to go about organising the event virtually, but I was really hoping that my first EGI conference would be face-to-face, providing me the opportunity to meet colleagues and the wider community.

Q: How did you find this experience? Can you tell us more about it? What were the main challenges?

A: There was a lot for me to get used to, not only from an event organising perspective, but also by being new to EGI, the community, the topics, and the type of content that would be most appealing to the audience. On the other hand it offered me a great opportunity to take a deep dive into the aforementioned, and even forced me to absorb new knowledge, quickly. Coming back to the event organising side of it, I am very grateful for all the support of my EGI Foundation colleagues. From promotion to technical support, I could definitely not have done it without all the extra pair of hands. I remember being very nervous, but eventually this was all quite unnecessary as I was in very good hands.

Q: Were you familiar with the EGI community beforehand? 

A: I have been working in a similar environment, but not with the EGI community directly, so I would have to say no. This was part of the challenge, as I mentioned before, but I’m happy that we at least saw some faces via videoconferencing. I can’t wait to physically meet the community members and have a drink or a bite to eat with in the near future!

Q: What are the main pros and cons of a virtual event, in your opinion? 

A: Cons are definitely the fact that you cannot casually network with each other, end the day with a meal together, have coffee breaks and all these kinds of activities. The fact that you don’t have to sit behind your device all day is also considered a big con, for concentration purposes. A pro is of course that it makes it easier for you to jump from session to session (in case you’d want that) and that you don’t need to find tickets and accommodation in advance (which is good for the environment, but also kills my travel-loving heart).

Q: If you were now given the choice between a virtual and physical vent, what would you choose and why?

A: If ‘now’ would be a time where COVID-19 did not exist, I would definitely say physical, mainly for the aforementioned reasons. In the current situation, I think it’s best to be safe than sorry and a virtual event can help with that. The key would be to find a way to offer a virtual event that does not lead to a so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ and somehow keeps it interactive. This is a challenge I am working on, with my colleague Gwen Franck, for this year’s conference which still seems to be a virtual edition. Unless more will be possible… there is some room between virtual and physical you know…

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from this experience? How would you take it forward?

A: The biggest lessons are to get an organising committee together, so that there is always a group of people available to answer questions, and to do some testing and rehearsing. I am not sure yet what the key is to have a very interactive virtual event, at least to have one nearly as exciting as a physical conference, but I am afraid this will always remain difficult. Let’s hope we can meet each other face-to-face soon!

Thanks for your time Dimple and good luck for the #EGI2021 event and future ones!

More information

Dimple Sokartara is Communications Manager at the EGI Foundation.

Next EGI Conference will be taking place digitally from October 19th until 21st. The conference theme is: “Beyond the Horizon: Shaping the Digital Future”.