How to organize an international conference during a pandemic

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On a humid October evening in Singapore, I found myself in a hotel bar. It was the day before a big gaming convention, and usually at these events every bar and restaurant nearby is teeming with developers, media, and other members of the industry.

This time I only saw a handful of people and we talked about how amazing it was to attend a conference again. But things were still far from normal. Most of us had just come out of our rooms after a day of quarantine while awaiting the results of a mandatory COVID-19 test. Even then, we still had to stay six feet apart due to a government mandate, which stated that only groups of two people could socialize in close proximity at a time.

These are just a few of the many pandemic rules and conditions – like not being able to freely explore the city on our own – that we had to follow during our stay (while being fully vaccinated). And despite all of that, I could tell that everyone in our jet-lagged group was just happy that they weren’t stuck at home for a change.

This was the surreal backdrop to my experience at Gamescom Asia, a convention focused on game development in Southeast Asia held in conjunction with several other events, including the 2021 Global Top Round (GTR) Investor Conference. But as unusual as it was for me to attend these events under such strict circumstances, I learned that it was just as strange and stressful to organize them in the first place.

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According to Pontus Mähler, director of business development at GTR, the company came to this year’s conference knowing it would be one of the most difficult things it has ever done.

“Fortunately, we had an incredible event. [It was] very stressful, lots of documentation to prepare, lots of security restrictions, ”Mähler told GamesBeat. “But I think at the end of the day our guests appreciate being able to all come home knowing that we took care of everyone and that it was as safe as it gets.”

Why Singapore was the right choice

GTR is an accelerator that provides funding and business advice to independent developers, such as helping them secure more investments or find a publisher. While receiving hundreds of applications for the program (375 in 2021 alone), GTR only invests in 10 studios per year. The top 20 go to the GTR Invitational Conference to make a final pitch, and the company determines the finalists at the end of the event.

Since this group of developers come from all over the world, GTR holds the annual meeting in different countries, with past conferences held in places like South Korea and Australia. The 2020 edition was supposed to take place in Malta, but like many other events that year, GTR had to quickly switch to a digital-only format.

Mähler said that while the virtual conference was a success and her team made “some of the best investments” that they have ever made, they are hoping to have at least some sort of in-person party in 2021. GTR has turned on. interviewed with several governments. agencies before choosing Singapore, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

“We finally opted for Singapore because they were able to provide us with the Safe Travel Pass letters. These Safe Travel Pass letters allow international people to enter the country despite all COVID restrictions… which allows us all to attend this exhibition together, ”said Mähler.

While they were a convenient way to secure entry for GTR guests, the Letters were not a pass to explore Singapore. They came with a set of conditions, like the aforementioned movement restrictions: we were not allowed to go beyond our designated limits, which included our hotel, the convention center, and two large shopping malls.

If we broke this rule, we would not be arrested. However, we were told that the government could ban us from traveling to the country again. Usually the only things I have to worry about at a convention are meeting my deadlines or arriving on time for my appointments, so that felt a little… hard. Either way, I had no interest in challenging Singapore’s ability to apply it.

Due to these restrictions, GTR believed that the number of foreign participants would be only a few dozen at best. But in the end, 71 people – from countries like Brazil, Ukraine, France and Germany – flew into the conference. Mähler joked that the higher numbers were due to everyone having had enough of doing Zoom meetings for a year and a half.

Above: GTR’s Pontus Mähler (left) and André Bernhardt (far right) with one of this year’s program finalists.

Image Credit: Global Top Round

Singapore already had a lot of experience hosting live events thanks to its rigorous pandemic protocols, so GTR knew its people would be taken care of. Other factors helped seal the deal, such as readily available rapid test kits (we were tested daily before entering the premises), a mandatory smartphone app for contact tracing and 24 hour assistance from government officials.

“There is real proof that they can deliver. So if we went to another country that had never done [live events in the pandemic] before, maybe in a country that had a lot of COVID cases, we [wouldn’t be able to tell] whether or not our guests would be safe, ”said Mähler.

The importance of being prepared

Despite my initial anxiety about the restrictions, I ended up feeling safer in Singapore than in my little corner of California. As someone who misses the hustle and bustle of E3 and GDC, I was just thrilled to be around people in the gaming industry again. And everyone I spoke to at the Gamescom Asia and GTR 2021 seemed to share this enthusiasm.

But even with all the security measures in the world, it’s still possible for COVID to find its way into such large gatherings. GTR had to deal with this on the last day of their lecture when one person tested positive during the daily testing regimen. As the staff caught them early that morning, the person did not enter the room.

As a precaution, GTR gave all participants a second rapid test in the afternoon. Fortunately, everyone’s results came back negative.

“We were fully prepared for any scenario, and again due to all of these restrictions and safety precautions, we knew we were in good hands,” said Mähler. “No one left the event after the announcement [of the positive case], and I think everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, I get it now. It can be annoying poking my nose every day… but at least we know why.

GTR worked closely with the Singapore Tourism Board to put these precautions in place. The government agency kept the team up to date with the latest regulations and had staff nearby to answer any questions or emergencies. Mähler said the STB was critical to the success of their conference and suggested that other event planners establish similar partnerships in their respective countries.

“Collaborate with all local authorities, dialogue with government entities. If you’re American, talk to the CDC. Make sure there are medical staff. We had medical staff on site, we had external staff on site, we had people directly [from] the government. Everyone was involved to make sure it was safe and that everything was going well, ”he said.

Above: Developers trying out each other at GTR 2021.

Image Credit: Global Top Round

The pandemic has profoundly changed the way we interact and travel, and while we may believe otherwise, it doesn’t look like it will be over anytime soon. If Gamescom Asia and GTR 2021 have taught me anything, it’s that the next few years for live events are going to be weird, especially if you have to travel. COVID-related laws and regulations vary wildly from country to country, and trying to keep up with everything is almost like a full-time job.

But we are starting to see a hope for normalcy. In addition to the Singapore conferences, gaming events are slowly coming back to different parts of the world. In the US, this has taken the form of a much smaller PAX West show, WN Seattle, and more recently The Game Awards in LA. Organizers are learning that it is possible to organize these events again as long as health protocols (such as proof of vaccination and negative test results) are followed.

Of course, everyone has their own level of comfort when it comes to these things, and the threat of new variations means our personal risk calculations are constantly changing. But this experience made me realize that I am more than ready to talk to the developers and replay their games in person, even if I still have to hide and stay a few feet away.

Disclosure: GTR arranged for my travel and accommodation in Singapore. Our coverage remains objective.

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Joshua B. Speller