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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 15/12/2020

The Covid-19 outbreak led to a flood of cancellations and postponements from events across the country. 

Some event organisers responded by adapting their in-person events into digital experiences to help mitigate the void, which was felt by industry and audiences alike. Event organisers are no stranger to last-minute changes but making the transition from physical to cyberspace was, for some, a novel idea. Challenges included tight turnarounds, how to translate and present programme content online, learning new technical skills and furloughed staff. These were faced head on, with organisers demonstrating incredible resilience and creativity to keep their events in front of audiences and fans. While it was clear that digital events could not replace their original form, they would provide much-needed entertainment and connection to followers, while also supporting artists and performers, during the pandemic. 

Art, film, book and music festivals, Highland Games, and sport events created innovative, virtual offerings that existing and new audiences could get excited about. These included live streamed Q&A’s with directors and actors as part of Ed Film Fest at Home; a fictional edition of The Open Championship with golfing greats from across the decades; 40 years’ reflection of the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF) in four one-hour editions; a live piping festival online from its global home; Glasgow’s National Piping Centre; 146 live and pre-recorded events courtesy of Edinburgh’s International Book Festival; the inaugural Fort William World Cup Downhill Duck Race; and the first classical festival in Scotland to monetise, the Lammermuir Festival.  

Nicole Smit at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival
Nicole Smit at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival

Organisers unanimously said the response to their digital events has been positive, and they will use what they have learnt to complement live events in the future. Successful highlights included; Braemar Virtual Games attracting more than 250,000 global views within 48 hours of going live; ‘To Cowal, with love’, the choregraphed dance video, achieving nearly 100,000 views; Stirling Highland Games reporting a 74% increase in countries reached; Wigtown  Book Festival received £28,000 in donations; and EJBF said that 15% of survey respondents had never attended their gig before. Also, several organisers remarked on the accessibility and sustainability benefits of virtual events, and that online content can be used to attract people to live events.  

This unique moment gave us the opportunity to explore the creative potential of online programming in a way that we had never done so before – and in doing so helped us to reach audiences from 84 countries around the world.

In the future we plan to continue to have an online offering within our artistic programme. We hope that through this we can continue to create new digital experiences for our audiences and participating artists, and as a result, expand our ways of working to increase resilience across the arts and festival sector.

Sorcha Carey, Director of Edinburgh Art Festival

Throughout this evolution, event organisers and partners who we worked with, were incredibly transparent and honest about the challenges and opportunities that came with navigating this new digital landscape. Their valuable and insightful contributions provided the framework for a series of case studies and webinars. These included ‘Taking your event online’, ‘Monetising online events’, ‘Learning from Pilot Events’ and ‘Learning from Hybrid Events’, which were developed by EventScotland and the Events Industry Advisory Innovation Group, and aimed at helping other event organisers who are thinking about making the shift to digital.  

Nessie takes on the Baxters Loch Ness Marathon © Paul Campbell

Across the wider VisitScotland organisation, Scotland Reconnect 2020 was launched – a virtual first for the organisation and a travel trade event with a twist, being a purely digital networking experience for the tourism industry. Over three days, 257 buyers from across 23 countries were welcomed from around the world by 240 Scottish exhibitors.  There were live round table discussions, networking breakout sessions and an online presentation hub, along with virtual experiences including Whisky Tasting, Scottish Storytelling sessions and a Scottish Trad music session. 

There is no doubt that event organisers and audiences are all anticipatedly waiting for the return of live events – as nothing beats it. It is also apparent though that hybrid events will have a prominent place in 2021 and beyond, and could potentially become the ‘new events norm’. 

Piping Live! Online Festival 2020 © Piping Live