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The Covid-19 global pandemic threw a wrench into plans of many industries. While groups of people were no longer allowed to gather together, the events business took one of the hardest blows during this crisis. This unprecedented time forced a rise of innovation and thought leadership from events management around the world, including T.A. Cook Director of Global Events, James Haggen and his team.

 

Text: Jennifer Layer Adams

 

“Personal face-to-face meetings and networking have always been the heart and soul of events and conferences,” explains James Haggen, who joined the event team at T.A. Cook in the spring of 2010. So when the pandemic seemingly brought the world to a halt, he and his team were faced with challenges no one had ever experienced before.

“Throughout this whole period, and we're still in it now, we've never been able to predict when things are going to change so planning any in person events was close to impossible,” says Haggen.

After a few months of repeatedly postponing scheduled events, James and his team had to make the tough decision to cancel all of them. “In the events business we’ve always used the same tried and tested model of bringing industry experts and delegates together to share experiences and learn from each other. We had a smooth system running to plan, organize, run and evaluate our international conferences.” Witnessing this tenured system and procedure being brought to a standstill was shocking for the T.A. Cook events team, but it also lit a fire in them to not get stuck and left behind but instead break free and come up with a completely fresh and inspired approach.  

"Starting from scratch felt liberating and exciting... Covid forced us to do something we otherwise would not have done."

We had two options. Either stay defensive and essentially just wait it out as our competition moved on in front of us. Or, go on the offense, look at things with a positive frame of mind and pinpoint what the opportunities were.” Taking an offensive stand James and his team got creative, did extensive market research, and brain stormed a new approach to run virtual events.

Through innovative thinking, James and his team took what would have been six in person  finance and risk focused conferences and turned them into a month long digital series with over 2000 registered attendees. “It ended up being one of the most extensive, comprehensive and ambitious pieces of work we've done,” says the satisfied director of events. The digital series successfully delivered over 60 fully live digital sessions, hosted additional live interactive discussion groups, and provided extensive on-demand content.

At the same time that his team was facing the transformational impacts of the pandemic, James was also graduating from a master’s in business program and becoming a father. “I had this massive crescendo in my life, of all these things peaking at once,” says Haggen. “I submitted my final work for my masters in September. Our little boy was born in October, and the big event series all finished in October.” Navigating all of these big changes at once required James to think very quickly and rely heavily on his gut feelings and the creativity of his team.

"You just have to trust your instincts, trust your partners, and go for it!”

“Whether it’s becoming a parent or managing a team, you just have to trust your instincts, trust your partners, and go for it,” says the new father. “You'll get some things wrong, and trust me we did, but you'll also get some right. Hopefully you get more right than wrong, but you also learn from your mistakes.

James and his team gained many new insights on what they were capable of during the height of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. “This experience has inspired us to continually improve and transform not just as a last resort during times of crisis but also when everything is going well and we have that head start,” says Haggen. “The most important lesson we learned was our capacity for innovation and that with a little critical thinking and team work we can meet any challenge.”

“The most important lesson we learned was our capacity for innovation and that with a little critical thinking and team work we can meet any challenge.”

James is convinced that the appetite for organizing business events is still very high and knowledge exchange is crucial right now. Companies are trying to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and so the need for conversation and sharing experiences and best practices is greater than ever.  “We are human beings and need social interaction so virtual vents will never fully replace face-to-face meetings. However, the pandemic has shown us that virtual events can answer some educational needs better. If we combine them with a face-to-face meetings to create hybrid events, the experience can be more versatile than when just utilizing one of the methods .”

“The world is going to continue to change around us,” says Haggen, “and change can open up new opportunities to a bright future.”

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