An insight of our planning approach to events with Mozilla Festival 2019

At the end of October 2019, 12 years since I achieved my Gold Arts Award, I had the pleasure of working on my 4th Mozilla Festival - an international festival of technology and culture; this year with a focus on healthy artificial intelligence (AI).  

An insight of our planning approach to events with Mozilla Festival 2019

Here’s an insight to the planning process that can help anyone planning a project or indeed business venture. It's a bit of a how to plan live events... You can see Voice’s coverage in our Voicebox or visit the Mozilla Festival website to get to know more.

The event

My week started on the Monday of MozHouse producing an event about the impact of AI on young people’s lives. It was a popular topic that attracted some ‘observers’ as well as about 50 young people into the room. The event was a unique opportunity to discuss the topic and I set the format so it could build knowledge and lead to informed conversation. 

The afternoon started with a presentation from Professor Robin Moore, Head of Innovation at the BBC. I asked Robin after seeing him present at the Creative & Cultural Skills Council conference earlier in the year; and he put in so much effort to refresh and bring a highly engaging presentation about what AI is, how it’s used, how the BBC is using it, and exploring some of the challenges. This was a great presentation followed by a Q&A that put everyone in the room in the know. We followed this with an hour of interactive demonstrations; some great organisations and products were showcased and discussed as ‘stations’ across the venue - from faked images to weather sensors, chatbot apps to personalised experiences. 

After the presentation and in-depth exploration of technologies we set up 3 discussion groups and everyone rotated around - each focussed on a different topic. This gave some wonderful data and we could capture some really interesting thoughts.

The event was well received, and it was heartening to see people of all ages in attendance, getting stuck in and really engaging with the subject matter – especially given how prevalent it is becoming in society.

The planning

Even with a simple afternoon event, a lot of work goes into organising and planning. However, the considerations you make on an event of this size are comparable in many ways to an event of any size, you need to consider your stakeholders, the marketing and adaptability in the case of the unforeseen circumstances. 

I’ve broken down how I approached each section, and then concluded with some further analysis of the planning process with Mozilla to deliver this event, and listed some of the tools we used to make it happen. 

Stakeholders

With any event, one of the primary concerns will always be stakeholders, which here we will interpret as presenters for the event.

I know something about AI, but there are many people much more expert than I – and there’s such a range of exciting products and initiatives out there. However, nailing down organisations and companies to attend a specific date, even with travel costs available, is really tough. We had a reasonable lead in, but not the ideal 3+ months. I would always advise to try and get as much lead in as possible, as it will make life much easier. 

There’s also some advice here about networking. Robin came after I spoke to him following his presentation at the earlier conference, and the fantastic weather station installation came from Cognitive Business, of whom I met one of the director’s at a networking event for my old University only two and a bit weeks before. In both of these cases, this is all about building relationships, valuing people’s time and also not being afraid of putting your project/idea out there. 

And the rest of the stakeholders? Well these mainly came from cold emails, one from someone in my network sharing the project with their colleagues in another department, one through recommendation from the commissioner and one from seeing my direct posts in one of various digital network platforms. 

This notion of multi-channel marketing and making use of relationships is core to building any project – whether it’s a Gold Arts Award Unit 2 Project or growing an international business.

Marketing

On the subject of marketing, the second challenge was reaching out, and getting people to turn up. Free events invariably have a drop out and we didn’t expect this to be any different, especially since this event was running in half term. This wasn’t the sort of event you could just put a poster up and expect people to attend.

Instead, we promoted through Voice and the Mozilla networks and website, emailed universities and previous contacts who had come to similar events we’ve run before and reached out to networks and contacts who could help promote it. We were only looking for 20-30 people to attend, but our registrations kept growing and growing. We actually had to negotiate extending our physical space, and of course growing our demos to accommodate. In total, we had over 70 sign-ups, which was after several reminder emails where people who could no longer make it did actually cancel or tell us, and on the day we had 50 young people and other stakeholders present.

One thing to take away from this – and is something I’ve seen a number of organisers overlook – is that it’s helpful to make it easy for attendees to keep in touch or let you know about changes in their availability. It means you can keep numbers realistic for reporting, and it helps with logistics on the day.

Contingency planning

However, this leads to the third challenge of an event like this: adaptability.

We collected a great set of demos and organisations to be involved, and we had a wonderful level of signups. But how do we cope on the day with a level of uncertainty? It was only days before that we could confirm the organisations – some were ‘pending’ and some could no longer make it due to other pressures. And we did experience a roughly 20% drop-out rate for attendees (although that is exceptionally good!). But when you’re mapping workshops to capacity this isn’t helpful. How did we combat this?

Simple! We planned our own contingency activities just in case of any other dropouts to demos, and our keynote presentation was sent to us in advance with notes should Robin not be able to make it in person. We also designed a schedule for the discussion groups that scaled the number and participant volume based on predefined attendee numbers, so there was no doubt as to what the plan was if only 20 people turned up, 30, 40 etc. As it happens, we didn’t need to worry about scaling down – but you can never know for sure!

Group Planning

The key learning from this? Always have backup plans. Business Continuity is key; or ‘Plan B’ is another way to put it. These are important to ensure that you can meet your end goal and/or not let people down,  i.e. your attendees at an event, or indeed the people coming to speak. This goes for personal growth and developmental plans to – the people you want to work with, stakeholders, artists, friends or managers may not be available or have the resources you need. Who else can support your ambitions? I am a firm believer in having a solid plan that can be adapted as needed.

Further analysis of event planning

This final point leads me into some commentary about the organisation of Mozilla Festival itself, the weekend event of the week.

The process of planning started months before the AI event, with a retreat in Barcelona where we spend a week getting to know other ‘wranglers’ (the term for the curators of the festival). It’s an exceptional experience where the exchange of ideas occur in parallel to an exchange of cultures. Separated by thousands of miles, the differences in social norms are stark, but they are also minimal for the most part, it’s life experiences where things really diverge. The planning stage is an incredible time learning about each other, and putting together plans for a global festival that reaches so wide across the globe and to a lot of different types of people.

Digital platforms then become a key tool in the planning arsenal. Rather than walking through every stage of the decision making process, here’s a few key things:

  1. Slack - team & cross-team communications enable conversations to happen, as well as 1:1 conversations about any issues to be sorted; akin to walking across to each others’ desks in a physical environment

  2. Google Hangouts & Zoom - Regular video meetings mean it feels odd when you actually meet someone for the first time at the festival because you honestly have gotten to know them over the months of video calls.

  3. Zenkit - Could easily be Airtable, possibly Google Sheets or maybe Microsoft Excel. But collaborative spreadsheets that can be filtered, sorted and left with comments enable us to schedule, plan and discuss sessions that are submitted for consideration. The ‘Kanban’ view - a bit like Trello - is especially helpful to move records (sessions) between status ‘buckets’, for example ‘selected’, ‘possible’, ‘question pending’, etc. They’re a great way to see the live status of many components of a project.

  4. Google Docs - for sharing meeting notes. A clear and shared document record of conversations and actions is key when you’ve got 40+ people around the world.

  5. Custom app - in our case, we used a web app built by one of the team for two reasons, A) it enabled a ‘blind review’ by a large group of people to rate submissions and B) after scheduling it allowed us to see the data in an easy format - check for collisions in spaces or facilitators, and collect materials to be printed or requested. 

Using these tools enabled a global team of people to effectively plan and execute a big festival. Careful management, regular check-ins and ensuring everyone knows how to stay up to date is really important.

None of the projects here could have been done without the wonderful team of people that supported them, the Voice team for the AI event, and the whole team of wranglers and production staff on the festival.

Overall, I have learnt, and at the very least had my knowledge confirmed, that trusting in your team, encouraging creative thinking, planning, openness and having a passion to achieve the best outcome you can are all important in building successful projects and ventures. 

All of this comes just as I embark on my next journey of an MBA – which for me is a strategic leadership and development programme for people working in business. It’s internationally recognised for its development of critical thinking and application to a range of business environments. I know the last 14 years of my life, from the start of my Silver Arts Award, through my Gold, through my degree, and through my exciting range of work in the decade since will inform and support me to achieve this qualification as a well rounded creative projects practitioner.

Header Image Credit: Emrys Green

Author

Emrys Green

Emrys Green Voice Team

Emrys is the project manager for the Arts Award Youth Network & Arts Award Voice. He writes occasionally, but spends most of his time leading & supporting the amazing editorial team that bring you this site. Alongside managing this programme of work Emrys manages web builds and live events through his own pursuits - with a wide encapsulation of the arts sector. Theatre, Dance, Circus, Spoken Word and a combination of contemporary and shakespeare presentations are all within his likes - so a very wide artistic enjoyment ensues.

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