While much of the world is currently suspended in the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, WordCamp Europe delivered a surprisingly decisive announcement today regarding the status of the 2021 event in Porto. Organizers moved to make it a virtual conference, 10 months in advance of the planned dates, June 3-5, 2021:
After careful consideration, and following guidance from WordCamp Central, we have agreed to hold WCEU 2021 online.
Although it was a difficult decision, it also seems the right thing to do. Considering the continuing uncertainty regarding COVID-19, we are hesitant to draw so many individuals from so many different places into one physical space.
We understand that this decision will come as a disappointment to many. We know that this event is a much-needed social outlet for many in our community and that an online event isn’t quite the same as a physical event. We’re so sad to not be able to greet you all in person in Porto in June.
The announcement cited several positive aspects of going virtual, including eliminating the uncertainty for attendees and their travel arrangements, allowing for a larger global audience without the expense and risk, and having more time for creating a better online experience. The 2020 event had just three months to convert to a virtual conference but was able to reach more than 8,000 attendees.
In the absence of a vaccine ready for mass distribution or any proven commercially available therapeutics specifically designed to target the virus, it is impossible for organizers to nail down a safe timeline for a multinational event in 2021. Hugh Lashbrooke, who is assisting the WCEU organizing team as a mentor from WordCamp Central, identified risk mitigation as one of the primary factors in their decision.
“Attendee safety is a primary concern in WordCamp organizing,” Lashbrooke said. “While the pandemic is progressing differently in different regions of the world, it seems that large in-person events that bring together thousands of people from multiple countries in a single shared space are still a risky proposition — and it’s not clear when this will be safe again.”
WordCampers reacting to the news today seemed to understand the need for such a disruptive change, but most expressed deep disappointment.
“I’m sure the decision won’t have been taken lightly,” Simon Dickson said. “But WCEU is so important in terms of defining and sustaining the European – and indeed, global – WordPress community. With all due respect to online alternatives, two blank years will hit community spirit hard.”
The goal for WordCamp Europe is to resume the in-person event in 2022 and organizers have booked the Super Bock Arena (Pavilhão Rosa Mota) for June 2 – June 4, 2022.
If WCEU can resume normal operations in 2022, it will be the first time in three years that the European WordPress community has had the opportunity to gather in-person in one place. One disappointed attendee said, “Understandable. As we say in Portugal: À terceira será de vez! Até 2022,” which roughly translates to the English saying, “Third time’s a charm.”
WordPress Community Team Is Working Towards Facilitating More Effective Events
Lashbrooke said adjusting to emerging world events has been hard on all WordCamp organizing teams this year, as well as sponsors, speakers, and attendees. WordCamp Asia was forced to cancel, WordCamp US has gone virtual, and many other smaller camps have gone online or been postponed. The WordPress Community team is discussing how they can improve online events to provide a better experience for the community. Some of the broader ideas for creating more effective events include the following:
- Decouple online events from geography
- Encourage events and workshops defined by topics, languages, etc.
- Explore shorter, “snack-sized” online events
- Experiment with the frequency of events
A peripheral discussion regarding sponsors is happening on Twitter, after recent online WordCamps failed to deliver a positive experience of virtual sponsor booths.
“If you want to offer sponsors a ‘Virtual Booth’ as a benefit of sponsorship, you’re going to have to do something during the main event to make that attractive and easy for attendees to attend — otherwise it’s not a sponsor benefit,” Matt Cromwell said.
“If attendees have to log off the regular WordCamp platform, then go find some other link to some other virtual platform the experience becomes arduous and full of friction for the attendee making it highly unlikely they’ll attend. WordCamps that are switching to virtual should look into more robust platforms like Hopin which allow for various rooms that are consolidated to the same platform for attendees.”
WordCamp Europe 2020 organizer Bernhard Kau said his team looked into using Hopin but found it wasn’t fully accessible.
“Hopin looked promising at first, not only for sponsors, but also for networking between attendees,” Kau said. “But it lacks basic accessibility. It’s unusable with keyboard only for example. I’d love to see it improve, so we could use it in the future.”
Lashbrooke said WordCamp Central has also considered Hopin, among other apps, while doing extensive research on accessible platforms.
“Right now, everyone’s still working on a way to make that work for everyone, and we’re lucky that our sponsors are so honest with us about their experiences, because it helps us improve,” Lashbrooke said.
“One thing that is of paramount importance to us as a team is that all WordPress events maintain a high level of accessibility, and unfortunately when it comes to streaming platforms we have very limited options when it comes to accessible streaming services. Zoom is about the only fully-accessible platform, so it’s the only option to use for sponsor booths.”
With ten months of lead time, WordCamp Europe organizers will have plenty of opportunities to experiment with new ideas to make the event more engaging for both attendees and sponsors. All the other WordCamps on the schedule through the end of the year have already been converted to online events. For the time being, it looks like virtual camps are here to stay.
“I really doubt we’ll be abandoning online events, after COVID-19 is more under control worldwide,” WordPress Community organizer Andrea Middleton said. “I think that we’ll need to figure out how in-person events and online events can best coexist, but it seems like we’ll have time to figure that out.”