Illustration by Cheri Marshall for the Urban Institute

One Year into the Pandemic: How Urban’s Events Team Went Virtual

The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted how the Urban Institute engages stakeholders, policymakers, and the public in our events. More than a year ago, Urban’s events team quickly pivoted and restructured in response to work-from-home mandates. With a deluge of Urban research and analysis on how the pandemic was reshaping our world, we hit the ground running, hosting important conversations on how changemakers and leaders could respond the pandemic — all in a virtual setting.

Although we had hosted webinars before, Urban had switched to Zoom from GoToMeeting only one month before to the shutdown in mid-March 2020. With the help of our Tech and Data team, and through some trial and error, the events team quickly became versed in Zoom and started producing virtual events. By late-March 2020, we had transitioned our in-person event strategy to a virtual one.

For the past year, our team has been hosting these events from our homes. We’ve tested the limits of our internet, loaded up on extra laptops and webcams, and completely reshaped how we execute Urban Institute events. We’ve worked to make our virtual events more accessible and diverse. In the process, we saw how audiences appreciated the virtual events option. Our new virtual events strategy has been successful, we think, because we’ve expanded our outreach strategy to a more geographically diverse audience, created rapid-response events, and have had succinct events that are engaging to at-home audiences.

Reaching a new audience

As our team moved all our events to a virtual platform, we were able to reach a larger, more diverse audience. Being located in Washington, DC, Urban events usually reached a very specific audience of private- and public-sector stakeholders who work in the area and have a connection to our work. In-person audiences were able to engage directly with Urban’s experts and other leaders in their field and use the events as a networking opportunity.

When our events moved online, we wondered how we would be able to replicate this model. Because we were hosting events relevant to people across the country, we made the conscious decision to work with our outreach and research teams to build a broader national outreach effort. Removing the physical barrier to participation, we noticed we were engaging more and more people across the country. Event participants were able to submit questions directly to panelists and see them answered in real time. We were also able to integrate breakout rooms for some events, enabling attendees to interact with each other and with panelists more directly. We’ve seen more state and local leaders from places like New York City, Austin, Buck County, San Diego, and Ann Arbor, who have been able to engage with Urban and participate in our programming. Our growing national audience provides a more robust and diverse conversation and enables our DC audience to engage with different perspectives outside of the Capital Beltway.

In 2020, Urban hosted 142 public, private, and internal events, compared with 116 events in 2019. (Of those 142 events, only 17 were held in person before the shutdown.) A typical prepandemic event might have drawn 150 in-person attendees and 100 via webcast. Over the past few months, we are seeing 500 attendees routinely on all our major virtual events. The increase in events overall and the high attendance numbers speak to Urban’s growing reach.

Rapid response

We made rapid-response events a pillar in our virtual events strategy because of the pace and relevance of policy and information produced in the past year. Our virtual strategy allows Urban to be increasingly nimble in disseminating evidence-based research and solutions in a timely manner.

When the CARES Act passed in April 2020, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center put together an event in response. Their virtual event, The CARES Act: Tax Policy during a Pandemic, brought together tax policy experts to dive into the new legislation and what it meant for American taxpayers. It was our first official virtual event and one of our largest audiences of the year. More than 500 people tuned in from across the country, and with an attrition rate, or the percentage of people who registered for the event but did not attend, of just 26 percent, this means 74 percent of people who registered attended the event. With this event’s success as evidence that virtual events were something our audience craved, we worked with teams across Urban to support other rapid-response events, like the Evidence to Action series, The Prescription: Fiscal Policy for the COVID-19 Economy series, as well as small, private roundtables.

The Evidence to Action series launched in April 2020 and features discussions between Urban experts and leading changemakers about solutions that respond to the unprecedented social, economic, and structural challenges Americans are facing. Though our typical planning cycle before the pandemic was at least one month and often tied to long-term research projects, these events were able to come together in days to provide facts and insights on timely topics, like ways to close the racial wealth gap during the pandemic, policies to build food security, and the crisis’s effects on essential workers. Because of our virtual platform, we could bring speakers from across the country together for these high-level conversations. We produced 12 Evidence to Action events in 2020 and averaged 450 attendees per event. Partly because of this proven success, the series has continued into 2021.

Rethinking events

The shift online has reshaped our event strategy and has shown us there is no one-size-fits-all approach for virtual events. Working with Urban research teams to build an experience that remains engaging for an online audience, we were able to set a new standard for Urban’s events. With a virtual option, there is greater access to experts outside of DC and an increased opportunity to connect with attendees unable to visit our physical event space. We were also able to change how attendees spend their time with us. Instead of an all-day conference that involved travel and significant time away from workplaces, we packaged our programming into smaller segments that could fit into the overloaded schedules of the pandemic home workplace.

  • In July, we worked with Urban’s Research to Action Lab to turn one of their events into a week-long online forum with daily 90-minute sessions. The Equity Imperative: Leveraging Technology to Advance Inclusion featured Urban researchers, senior city leaders, and the former mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter. The first event in the series had more than 600 attendees.
  • To launch the new initiative WorkRise, the team created a week-long public conversation series in October that explored how to drive a truly inclusive economic recovery.
  • In December, Urban and the Department of Education hosted the Promise Neighborhoods National Network Conference on the virtual conference platform, Pathable. More than 500 attendees from across the continent convened for a three-day virtual conference with keynotes, breakout sessions, and virtual networking opportunities where attendees could tune in as much or little as they were able.

The past year has fundamentally changed events for the foreseeable future, if not forever. It has given our team an opportunity to reexamine how we produce events and host critical conversations while reaching broader audiences and bringing in more diverse voices. Our audiences have benefited from a diversity of perspectives, and our team is already hard at work conceiving what events will look like in a hybrid future.

-Ivy Hunter

-Nicholas Laughlin

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