August 12, 2022

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How to run an international conference during a pandemic

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During a humid October evening in Singapore, I found myself in a hotel bar. It was the night before a big gaming convention, and typically at these events, any nearby bars and restaurants are packed with developers, media, and other members from the industry.

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

Those were just some of the many pandemic-related rules and conditions — like not being able to freely explore the city on our own — we had to follow during our stay (all on top of being fully vaccinated). And despite all that, I could tell that everyone in our jet-lagged group was just happy to not be stuck at home for a change.

This was the surreal backdrop for my experience at Gamescom Asia, a convention focused on Southeast Asian game development 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 equally as strange and stressful to organize them in the first place.

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According to Pontus Mähler, the director of business development at GTR, the company went into this year’s conference knowing it’d be one of the hardest things they’ve ever done.

“Luckily enough, we had an amazing event. [It was] very stressful, a lot of documentation to prepare, a lot of safety restrictions,” Mähler told GamesBeat. “But I think in the end our guests appreciate that they can all fly back home, knowing that we took care of everybody and that it was as safe as possible.”

Why Singapore was the right choice

GTR is an accelerator that provides funding and business advice to indie developers, like helping them secure more investments or finding a publisher. While it receives hundreds of applications for the program (375 just in 2021), GTR only invests in 10 studios per year. The top 20 fly to GTR’s invite-only conference to do one last pitch, and the company determines the finalists at the end of the event.

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Since this pool of developers come from all over the world, GTR hosts the annual get-together in different countries, with past conferences held in places like South Korea and Australia. The 2020 edition was supposed to be in Malta, but as with many other events that year, GTR had to quickly pivot to a digital-only format.

Mähler said that while the virtual conference was successful, and that his team made “some of the best investments” they’ve ever done, they were hoping to have at least some kind of in-person portion in 2021. GTR spoke with several government agencies before choosing Singapore, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

“We ultimately decided on 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 the COVID restrictions … which allows us to all actually attend this expo together,” said Mähler.

Though a convenient way to ensure entry for GTR’s guests, the letters weren’t an all-access 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 boundaries, which included our hotel, the convention center, and two large malls.

If we violated that rule, we wouldn’t get arrested. However, we were told that the government could ban us from ever traveling to the country again. Usually, the only things I have to worry about at a convention is hitting my deadlines or getting to my appointments on time, so this seemed a little … harsh. Regardless, I had no interest in challenging Singapore’s ability to enforce it.

Due to these restrictions, GTR thought that the number of overseas attendees would only be a few dozen at best. But in the end, 71 people — from countries like Brazil, Ukraine, France, and Germany — flew in for the conference. Mähler joked that the higher numbers was because everyone was sick of doing Zoom meetings for the past year and a half.

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

Image Credit: Global Top Round

Singapore already had a lot of experience successfully hosting live events thanks to its rigorous pandemic protocols, so GTR knew that its people would be taken care of. Other factors helped seal the deal, like readily available rapid test kits (we were tested every day before entering the premises), a mandatory smartphone app for contact tracing, and around-the-clock support from government officials.

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“There is actual 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 anxiousness over the restrictions, I ended up feeling more safe in Singapore than I do in my little corner of California. As someone who misses the hustle and bustle of E3 and GDC, I was just excited to be around people from the games industry again. And everyone I spoke to at Gamescom Asia and GTR 2021 seemed to share that enthusiasm.

But even with all the safety measures in the world, it’s still possible for COVID to creep its way into such big gatherings. GTR had to deal with that on the last day of its conference when someone turned up positive during the daily testing regimen. Since the staff caught them early that morning, the person didn’t enter the venue.

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

“We were fully prepared for any scenario, and again because of all these restrictions and safety precautions, we knew we were in good hands,” said Mähler. “Nobody left the event after the announcement [of the positive case], and I think everyone’s like, ‘Yes, I get it now. It might be annoying poking my nose every day … but at least we know why.’”

GTR worked closely with the Singapore Tourism Board to put those precautions in place. The government agency kept the team updated on the latest regulations, and had staff nearby to address any questions or emergencies. Mähler said that STB was vital to the success of their conference, and he suggested that other event organizers should establish similar partnerships in their respective countries.

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

Above: Developers trying out each other’s games at GTR 2021.

Image Credit: Global Top Round

The pandemic profoundly changed the way we interact and travel, and as much as we want to believe otherwise, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be over any time soon. If Gamescom Asia and GTR 2021 taught me anything, it’s that the next few years for live events are going to be weird, especially if you need to travel. COVID-related laws and regulations vary wildly from one country to the next, and trying to keep track of it all is almost like a full-time job.

But there is some hope of normalcy. In addition to the Singapore conferences, gaming events are slowly returning in different parts of the world. In the US, that came in the form of a much smaller PAX West show, WN Seattle, and most recently, The Game Awards in LA. Organizers are learning that it’s possible to hold these events again so long as health protocols (like proof of vaccination and negative test results) are enforced.

Of course, everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to these things, and the threat of new variants means our personal risk calculations are always changing. But this experience made me realize I’m more than ready to talk to developers and play their games in person again — even if I still need to mask up and stay a few feet away.

Disclosure: GTR provided my travel and lodging in Singapore. Our coverage remains objective.

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