Downer Group designs, builds and sustains assets, infrastructure and facilities and is the leading provider of integrated services in Australia and New Zealand.
An ASX 100 listed public company with a history dating back more than 150 years, Downer employs more than 50,000 people across more than 300 sites in Australia and NZ, as well as throughout the Asia-Pacific region, South America and Southern Africa.
Like many other companies impacted by social distancing guidelines necessary to help contain the spread of COVID-19, Downer has had to develop innovative ways to progress essential infrastructure projects while providing a safe environment for staff, contractors and other stakeholders.
A regional rail project Downer is managing had reached the critical stage of needing to hold an Industry Briefing. This would usually be a physical event held to brief local companies, contractors, suppliers and other stakeholders about how they might be able to be involved in the project. It’s a critical event in the time-line of a project, according to Stakeholder and Communications Manager Kate Ryder, because it helps the company meet important commitments around local and indigenous participation, innovation and sustainability.
“Holding this event was critical to the delivery of the project’s commitment to sustainability, local supplier procurement and local jobs targets,” says Kate. “We had pre-planned this event at a venue, with all speakers and attendees to be present in one room.”
With gatherings of more than two people prohibited under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and many employees working remotely, the company set about transforming its Industry Briefing into a virtual event using Redback’s managed webinar services and platform.
The result not only surpassed engagement expectations for a virtual event but attracted five times as many registrations as would be expected to attend a physical event, almost four times as many actual attendees, and broke new ground in the construction industry.
We spoke with Kate Ryder and Downer Environment and Sustainability Manager Ross Brookshaw about how the event came together, and asked Redback webcast operator Jason Hooker about the technical side of the event.
Kate and Ross, thanks for agreeing to talk to Redback about your Industry Briefing.
Have you ever held a virtual event like this before?
Kate: This was our first one. There was some nervousness about it from within our company and other stakeholders. I don’t know of anyone else in the sector holding virtual industry briefings. We would never have dreamed of doing something like this — it was just that we needed to reach out to the local community.
How are these events usually run?
Ross: We’d normally squeeze everyone into a Town Hall somewhere in the regional area in which the project is occurring, and we’d provide tea and coffee and biscuits. All the speakers would present in person. Local contractors and suppliers would attend and be able to ask questions. Generally we’d celebrate if we got 100 people to a meeting like this. The project area can span several hundred kilometres and not everyone wants to drive two hours to attend.
How important was it to hold the event virtually rather than wait until restrictions are eased?
Kate: As part of the contract we have a contractual requirement into sustainability — local jobs and procurement. About 90% of all expenditure for the construction equipment and labour needs to come from the local community.
One of the reasons we have an Industry Briefing is to message out all those requirements and engage with companies that can provide those contractual requirements. It’s imperative to have an event like this to be able to reach those targets. People get an understanding of the process and what we need to achieve, and can then tender for the components they might be able to provide.
A lot of people in those regional communities might not even know that this project is going on.
If we hadn’t held this event, it could have delayed the process.
What agenda did the event follow?
Kate: Our project team talked about Downer as a company, then we had our government client give a high-level overview of the project itself. Then we went into a more detailed project overview and outlined the scope of works. We talked in more detail about the project requirements, we had industry groups speak, and we gave people the opportunity to break out into separate areas to cover things like sustainability requirements, indigenous and local job requirements, construction and the opportunities to be involved.
Ross: Downer’s commitment to sustainability is an overall company commitment — to be able to have the opportunity to speak to people at this level, and involve our client and other supplier and industry groups, is very important. People were engaged with us for over two hours.
Jason, from Redback’s point of view, was the event technically complicated?
Jason: We were screen-capturing a video call, and that type of event is probably the most complicated kind of event we do because there are a lot of elements.
We were bringing camera and audio feeds from our broadcast studio into the call with remote presenters, and we needed to set it up so the studio and remote presenters could hear each other. It’s like a TV set-up.
When you have remote presenters, there can often be problems with their video and audio but we train them prior to the event and test their local set-up, and then we have a technical check just prior to the event.
This event was hosted by one of the studio presenters, and then I was cutting live to remote presenters and the other studio presenter. We also had pre-recorded videos and Q&A enabled — attendees click a button within the platform and they can submit a question privately. And at the end we split into breakout rooms via links to Microsoft Teams that were in the supplied resources on the platform.
All in all, there were probably nine or so remote presenters. We did start it a few minutes late because one of them was struggling to get onto the platform, but it actually went really well.
What do you do if a remote presenter is having trouble during a live event such as this?
Jason: With technology and remote presenters, your feed is only as good as a speaker’s internet connection. While we were playing the videos, two of the presenters’ webcam audio feeds froze or dropped out. But once the videos went live I was able to trouble-shoot with them and get them back online and then we went live to them.
The more remote presenters there are, the more risk, but that’s what we do — we’re there to fix those technical issues.
Ensuring the remote presenters have reliable equipment and internet — that’s the best mitigation that can be done prior to the event.
If a presenter’s video feed drops out, phone audio is a great back-up because it’s very stable and then we would put up a slide of the presenter. People don’t really mind as long as the stream is smooth.
Kate, how successful was the event for Downer from a business point of view?
Kate: The event was a huge success and I have had numerous emails and calls from our client, partners and attendees on how professionally it was run.
We had attendance that we wouldn’t have had to a physical event which allowed us to get messaging out that’s critical to the project. More than 500 people registered to attend, and 385 people attended it — and counting.
We pass on attendee emails to our procurement managers and they’ve had a lot of correspondence, continuing the dialogue after the event.
It was also very cost-effective. To host 385 people at a physical event with catering would probably cost $20,000.
We preached what we practiced from a sustainability point of view. I would never do it again the old way. I’m going to recommend we do this every single time.
I hadn’t had much experience with webinars and I am genuinely grateful for Redback’s professionalism and willingness to hold my hand through the process so I could help everyone else through the process.
Ross: In the 45-minute breakout room we just had question after question, and then follow-up emails from people talking about their company and outlining the innovation they can bring to the project. That’s information we wouldn’t normally have and adds a level of diversity to the project.
Is there anything you’d do differently next time?
Kate: The only thing we’d probably change is instead of trying to answer people’s questions throughout the presentation, we’d probably ask people to hold their questions until the end, and then answer them in an FAQ. We couldn’t manage to answer all the questions ourselves during the live event.
How innovative would you say this event was in your industry?
Ross: I would say that this is innovating from a construction event delivery perspective. I’d say it’s a first. It’s the first time I’ve heard of it being virtual. And from a COVID-19 point of view and managing things remotely, it showed that we were all able to keep the project moving.