Conference UCC – looking back on a time of change
We look back at what has been a transformational period for Conference UCC as it navigated the pandemic and incorporated the benefits of virtual connection with the welcome return of in-person events.
As events and communications manager with Conference UCC, Jean O’Callaghan is accustomed to dealing with the challenges that come with organising and supporting large-scale events. When Covid hit, however, it resulted in significant changes in how Conference UCC carried out its work.
“When the pandemic happened, we had to pivot quite dramatically. There was a long period of time where we would have felt that things would go back to normal. From a client perspective, it took some time for them to understand that they weren't going to have in-person meetings for a period of time. Managing their expectations, and communications, was really a significant challenge for us at the outset,” says Jean.
Conference UCC is part of the University’s in-house consultancy UCC Academy, and it helps to facilitate and support events across a range of platforms. When it became clear that in-person events were no longer viable, the changes happened quickly, says Jean. “Once we got to the stage of accepting what had happened, we looked at how we could meet the demands of clients, and virtual was the solution.”
Jean marvels at how quickly people adapted to working virtually, with previously unknown platforms becoming part of the collaborative process.
“I remember the first week when we were working from home, somebody suggested I do a Zoom call, and I didn’t even know what it was,” says Jean.
Digital conferencing is now one key element of the services offered by Conference UCC, which utilises a range of platforms such as Microsoft Teams, YouTube and Zoom. It also caters for online events through its own OnAIR platform. As restrictions eased, more blended hybrid events were possible — by the end of June, Conference UCC had delivered approximately 105 online/hybrid events.
While there was a real willingness to embrace these new ways of collaborating and disseminating research, Jean says there was one common theme in the responses of stakeholders.
“One piece of feedback that we always got was in relation to networking — the coffee break is definitely what our academics missed more than anything else. So we organised [virtual] break-out rooms for people to engage with each other.”
Fortunately, the return to in-person events has meant more opportunities to network in real life, which is especially important for early career researchers.
“Those researchers need that exposure, to meet somebody who might be a leader in their field. It's not the same thing to see that person deliver online. It's much easier to approach somebody in person,” says Jean.
While people have welcomed the return to in-person events and conferences and the chance to catch up with colleagues and fellow academics from abroad, Jean says the future is hybrid, and virtual elements will remain.
“People are more measured and selective about what they’re going to and there is an expectation of events to be streamed. We are often asked by a speaker if they can deliver their talk remotely — that would never have happened pre-Covid. If an event is not live streamed, we are often asked if it will be recorded, so they can access it at another time.”
Jean says that one key advantage of offering events virtually is the fact that it makes them more inclusive. “Obviously, it's much cheaper for people who might be on tight budgets to attend a virtual conference than it would be to travel. Also, there have been conferences where it was obvious that the speaker had caring responsibilities and they were able to deliver their presentation from home, which is great.”
Jean says that another positive aspect of the incorporation of virtual events has been the increased engagement with alumni. Conference UCC provided support to the Alumni and Development Team for the UCC Alumni Global Speaker Series, a series of conversations with distinguished experts from the alumni community. These included Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland, Michael Dowling, a UCC graduate and President of Northwell Health, who helped steer New York hospitals through the pandemic. The Jean Monnet Lecture Series, hosted by the Department of Government and Politics, also engaged with alumni globally, showcasing conversations with high-profile figures such as Naomi Long MLA, and exploring topics including Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol.
“Those events were really good for engagement with our alumni network because obviously, alumni by their nature tend to be very international,” says Jean.
Another integral element of college life which Conference UCC helped sustain during the pandemic was the hosting of graduations and the delivery of parchments. Up to the end of spring this year, there had been 53 virtual conferring ceremonies, with parchments distributed to approximately 7,200 graduates.
“That’s the essence of the University really, and it was really important for the President [Professor John O’Halloran] to have an event that marked the milestone for students. I know that families gathered to watch the streaming and celebrate,” says Jean.
According to Marie Louise Keane, creative service delivery manager with UCC Academy, the way events and conferences are hosted may have changed but the focus of Conference UCC remains the same.
“We are here to disseminate the groundbreaking world-class research that is carried out here, that is our primary focus. If we can play a small part in that, it then leads on to other things, raising the profile and ranking of the University and attracting students to the University as a whole. That is core to what we do. We want to make sure that we are playing our part in promoting the University, in putting on events to a very high standard so that people go away to the next conference and talk about the great time they had in Cork.”
According to Jean, the creativity and flexibility that were key to its approach during the pandemic will continue to influence how Conference UCC work in the future.
“People are much more open to doing things differently now,” she says. “There’s a huge, pent-up demand for in-person events. People are so excited to meet their research partners, to go for a coffee together, to see and hear research first-hand and get back to networking as it was in the past. I think we’ll see the hybrid model embraced where those who want to attend in person can do so, and those who are limited in this way will still have access to events virtually. It’s the best of both worlds, and we’re excited to continue to support it."