VR game in the NASUWT Conference exhibition. Photo: NASUWT

NASUWT Conference 2022: Going back to physical events, without going backwards

Last year we wrote here about the experience of running a fully democratic and participative virtual NASUWT Annual Conference.

A year later and the Union has just held its 2022 Annual Conference at the ICC, Birmingham – our first major in-person event since Spring 2020.  Such an event is almost a year in the planning, meaning we started the journey with the familiar uncertainties as to whether a physical event would even be possible in April 2022 and, if it was, under what conditions.

Our starting point was to completely refresh the way our Conference worked, including by retaining many of the innovations we developed for our virtual conference in 2021.  In doing so, we aimed to run an event that was both more sustainable and accessible.

Research and planning

Our first step along this journey was to ensure we understood the expectation of our members in respect of a return to in-person events.  We surveyed all those who had attended an in-person or virtual NASUWT conference or event over the past three years and found the following:

  • 76% of respondents said they felt either comfortable or very comfortable using a digital device to access all resources at an NASUWT conference.
  • Of those who felt uncomfortable, less than 50% felt that training and support wouldn’t help them overcome this discomfort.
  • When asked how they would like to access the resources, 20% wanted web-based materials, 22% an app and 58% wanted both.
  • 79% said they had a smart phone they could use to access the resources, 46% a tablet and 56% could bring a laptop.

Taken as a whole, these results gave us the confidence to proceed with moving to a truly digital-first conference.

Through a competitive tendering process we identified our partners including Cue Media Events were appointed our production partner, Cvent created our conference app, Freshwater oversaw the delivery of the exhibition and Conference Badges delivered our first onsite QR badging scanning system.

As our Conference takes place over the Easter weekend, we aim to ensure all our members can participate, therefore we provide a crèche provision for those members who do not have childcare – Nipperbout were appointed our event childcare partner.

All of our contractors understood what we were trying to do and worked with us to innovate and create the event we envisioned.

Going paperless

Our first aspiration was to substantially reduce the carbon footprint of the event and to generally improve the environmental sustainability of the event.  Traditionally, an NASUWT Annual Conference would have involved the printing of up to 15,000 documents, ranging from 1-200 pages.  This year we aimed to go paperless!

Working with Cvent we used their Crowdcompass events tool be build an NASUWT Conferences and Events App that would house all the necessary documentation digitally, but also act as a hub for both the Conference’s democratic procedures and opportunities to network and engage with all the event had to offer.  We also made sure that all the key documents and forms were available on the Union’s website as a back-up. The app, optimised for use on phone and tablets offered a desktop version, maximising accessibility.

Delegate using the Conference mobile app. Photo: NASUWT
Delegate using the Conference mobile app.

This new approach and the app received rave reviews from the members attending the conference, including “I really appreciated the app and the availability of it post conference. How can we keep the app going throughout the year?” and “I thought the App and paperless Conference was excellent”.

From the start we made it clear to potential exhibitors that we were aiming for a paperless conference and that we expected them to play their part too and they rose to the challenge with a range of innovative approaches on their stands.

We knew the Union had to lead by example, so instead of the traditional boxes of hard copy publications the stand instead featured a giant mobile phone and two tablets.  Staff used these devices to showcase the Union’s campaigns and to assist members in navigating the site and finding the information they needed.  It also allowed us to raise awareness of the Union’s digital campaigning tools including social media channels, iParl and Megaphone.

Supporting the tech

Also, we knew that a small minority of attendees may not have access to digital devices, so we ensured that we had a limited supply of iPads and laptops available.

We offered a real range of app support for members including pre-conference support with how to guides and videos, onsite training sessions and a dedicated app support desks allowing members to visit throughout Conference to resolve any technical issues.

We were conscious that reliance of digital devices would generate significant demand for charging facilities in the Conference venue. Working with Freshwater we ensured that charging points were available throughout the exhibition and in the registration area.  The core of this was our ‘Chill and Recharge Zone’ – relaxing spaces focussed on re-energising the minds of our member whilst they re-charged their devices. Suitable lighting, aromatherapy scents, a range of wellness literature, plants, board games and even a VR game by Bryght Ltd featured along with both USB and conventional sockets.

Developing new features

The shock of a necessarily completely different format for 2020 and 2021 also gave us more freedom to innovate this year. We were less constrained by feelings of following what was expected of a NASUWT Conference – both amongst attendees and also within our own team. And this helped us try out a number of other innovations.

The Union wanted to provide wellness activities where members could take a few moments in the lunch breaks to try something new with the aim of increasing their wellbeing. With this in-mind we hosted a range of wellness sessions within a fabulous tepee including: standing yoga, mindfulness, Thai chi, music therapy and Bhangra dance. All which were complete sell-outs!

We recognised how intense the main hall business and even a busy exhibition can be for some members, so with that in-mind we teamed up with Nook. We were able to create perfect spaces for those wanting to have a little time away from the hustle or wishing to continue a conversation with a colleague in a comfortable setting! These were a major hit and allowed delegates some quiet time but still within the mix of it all.

We also repeated one of the successes of our 2019 Conference in Belfast – our Soundbites stage. This used ‘silent disco’ technology to engage and equip activists with key campaigning and organising skills. Providing wireless headphones let us offer a wider range of training opportunities in the same space, without the amplified audio from each drowning other sessions out.

A "silent disco" seminar at the Soundbites stage. Photo: NASUWT
A “silent disco” seminar at the Soundbites stage.

Bridging distances

One of the great advantages of our virtual conference in 2021 was the ability for international guests to engage without having to travel to join us.  We were pleased to welcome back in-person international guests again this year, but the app and our live-streaming allowed other to join us who were unable to make the journey, including from Europe, the Middle East and USA.

Each year at our Conference we host an international roundtable fringe event, but this year for the first time it was fully hybrid.  Speakers in the room from countries as diverse as Honduras, Zimbabwe and Iraq were joined via video-link with trade unionists speaking from nations including Iran and France.

The international roundtable fringe. Photo: NASUWT
The international roundtable fringe.

As the dust settles on NASUWT Annual Conference 2022 and we start looking forward to the 2023 Conference at the SEC in Glasgow two things are certain.

We’re never going back to the way we used to do things.

The appetite for continued improvement and innovation is sharper than ever!

By Sammy Connell, NASUWT Conference and Events Manager, and Chris Weavers, NASUWT National Official, Campaigns and Communications