A virtual reality

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, even before stay-at-home directives were implemented, companies around the world halted domestic and international business travel, and then many countries started closing their borders to international visitors. Conference, convention, and trade show organisers were forced to postpone events and scramble to find new dates later in 2020 – if possible – or to cancel completely.

Now, many of the spring and early summer events that were postponed until the fall are being cancelled. As a result, we are seeing an unprecedented number of virtual “summits,” “forums” and “conferences” or “digital events” — the same idea, just different names…This week alone, three more conferences and trade shows that had been scheduled for the late third and fourth quarters, have announced digital events in lieu of live ones. I have been participating in webinars for years — the National Coffee Association, for example, has been hosting webinars for about four years, going monthly with them in 2018. However, not only have I had digital events (beyond a mere Zoom or Skype call) on a weekly basis for months now, I typically have two per week, and sometimes even multiple ones in a day!

One of the first organisations to announce virtual events was the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), which held an “Expo Weekend” in late April in place of the Specialty Coffee Expo, and Re:co Symposium. Originally scheduled for April (the two-day symposium precedes the annual Expo) in Portland, Oregon, the digital Re:co Symposium took place 16-17 July. As previously mentioned, I have attended myriad virtual events this year, but Re:co was the first in which I participated in the entire two-day (full days beginning at 8am PDT/11am EDT and ending around 3:30pm PDT/6:30pm EDT) conference. It was a well-organised, well-run event with many great presentations, and the event web page was easy to manoeuvre (unlike several others which were difficult or unnecessarily complicated).

The format for the “Digital Re:co” was almost exactly the same as the “live” symposium: 1.5-2 hour sessions with multiple speakers (following a short welcome announcement, the first session began at 8:10am and ran until 9:50am and then picked up again at 10:20am until 11:30am), 30-minute coffee breaks, sustainability awards and even sensory and coffee experiences. For the sensory and coffee experiences, which included cold brew coffee, residents of the United States were able to purchase a Re:co Home Experience Kit and have all the ingredients and equipment shipped to their doors so they could participate in the presentations in real time with actual products.

The presentations were pre-recorded but following each one (usually about 20 minutes each), there was a short, live Q&A with each presenter, where participants could submit questions. During the lunch breaks, attendees could go into several discussion rooms to participate in extended Q&A sessions on the various presentations. Topics for this year’s Re:co included: State and Future of the Specialty Coffee Industry; Pathways Between Farm and Consumer: Mapping Specialty Coffee; Race, Specialty Coffee and the Urgent Need for Progress; and The Changing Consumer Experience of Specialty Coffee. (A review of Re:co Symposium presentations will appear in T&CTJ’s September issue.)

The Re:co Symposium website was divided into four areas: Main Stage, Chat, Discussions and Handouts, where PDFs of the presentations that were made available in advance, could be immediately downloaded. For those who participated, the SCA is providing replays of the sessions.

As with most digital events, there are some technical glitches here and there, especially because presenters and attendees were participating from around the world, but the issues were minor and resolved quickly.

Kudos to the SCA for making the digital Re:co Symposium as similar to a live event as possible so participants could feel as though they were “there in person.” (And added benefit, unlike the live Re:co, in which each session almost always runs over, thereby shortening the coffee break and lunch times, the digital event ran and ended on time!).

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