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07 October 2020

Expectations VS Realities: Planning a Virtual Conference

With over 250 participants every year, Taylor’s Lakeside Model United Nation (TLMUN) has, yet again, hosted our annual flagship conference, where youths gather not only to develop and improve their public speaking abilities and skills of diplomacy, but to also be educated on international relations and the functions of the United Nations (UN) as a whole.

Tip: Don’t get lost by the jargons commonly used in a MUN conference. Here are some keywords that you should know before I dive deeper:

  • Secretariat: The organising committee.

  • Secretary-General: The head who recruits and manages the other secretariat roles.

  • Delegates: A speaker or a country’s representative who echoes the interests of a territory and its citizens or nationals.

  • Chairs: A group of people who facilitate the debate according to the Rules of Procedure. They call on delegates to speak, time speeches, open the floor to motions, and facilitate votes on motions by the delegates. In the end, they give feedback and choose the delegates to receive diplomacy awards.

  • Deliverables: A piece of work to be done or undertaken by each department.

  • Councils: The different subdivisions that participants will be a part of throughout the conference to discuss various matters. 

  • Rules of Procedure (RoP): The rules to run a MUN committee.

But before I go deeper, what does one even do at a MUN conference?

In a nutshell, it mimics how countries interact with each other in real life. Delegates would have to come up with solutions and later discuss among countries based on a given scenario and topic. This helps them to think critically, as world leaders, about implementing relevant action plans logically and astutely, have a sense of activism, and build diplomatic relations to seek common denominators between countries' representatives. 

My first experience at a TLMUN conference was in 2019 as a delegate for Nepal in the World Health Assembly (WHA) council. There, I forged various relational associations and cultivated intellectual conversation. But, little did I know, this wouldn’t be the last I’d encounter them. As TLMUN20 arrived, I was designated under the Secretary-General's department together with the Delegate of Canada whom I met at the WHA!

For TLMUN 2020, our greatest concern was unquestionably the lack of experience, as a chair or delegate, in project management. I remember the past secretariat team being scrutinised due to their recent entry to the scene. The Secretary-General and I had a discussion upon this because, the truth is, we were rather hesitant in applying for the position considering the immediate pressure and public notice.

What prompted our eventual application is undoubtedly the realisation of the constant absence of review done to recognise delegates' wants and needs for the development in council topics. This was an objective we needed to address this year and, hence, our theme — Episteme with our slogan, ’to know, to understand, or to be acquainted with’.

This year’s conference focused on providing a quality experience for both delegates and chairs by providing them with a platform for excellent discussion which meets expectations and furnishes opportunities. 

Arranging a conference with 23 secretariats and four divisions - Finance, Academics, Operations, PR and Marketing, holds a lot more facets and is no easy feat.

Here are some of the things that I’ve learned throughout the 7-month journey:

1. Deliverables, Delegation, Deadlines

Expectation:

As successive representatives, we'd all anticipate ourselves to understand the outstanding task at hand. With four months of traversing from the foundation of secretariat to the primary days of the gathering, we’d definitely be able to spread out our workload effectively. 

Reality: 

What you perceive is very different to when you lay the overview of assignments before your eyes! I recall a day in February, where the Senior Advisors and the Secretary-Generals got together from 6pm to 12am, moving from eateries to the whiteboard in Block E. Definitely not the spread out of work I had in mind. 

Key Takeaway:

Take a day from your schedule to create a rundown of tasks. Procuring a master Gantt chart will streamline your perspectives in a more coherent manner. Doing this will help make the importance of each task more visible, allowing you to prioritise or even combine different errands together.

2. Gauging the Demands

Expectation:

Last year’s prediction, public engagement, and fellow MUN-ers excitement should be adequate to indicate the demands for this conference, right?

Reality:

Despite these being significant indications to our objective of addressing the requests of the current MUNers, it wouldn’t be sufficient to meet all our objectives of ensuring councils are curated specially for our fellow participants as a new group of people would present a new set of demands.

Key Takeaway: 

Do your market research! Accurate and thorough information provides a wealth of information about prospective and existing delegates, chairs, the competition, and the scene in general. It allows the team to determine the feasibility and better frames our councils as a whole.

3. Phantom Delegates, Chairs, Admins, Secretariats

Expectation:

Many individuals were anticipating the conference so what could possibly go wrong? Participation from last year provided with at least 200 delegates, giving us a valid forecast for the year 2020.

Or so we thought... 

Reality:

Phantom delegates, chairs, admins, and secretariats allude to people unable to participate during one of the three days of the gathering. Despite the fact that the number of phantoms may not be critical to the degree of cancellation on certain councils, yet there are nations that can jeopardise the fruition of the debate. 

Key Takeaway:

Consistently consider phantoms. Regardless of whether it means to check up on them three days before the event or set up a gathering with your group to guarantee their appearance, contingency plans are key here. Map out common scenarios and explore alternative solutions to minimise the adverse impact.  Oftentimes, problems emerge during the day of the conference so you must always be on guard and never be complacent.

4. Logistical Hassles

Expectation:

Considering the amount of council sessions delegates attend, the quantity of rooms required should be reasonable and easy enough to book — a theatre for the opening and closing ceremony along with 9 separate rooms for the 9 councils. Plus, a conference during the months of June to August, after the exam period, ought to be simpler right? 

Reality:

Proposals, club advisors, and pre-booked halls are only a portion of the factors for logistical arrangements. This has yet to account for the numerous clubs that are also eyeing for LT 21 & 22; the most demanded halls in Taylor’s University. 

Plus, with COVID-19 that happened mid-way planning, can anything be really set in stone?

Key Takeaway: 

Removing the curveball COVID-19 presented, it’s important to set up your proposition from the get-go, or if nothing else, have a structure so the overall segments are a done deal. This will reduce the need to tackle logistical set-up and additional operational arrangements. If these proposals and meetings are done prior, all that is required of you is to fill in the event-related details and proceed to submit.

Tip 

Important things to have on standby: extension cords, guest wifi, weekend entry.

5. COVID-19

Expectation:

With four months to plan and three months to ponder, COVID-19 ought not to be a critical factor until the later stages where we decide whether to remain as a physical or virtual conference. Virtual conferences should be simpler to sort out, cost-effective, and would probably have an increased delegate participation since it permits attendance wherever you’re at. What would be the issue?

Reality:

Uncertainty is one subject driving the conversation of each meeting following the change of our normal. A core issue many regularly overlook is the assets acquired. Arrangements were made for an occasion where sponsorships and delegation fees would come in expecting to be at a physical conference. This attracts investors as it’d be progressively beneficial compared to a virtual meeting. 

Key Takeaway:

The call to embrace policies and emergency courses of action is needed more than any other time. In-person occasions cannot be simply transferred online since virtual occasions need an alternate plan.

This is the time to begin contriving innovative strategies that can deliver engagement and meet stakeholder demands online. We learned how to reevaluate how we connect and attract people to these events by learning from other industry players. Setting up more meetings with your chairs is also likely to assist in curating an arrangement that suits the interest of most delegates.

Pivoting our live conference to a virtual one was definitely a challenge. Our plans were set out from the get-go, whilst the pandemic became a concern two months after our foundational plans had been set. This essentially brought us back to square one. Unlike physical conferences, there’s no benchmark to mimic because a new norm had not yet been established. Hence, with that uncertainty, our secretariat team welcomed change to be the ruler when what should’ve been is to welcome change as a rule. 

This comes to apply in our everyday lives; expectations feed frustration. By no means am I proposing that one shouldn’t hold any expectations at all but rather, to realise that some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives often do not have a title until much later. 

Like ebbs and flows, the craft of life lies in the consistent rearrangement to our environment. Thus, wherever you sit on this continuum, consider embracing the new norm.

Megan Choong Jieh Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Law (LLB) at Taylor's University. She is also the Deputy Secretary-General and Assistant Director of the TLMUN annual conference, Director of HR for Taylor's Legal Aid Centre, Director of Public Relations for Centre of Research and Development of Law in Asia, as well as the sub-editor for Lexicon.

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