Restrictions on the number of people that can gather in one place have made farm shows and producer meetings difficult, if not impossible, since the pandemic swept through Canada.
Some event organizers cancelled them outright, others held virtual meetings; something they hadn’t previously attempted.
In many respects, online events fall short of in-person meetings, but they have made it possible to continue the exchange of information needed to keep the industry moving forward.
Clinton Jurke of the Canola Council of Canada is a co-chair of the Canola Industry Meeting and he said conversations with organizers of Canola Week in Saskatoon were always focused on what form the event will take, not on whether the event will be held.
“Given that this is the 50th anniversary for the canola industry meeting, who were we to stand in the way of not continuing on the tradition that has gone on for 49 years before?” Jurke said.
The meeting is usually a one-day event focused on industry, research and market updates.
It is largely based on the exchange of scientific information and is presentation-based, so it was easier to move it online compared to some other shows with a larger trade show component.
“A live event, it’s not that hard to have people sit for eight hours in an audience as long as you can get up and go for a coffee. But to expect people to sit and pay close attention in front of a monitor for more than a couple hours is a stretch,” Jurke said.
“So trying to compress what you would normally get in an eight-hour day to less than a four-hour day. It requires more discipline out of the speakers.”
The virtual event used a series of recorded presentations with either live or recorded introductions, followed by a panel question-and-answer session where the speakers answered questions in real time.
Sally Vail of Agriculture Canada, another co-chair of the event, said they designed the experience to promote discussion between event speakers and attendees.
“The presentations were pre-recorded but they would be shown in real time, such that the audience was watching the presentation as it’s being broadcasted,” Vail said.
“In addition to the presentations, through the virtual platform there are networking options in the form of one-on-one chat or video meetings, or there are also networking tables set up where groups can video chat together and have more in-depth conversations.”
Jurke said allowing attendees the ability to interact was critical.
“In a lot of ways we tried to preserve some of the character of the canola industry meeting and the discovery forms, where there is a big focus on content and the opportunity to hang out during coffee and lunch breaks.”
The number of attendees that watched the presentations in real time is comparable to previous years, and there were also a few hundred more who registered to be able to watch the presentations for up to a week after the conference.
Jurke said aligning with a company experienced at holding virtual meetings is important, as is practicing the meeting because it is much more involved then hopping on a family Zoom call.
Glacier Farm Media staff began the farm show season scrambling to figure out how to transition its farm shows to virtual events. They gained enough experience that other groups now turn to them to help move their agricultural events online.
Executive vice-president of GFM, Lynda Tityk was recognized as the 2020 Agri-Marketer of the Year by the Canadian Agri-Marketing Association, in part for her work leading the transition of GFM farm shows to virtual events during the pandemic.
She said GFM recently agreed to produce a February event for Capital Press in Washington state.
“They are doing the marketing and the content. But we are doing all the event management and enabling the platform and helping them with their video content creation,” Tityk said.
“We’ve also been approached by the Soils and Crops workshop (in Saskatchewan) that usually runs in March, and we’re working with those folks to enable that event as well. Clearly there are others in the industry who looked and said, these people know what they’re doing.”
She said GFM is also using the experience it gained producing virtual events this year to develop a series of webinars this winter.
But the transitions from in-person to virtual events wasn’t all smooth sailing, especially at the beginning.
“We were basically in a sold-out position for Ag In Motion, all plans were set in motion. The only thing that hadn’t been done (were) the crop plots hadn’t been planted. The plot space and all that, everything had already been spoken for,” Tityk said.
There was a flurry of conversations between organizers of Ag In Motion, its exhibitors and sponsors, as well the Saskatchewan government who held authority over whether the show could be held.
“You feel this responsibility towards your customers on both sides, the farmers and the businesses, and you have to step into the unknown,” Tityk said.
“But we figured we were crazy enough to start Ag In Motion in the first place, maybe we should be crazy enough to try holding a virtual event as well.”
Transitioning a large farm show such as Ag In Motion to a virtual event, called Ag In Motion Discovery Plus, was much more complicated than a presentations-based event.
In addition to presentations associated with the show’s knowledge centre, the show’s exhibitors and sponsors also needed an opportunity to showcase their products and services through the content stream, which included equipment demonstrations.
A team was pulled together from across GFM, including web developers that analyzed and then picked an appropriate web platform, the marketing department that needed to rework what they could offer clients, and content-development teams that figured out how to put together enough video content for the show.
Tityk said there was no template for what they needed to do, but GFM had a lot of human capital to draw on to make it happen.
Ag In Motion “was the first one in North America that had really stepped fully into the virtual space,” Tityk said.
In the end, Ag In Motion Discovery Plus used a platform called Swapcard that enabled event attendees to speak to presenters, provided sponsor recognition, supported a trade show, and used YouTube to host videos, which made it easier for producers with poor internet service to attend.
To help drive more engagement inside the trade show, GFM held contests where attendees had to visit exhibitor booths.
“Do I think we got absolutely everything right, no. But I think we got more than a passing grade,” Tityk said.
“People thanked us for stepping into the space to fill a need. That was gratifying. It validates what you do.”
Six weeks after Ag In Motion Discovery Plus, the digital version of Canada’s Outdoor farm show, called Canada’s Digital Farm Show, was held, which gave the GFM team little time to apply what they learned from the Ag In Motion.
“By the second show, we were getting pretty good at producing video content,” Tityk said.
“Every time you do anything it’s a learning experience. There is always room for improvement.”
She said Canada’s Digital Farm Show was a similar format but with different content compared to Discovery Plus.
However, the third farm event held by GFM this year, The Farm Forum Event, is a much different format that required a slightly different approach.
“A large part of what we do at the Farm Forum is also on the networking side,” Tityk said.
“Instead of a faceless chat, where you’re texting back and forth, more of an opportunity to almost be face-to-face for the conversation, and be able to interact with speakers.”
So a networking software called Remo was integrated into the events platform, which allowed a new way to visualize the other people and interactions occurring in the virtual rooms.
The most recent event GFM held, the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference, used the same platform as previous events, a design the organizers have become familiar with.
Tityk said she’s proud of how her teams handled the challenge of transitioning GFM farm shows to virtual events, something that wasn’t easy in part because the farm show staff felt a loss when the in-person events were cancelled.
“I don’t ever want to have to repeat that, it was so emotionally difficult, the whole process was really hard,” Tityk said.
She said GFM will transition back to in-person events, as soon as possible.