Digital tech festivals, like many other forms of social gatherings in the UK, have had to move online
to comply with Covid-19 social distancing regulation. Today is the last day of Leeds Digital Festival
, which pivoted from a metropolitan festival spread out across venues in the city to one hosting 294 virtual events over two weeks.
Its director Stuart Clarke, who recently pinned the festival’s success down to Leeds’ willingness to collaborate, hosted a panel event to discover how two popular digital festivals in Estonia have evolved during the pandemic. Why Estonia? Well, Stuart’s fellow LDF director Paul Berwin – who has attended the Latitude 59 festival in Tallinn for the past three years – is a self-proclaimed fan of the country’s digital tech ecosystem.
“I absolutely love my connections in Estonia,” said Paul at the start of the panel. “The ease of building a network there, and the openness that everybody has to do and talk business, is incredibly exciting.” Following, Anniken Haldna (from Latitude 59) and Triin Kask (sTARTUp Day, held in Tartu) then shared best practice on running their respective festivals during the pandemic.
Now into its fifth year, Latitude 59 attracts 2,500 people comprised of startups, investors and corporates. It took place as a hybrid event in August, combining online events with offline ones held in the capital’s Tallinn Creative Hub. Meanwhile – sTARTUp Day, which usually welcomes a similar mix of 4,400 people – is planned for January as a hybrid event taking place in Tartu’s UT Sports Hall.
Anniken said that Latitude 59’s organisers wanted to avoid going online-only. “We know people would be so tired of virtual events by August, and it would be hard to compete as there are so many of them,” she said. In retaining a physical aspect of the festival, Latitude 59 had to be aware of constantly changing government regulation, including how many people could be in a physical space together (and how that impacted audience safety).
“Audience safety is not only about making sure it’s safe by law, or what is required – it’s also how people feel,” said Anniken. “The number of virus cases started going up in Estonia just before our event and my heart skipped a beat every morning when new numbers were announced.”
So, why take the risk? Anniken said that having a physical live element helped to keep virtual attendees engaged. The festival used online moderators to connect live speakers and virtual attendees, feeding back questions and responses to make them feel like they were present. It also held online sessions three days prior to the start of the festival, designed to foster relationships, where startups could ask questions to speakers (who are also mentors) ahead of the event.
Anniken said that the hybrid model proved more beneficial for online attendees as opposed to those in the room. “People who were on site did not sign up for the online platform as they didn’t need to, so those online wondered where they were,” she said. “Physical attendees just wanted to enjoy their time with others in the room, so mixing those elements together is definitely a challenge.”
For Anniken, the perfect tool for events and networking is yet to be created. She advises festival organisers to consider their options and choose carefully. “No matter how good your content is, people will switch off if they get annoyed at your tool,” she said. “Some people told us that they couldn’t be bothered to download our app because they didn’t like the UI or onboarding process, which is heart-breaking when you spent six months organising the festival.”
From the studio
Balancing the online and offline aspects is a challenge that sTARTUp Day is hoping to overcome by conducting the event from three live studios, run by professional production companies who will handle any technical requirements.
The first studio will allow on-site attendees to watch talks and network with each other. A second studio will feature moderators tasked with facilitating engagement between physical and online attendees, asking questions and making introductions. The third, meanwhile, will broadcast footage from the festival’s collaboration partners who are set to host concurrent physical events to small audiences in places such as London, New York and Johannesburg.
Triin is hopeful that by presenting in front of a live audience, speakers will appear more engaging to online attendees. She drew inspiration from Rally Estonia, which organised the last World Rally Championship stage in the country which had a “really engaging” technical online solution.
“The major disadvantage with online events is that a huge amount of charisma is lost,” she said. “By allowing the speaker to see the audience we want to create a lively atmosphere for both, even if they’re on the other side of the ocean. It’s very challenging and needs a lot of organisation.”
In offering top tips for running a hybrid digital festival, Triin advises organisers to forget everything they knew in the past. Second, she said that people should be prepared to shut down its physical aspect at any moment. “You must always have a good online event in place because your country could restrict people from mixing at any time.
“Also, don’t set too high expectations around the tool that you’re using, while at the same time making sure that you’re giving your online viewers the best content possible.”