A COVID-19 pivot: how a finance conference became a mixed-reality success story

Julie Loring remembers exactly where she was on Sunday 15 March when the Australian Prime Minister announced the ramping up of social distancing measures that prevented gatherings of more than 500 people and foreshadowed further tightening.

“My immediate thought was ‘We’ll need to cancel the Australia Conference this year’,” she says. Julie organises the invitation-only conference, which is the biggest annual gathering of institutional investors and ASX-listed corporates on the Australian calendar. The event has been running for 22 years and is typically held in a set of Sydney conference rooms over three days, with more than 800 delegates gathering for presentations and networking. “I considered a number of conference call style options, but was concerned about the sheer size of our audience,” she says. “If we were to replace the in person conference, it was important it was done in a highly professional way to maintain the integrity of the conference.”

“I couldn’t see any way for us to proceed,” she says.

In New York, Miki Edelman, Head of Strategic Client Solutions, Cash Equities was asking the same question. “I realised that this could be a good opportunity to demonstrate some of the potential of emerging technology,” she says.

Miki introduced communications platform Touchcast to the organising team, and the decision was quickly made to pivot the event to an online format. “We were impressed with the ability to offer a mixed-reality conference experience to our attendees,” says Julie.

Registrants for the conference logged on to the platform, choose the presentations they wished to attend and experienced the presenters speaking live from a virtual ‘stage’. Questions from the audience for the speaker were submitted through the platform and moderated by a Macquarie analyst. All presenters dialled in from remote locations, preserving social distancing requirements.

Over the three days, the conference achieved its highest ever number of delegates, with more than 1,000 people attending. And while the social events were not possible, feedback from both delegates and presenters has been strong.

“While we intend to revert to an in-person event next year, we were delighted by how well the conference worked online,” says Julie. “It’s possible that in years ahead, we’ll see more events including online elements to deliver an even more powerful experience.”