Mission possible: delivering an international event during a pandemic

There are 2 certainties to events like international trade missions: travel and bringing people together in person.

What to do, then, when a pandemic takes both of these elements away?

The Legal Services are GREAT campaign team (Zoë Holder, Liz Giles, Tanaye Reid, Harry Grossman and Sophie Burke) at the Ministry of Justice recently rose to just this challenge.

A virtual team meeting ahead of the trade mission.

We delivered the UK’s first ever virtual trade mission – bringing together hundreds of people from across the UK and Africa without an aeroplane or hotel in sight.

A year ago…

In our initial thinking, a virtual trade mission would have been unthinkable. We planned to visit Nigeria and Ghana, travelling with delegates for an intensive series of receptions and meetings, bringing people together. The aim: to promote UK legal services globally and secure business wins for our legal firms from rapidly growing overseas markets.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) put paid to these original plans – but also gave us an opportunity to find a different way of doing things. So, we put in place an ambitious communications plan to hold the first ever UK-Africa virtual trade mission, bringing together all the elements of a traditional trade mission and keeping its objectives intact.

Key to this was the creation of a bespoke virtual platform that would host seminars, breakout sessions and one-to-one networking meetings. There was no model for this so we had to create it, working at pace, from scratch.

The event

The platform we created acted as a virtual conference centre or hotel and provided delegates with all the opportunities of an in-country trade mission, with space to meet, listen and engage – together or in private.

The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland hosted the mission with HM Trade Commissioner for Africa, Emma Wade-Smith, giving the keynote speech. Across the 3 days (1 to 3 December), some 400 people attended and 250 one-to-one business meetings were facilitated on the virtual platform.

Alongside this, we carefully planned 21 events to the programme agenda which featured 60 prominent legal, government and trade speakers.

Emily Tofield, Director of Communications at the Ministry of Justice, said the mission was a fantastic opportunity to showcase one of the UK’s most successful exports – the legal services sector – and build vital partnerships with some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

As a team we are passionate about our work and this mission gave us the opportunity to use our individual strengths and create something we are incredibly proud of. The feedback we received from delegates, speakers, the sector and internally has been overwhelmingly positive.

Next year

In 2021 we will build on the success of our virtual trade mission, with activity planned not just across Africa but in other target markets, including the UAE, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. For now, our focus will be on virtual activity, but with a view to seeking in-country opportunities once possible.

Being a small team, running a trade mission of this size wasn’t simple, but we’ve enjoyed the challenge and adapted well to the competing demands. There has been a real sense of team spirit and energy which has made for a positive working environment – albeit virtual!

Our one piece of advice for anyone planning virtual events? Test, test and test the technology! Try plenty of practice runs, making sure everything works correctly and be meticulously organised, planning for every eventuality.

    Image credits:
  • The Legal Services are GREAT team, Ministry of Justice (1)
  • The Legal Services are GREAT team, Ministry of Justice (2)