Public events in B.C. carry on with virtual facsimiles, seeing mixed results

Gathering 2,000 delegates for the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ (UBCM) annual general meeting is an impossibility this year, but that hasn’t stopped the group from forging ahead with a virtual facsimile.

“This is a very critical time to take stock of what’s happening and engage with our provincial and federal colleagues,” said UBCM president Maja Tait, who is mayor of Sooke, “so for me, it’s a very important convention, just given what we’re all working through.”

So the UBCM will join the ranks of organizations taking their events online, signing on to online portals to video-stream its plenary sessions, hold chat-room break out sessions and vote on issues via secure links because there really is no other option.

“It’s just (that) it’s impossible to have anyone meet in person this year,” Tait said.

One thing technology has allowed is to bring in author Margaret Atwood as a keynote speaker, she said.

However, while the shift online has worked better for some, such as conferences and business meetings, such as the UBCM’s AGM set for Sept. 22-24, virtual options have proved to be poor alternatives for others such as charity events that lose out on the human connections that are vital to their identities.

The MS Society pivoted quickly to virtual events, including its annual MS Walk in Vancouver, recognizing that its main constituents are more at-risk to COVID-19 infection, said national CEO Pamela Valentine. Instead of hosting a public event May 24, participants were asked to register online, then take their own walk, where they could do so safely and share their experiences via social media.

Donations, however, were only about 30 to 40 per cent of what the event would normally collect, “so it’s a huge reduction in revenue.”

Valentine called the situation “an unprecedented crisis … within the charitable sector,” noting that 98 per cent of her group’s revenue comes from donations, many that are made during face-to-face events.

“It’s also the connection with people,” she said of the society’s events in Vancouver, as well as in the small cities and towns that are “the one time of the year they get to come out and sort of see their community.”

The MS Society is doing what it can to create ways for its constituents and donors to connect online, because no one knows how long COVID-19 is going to be with society, Valentine said, but many people are still “feeling very unconnected.”

Sarah Roth at the B.C. Cancer Foundation estimates that during the pandemic everyone is “probably, in some way, shape or form feeling a loss of a sense of connectivity and community,” but it is still important to try.

Roth, the foundation’s CEO, estimates forgoing in-person events will cost it 25 to 30 per cent of its usual annual revenue, mostly because it has had to postpone its high-profile Ride to Conquer Cancer cycling fundraiser, which normally pulls in $8 million-to-$10 million a year.

Instead, it has shifted to an online event called Ride On, which encourages riders to register online, watch an opening ceremony via a video-stream and take their own ride, because Roth said they didn’t want to completely pull this year’s event out from under people with a strong emotional connection to their own participation.

And it hasn’t cancelled any of its other events, opting for virtual replicas because “for some of our donors, that is their emotional connection to us and to take that away is quite devastating,” she said.

“We’re on Zoom, and that you gives you a sense of togetherness in meetings, which I think is great, but you really can’t replace the face-to-face contact in life … ” Roth said.

The UBCM faces challenges with its AGM as well, even if it’s an event better-suited to a virtual option, Tait said. One is that more remote communities don’t have equal access to the broadband internet connections required to take part.

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