Festivals, Cultural and City Events

Shona Black's 2020 Reflections

Despite the fact that festivals have been unable to go ahead this year in their usual form, the university has still been able to produce a fantastic amount of events. Shona Black contributed to our collection of reflections illustrating some of the ways the University of Edinburgh has supported cultural life in the city this year.

•            Please tell us about yourself and your role at The University of Edinburgh?

Shona Black - UOEBS

I joined the University of Edinburgh in 2014 as Conference and Events Manager, bringing 20 years of experience working in events, marketing and communication. I have worked for a range of organisations including Marketing Edinburgh, Edinburgh Convention Bureau, and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

My current role is to lead the Business School’s Events Team in developing, delivering and evaluating a range of high profile activities to enhance student experience, academic research and to build and strengthen relationships between the university, the city and our communities.  This includes working with academics to identify and bid to host international conferences for 500+ delegates, which raise the profile of the School on a global platform. In 2019, following five years of work, we hosted the European Group of Organisational Studies Colloquium for 2,200 delegates, which was one of the largest conferences the University has held with 70 sub-themes taking place concurrently. 


•            Had 2020 been a standard year, what work would you have traditionally been working on with regards to the city’s festivals?

The Business School has previously organised an annual ‘Media Series at the Fringe’, which featured prominent public figures and influential leaders looked at topics in finance, government, and the media. However, we had not planned to host festival activities in August 2020; instead we would have been busy organising two conferences, both of which were postponed until 2021.


•            How has that changed for you in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a change in the way we work, with all events activities being delivered digitally. As a team, we had to consider how our events could continue to:

•            enhance student experience;

•            maximise student engagement;

•            support academic research;

•            build and strengthen relationships across the University, city and wider communities.             

As a team, we attended a number of digital conference and events, and researched best practice on planning and hosting digital events, along with the best technological solutions.

We therefore decided to use our learning to curate a series of 11 engaging online events, the ‘Fresh Ideas Festival’, which was developed and delivered over twelve weeks. Contributions were made by public figures, journalists, commentators, academics, and more.  The Festival’s objectives were:

•            Raise the profile of the Business School as ‘open for business’, and engage with students, staff, the wider University and local communities;

•            Engage with contributors who focus the School’s themes of entrepreneurship, public leadership, ethics, inclusion, diversity and sustainability;

•            Raise the profile of the School for Executive MBA and Executive Education recruitment.

The series received over 1,300 registrations, and had a global audience with attendees joining from UK, India, America, Canada & Africa, and met our objectives. It also allowed our team to practice our skills at curating and moderating online activities.

Recognising that in the long term there will be an increased requirement for activities to be delivered in a hybrid format, which will have the potential to increase participation and be more sustainable, we have procured an event platform which will allow us to deliver complex and larger events in a range of formats.


•            What have been your observations of working during lockdown?

Working during lockdown required not only discipline and focus, but an adoption of technology which allowed us as a team to stay connected, communicate changes clearly, and provide each other with much needed emotional support.

We did not rush in to ‘pivoting’ activities online’; instead taking time to review our working practices and considered how we could streamline our work. It was a challenge to learn so much new technology and systems, but six months later and we in a great place having adopted MS Teams, Planner, Trello and Zoom.

The most important observations during lockdown was our need for human contact, patience, empathy and finding time to laugh!


•            Have the projects you have been working on surprised you in any way?

Curating digital events is challenging and time consuming! It is very much like editing a television show, and we have adopted running sheets to plan activities down to the minute (with pre-event run through and technology tests with speakers and moderators). Having an agile team who focus on solutions is vital when technology fails and challenges arise!

We have received such great buy in from speakers from across the world. Their contribution allowed us to host the diverse and engaging Fresh Ideas Festival. And is allowing us to think big as we plan COP26Cast (9-19 November 2020) – a series of digital programmes offering discussion by the leading global climate, political, business, NGO, and civil society figures we would have heard from had COP26 not been postponed till next year.


•            What else have you learnt from this situation?

Events professionals are resilient and adaptable. We find solutions – adapt to challenges, learn new skills, and are not afraid to fail. To develop our skills and knowledge in this new world, it was vital to network with wider communities, share knowledge and learnings, and develop best practice for digital events.