Covid-19 has had a dampening effect on the events business and most are now digital. Mayo digital event CongRegation organiser Eoin Kennedy believes he can still keep the magic flowing.

Every year the Mayo town of Cong plays host to CongRegation, ‘mind mesh’ where people concerned about the now very much discuss the future. The centrepiece is an “unconference” where local restaurants, bookshops, bars and art galleries become mini conference centres.

To attend the event, you must first write a 600-word unique article or blog on a given theme. Normally a three-day event, because of the pandemic CongRegation 2020 will take place on 21 November using online meetings and breakout rooms on Zoom.

“In general CongRegation brings in around €20,000 annually into the village in off-peak season”

Last year it was community, this year it is Society 3.0. It’s all about sharing, connecting and growing and for many of its attendees the value is getting away from the hyped, glitzy and loud conference centres in cities and instead of being spoken to, they get to speak with other earnest souls to gain new perspectives. This is done through music, song and of course conversation.

But like many events because of Covid-19, CongRegation 2020 will be an all-digital affair. We spoke to CongRegation’s founder Eoin Kennedy about keeping the creative flame alive in the west.

Tell us about the origins of CongRegration and the need it was responding to?

This is the 8th year of the event with the theme evolving each year.  The concept arose from a desire to construct a format that would enhance the transfer insights and knowledge better and also to connect people at a deeper level.  It was based upon observations and experience of presenting at conferences versus attending them. 

As a speaker I came armed with knowledge and research resulting in a very different set of outcomes from the experience with attendees and my mental ability to assimilate what I heard from other speakers.  Simplistically put as I had done my homework and my brain was primed to absorb information better.  This also allowed me to have better conversations with attendees, many of who had come to the event ‘cold’. 

Man speaking on stage.

“Very few people look forward to visiting another conference venue, but attendees genuinely enjoyed the trip to the picturesque village of Cong”

This led to another key observation that if attendees could share with other attendees that perhaps they might learn more in a deeper engaged manner.  CongRegation was an attempt to deconstruct boundaries between attendees by asking them to produce a submission in advance that would form the basis of their talk.  Another key observation was that once outside of traditional conference venues better and more in-depth conversations look place.  People in general present a ‘conference persona’ when in a hotel or similar venue.  At CongRegation we utilise social venues, where people are comfortable and almost pre-programmed to share and have conversations.

Finally CongRegation was also an experiment to see if a conference that would normally take place in an urban setting could be transferred to a rural one, with the resulting economic benefits. In general CongRegation brings in around €20,000 annually into the village in off peak season.

Like the entire events industry, Covid-19 has had a dampening effect. However, many are fighting back with virtual/hybrid solutions. Tell us how CongRegation is doing it differently?

There is no hiding that the move to online is a downgrade in the CongRegation experience. Very few people look forward to visiting another conference venue, but attendees genuinely enjoyed the trip to the picturesque village of Cong. Outside of the taking over the village the social evening events/workshops, the opportunity to experience Ashford Castles private cinema are a big draw and attraction for people. 

However the breakout room structure of the chosen platform Zoom nicely mirrors the operation of ‘huddles’ that are a key part of CongRegation. To make it a bit more like Cong, virtual background from each of the venues have been developed for use of the day. The evening time poetry open mic and the stand-up workshop followed by impromptu stand up session helps to connect attendees and provide an outlet for off theme interests.

Up to the most recent lockdown a contingent of attendees were planning on participating virtually but based in Cong village, in the socially distanced friendly Crossroads Community Centre.

How is CongRegation pivoting to a future where we are all connected virtually?

People attending CongRegation.

“During CongRegation people decide when, where and how they present”

The desire will always be to bring CongRegation back to Cong, but the online format opens up new scope for international attendees and those who could make the physical trip. Although Zoom is a flexible platform many people are ‘zoomed out’ by the weekend so future online events will test newer platforms such as remo.co. 

Although fundamentally underpinned by separate video rooms these newer platforms make it easier for people to ramble from one room to another and to have informal chats with attendees in private rooms. These helps to replicate the experience of a real unconference rather than just being an efficient colder experience.  I expect a lot more innovation in this space by platform providers.

Outside of the platform the key is to have a robust structure and common understanding of how the event will be run. This structure is underpinned by chairs who guide each of the huddles.

In previous year, when people were face to face in a venue, very few went online to view the submissions as conversations were taking place.  One of the added benefits of the virtual format is attendees can seamlessly listen to the presentations while viewing them on screen, which further enhances the quality of the post presentation sharing dialogue.

During CongRegation people decide when, where and how they present. The chair invites 3 presentations per huddle. This makes it easier for quieter voices to have their insights heard and gives people individual ownership on the schedule.

What are the key themes being explored this year and why?

The theme this year is ‘Society 3.0’ which opens up lots of area of discussion. Last year the theme of ‘Community’ explored perceptions and understanding of community – what it is and what they can enrich our lives. 

“By gathering people with different backgrounds, expertise, interests, age and expertise we hope to avoid group think and offer new perspectives and connections”

It further broadened the discussion arena of CongRegation and attracted an even wider set of submissions and background of attendees.  In 2020 we are taking Society under the banner of ‘Society 3.0’.

We are now entering an unknown arena with rapid technology advancement, globalisation, changing politics, evolving community structure, mass communications and challenge of the establishment. 

At the same time we are in danger of sleep walking into a new world without first questioning the notion of what we were and where we came from. We are also facing real challenges with climate change, mass migration and political unrest.

Society embraces a very wide canvas and is central to who we are, how we define ourselves and what we wish to become. By gathering people with different backgrounds, expertise, interests, age and expertise we hope to avoid group think and offer new perspectives and connections.

The aim is to tackle the topic of Society 3.0 from multiple angles, discipline and experiences but the key guidance is to take on one area people are passionate about rather than trying to answer it all.

What would you say have been the key learnings for your organisation since lockdown began and how did you respond to the challenges?

The Covid lockdown has had profound impacts from physical health, emotional trauma to destruction of businesses which will be felt for many years to come. However it has also opened up many opportunities for those who can avail of them. 

“Technology has shone through the crisis and has unlocked lots of potential. It has also caused a blurring of home/work life balance and needs rigour to prevent burn out”

Remote working is blooming with a mental reset of perceptions of the value of those who cannot be present in an office setting Monday to Friday.  Perceptions of talent have been uncoupled from location which had been a major blocker to harnessing skills outside of cities.  However this journey is not without challenges.  Having a fully functioning separate home office, being comfortable with collaborative technologies and having the right mindset to work independently is crucial for remote working but not available to all. The reality is that the talent was there and needed a crisis to overcome ingrained perceptions of physical attendance. 

Technology has shone through the crisis and has unlocked lots of potential. It has also caused a blurring of home/work life balance and needs rigour to prevent burn out.

One of the key challenges for CongRegation is ‘Zoomed Out’ where the thoughts of another video call at the weekend can feel overwhelming.  Video conferencing when one way can be extremely tiring but when the topic is of genuine interest and the format is interactive it can be stimulating and energising.  This is a communications challenge to acknowledge the limitations of the medium (video conferencing) and focus on the engagement and connections.

It is also a big ask to set aside a weekend day so a flexible approach is being taken where people can drop in and out when they are available.  The reality is that if the conversations are stimulating, people will want to stay.  Keeping the groups small adds to this intimacy.

There is still time to participate in CongRegation #cong20.  To get a ticket all that is needed is to submit a 600 word submission on the theme of Society 3.0 via the Online Form https://congregation.ie/submit-entry/.  For inspiration see this years submissions here. https://congregation.ie/2020-submissions/.

Full details of the event on https://congregation.ie

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 6 November, 2020

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