John Tasker, director at Massive, the mass participation specialist, shares his thoughts on organising an event in a COVID-19 world…

At the weekend the team at Massive probably delivered our last UK outdoor event of the year. In an ordinary year, it would have been around our 65th. In 2020 it was our third.

Planning events is never easy but delivering in the midst of a pandemic adds a new level of complication. Coping with the unexpected is part of the job, but when your event is a 26-mile trek in the centre of London and your host city is moved into Tier 2 restrictions less than 48 hours before the event, you find out how well your planning stands up.

We needed quick decisions from our venue, seven local authorities, public health agencies, and Police before likely dropout rates, reputational risk of going ahead, and the impact on finances were considered.

Should we still be hosting events?

I will be honest and say that I had doubts about whether the event could, or for that matter should go ahead. Perhaps, after seeing so many events cancelled this year, I was ready to throw in the towel too early.

I was wrong. Our planning, COVID-19 procedures and risk assessments easily met the new restrictions and the authorities were reassured we could stage the event in a COVID-safe way and permissions stayed in place.

Open, honest, and regular communications from the client to participants meant that they had been kept up to date with developments and felt involved and ready to react.

But I still had lingering doubts – as someone who loves a crowd, could we ever replicate or compensate for social distancing and the lack of that “crowd” feel?

Happily, the event did go ahead – it proved that I was wrong to question the decision to do so.

Meeting a need

During set up, we spoke to the pubic who were pleased to see something going ahead in the face of so much that hasn’t. Participants arriving for a look at where they would be tomorrow talked about all they had missed this year and as a charity event how they desperately “wanted to do some good, in a year when so much hasn’t been good”.

On event day, I stood for a while listening to the briefings of participants as they entered site. The hand sanitising, the track and trace, the one-way system, the queued start.

Not one complaint, all understanding, all positive and all keen to support others to do something even if it was under reduced circumstances.

Talking to participants as they registered, it came across even louder. In 25 years of working at events, I have never heard so much gratitude for an event being staged.

The client and our team understood how the participants felt and what they were worried about and the participants understood how challenging getting to the live event was, for us and our client.

There was a level of engagement and feeling that this was a partnership between event provider and participant and we were going to make this happen together.

In the end, drop out was significantly lower than we expected. In fact only marginally more than we would expect in non-COVID times. A commitment to fundraising meant that the event still delivered financially.

So, the decision to go ahead was the right one – but what of the experience of a socially distanced event?

The experience

Yes, the mechanics of the event had understandably changed but what did remain and grow was the sense of shared experience that sits at the core of all we do.

Yes, there was no crowd or mass warm-up, but we all shared the journey we had gone through to get there. The doubt about the event, the uncertainty about life in general and loss of normality that would ordinarily see us crowding together in this field

Yes, it was a different experience, but with some thought around how the event was designed, how people were communicated with, and by creating the right touchpoints throughout the journey, it was still a positive shared experience and I believe one that exposed and created more warmth, engagement and connection with the charity.

Participants saw and believed that the client understood how they felt about the event and why it was important to them to take part and recognised the investment they were making to ensure it still happened in a safe and secure way.

The impact of this on future loyalty can’t be seen yet, but it will almost certainly be a positive for the charity in terms of developing long-term and loyal supporters.

For me it was the most uplifting experience of the year so far. Sharing the experience of not just the event but of being human in what are strange and challenging times.

It also reminded me that bringing people together to do amazing things, even in new circumstances still matters, still speaks to something in our nature and above all is why I continue to love what we do… whatever the situation.

So, to a brave and bold client, to a great team, and above all to all the participants who reminded me of what really matters in life and reassured me that people will always need and love events… I say thank you.