OPINION7 October 2020

Virtually different

Opinion UK

John Bizzell reflects on the experience of organising the first virtual MRS Operations Awards ceremony.

Spotlight star success_crop

From the middle of my personal 2m exclusion zone, which only my cat has dared to enter since March, I am looking at a photo of the 2014 MRS Operations Awards.

That was the event’s first year, and we weren’t sure what the response would be. We chose a bar called McQueen in Shoreditch that could comfortably accommodate 175 people, which seemed ample. 210 turned up and it was only thanks to the rotating group of smokers outside that we stayed within the venue’s fire regulations. Those heroes didn’t take home a trophy that night, but the crowd went wild for the companies who did. I remember being at the back, sandwiched between a triumphant CATI team and a steamed-up window, thinking: ‘I made this.’

The Oppies, as the event become known, quickly established itself as one of the best nights in the research social calendar. I’m pleased to say that as the years went by, the guest list and the venues steadily increased in size and in 2019 nearly 300 people joined us at The Curtain, where there was even room to dance.

Here’s the thing I love about working in events: all the effort you put in builds to create an experience that you get to see others participate in and, hopefully, enjoy. It’s a visual pay-off on a massive scale for a job well done. I admire people who find fulfilment grafting quietly for their own sense of achievement, but I need the applause.

That brings us back to my 2m exclusion zone, where the only applause lately has been my own as I join in with the opening of yet another episode of Friends. My colleagues did a brilliant job of pivoting their activities from face-to-face to virtual environments – the MRS office closed on 17th March and our superhuman training and development manager Teresa had the first remote-learning course ready to go two days later, followed by the membership and conference Teams offering online content.

I managed a couple of webinars, but something about trying to recreate the congratulatory, climactic feeling of an awards ceremony through a computer screen felt beyond me. I also wondered whether the sector would even want to celebrate this year – particularly the field forces, support services and viewing facilities who the Oppies recognise, as these businesses have been some of the hardest hit by the measures resulting from Covid-19.

The entries still came in and as the judges reviewed them over the summer, it became clear that not only did ops people want to celebrate their achievements, in many cases they were already sharing stories of how they’d taken on the challenges of 2020. As Penny Steele, chair of the judges, said: “The innovation and creativity in evidence were a testament to those working in research operations and an encouraging sign for how we will continue to adapt after this crisis.”

In a world where septuagenarian interviewers had mastered Zoom to contact participants, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch for me to become a TV producer overnight. Nikki Bower – MRS operations director and my long-standing partner in turning the awards party – and I gathered our indispensable A/V crew from Missing Link and created the Oppies+.

Highlights along the way included a socially-distanced filming day in our chief executive Jane Frost’s garden – Nikki adding scaring noisy parrots from trees to her CV – and finally bringing the long-time voice of the MRS Awards, Bruce Pont, out of his sound booth and onto the world stage. After a dozen takes, he finally managed to pronounce Oppies correctly (think poppy, not soapy).  I urge you to watch the outtakes – a legend has been born.

Over 200 people registered. We didn’t get to dance and I may have been the only one hitting the ‘bar’ at 4pm, but the excitement and camaraderie of the finalists on Twitter was terrific to see and I loved the reaction videos shared by some of the winners.

Though it’s not quite the same as applause, I must thank everyone who emailed me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it, as well as the sponsors who stuck with us after everything they were expecting changed. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the ‘real thing’, but I have a director’s chair and some big plans for the virtual MRS Awards broadcast on 7th December. Register for that here.

The majority of events professionals aren’t able to work at the moment, so I’m lucky. #WeMakeEvents is a brilliant and essential global campaign launched by industry body Plasa to create awareness and understanding of the issues being faced by a sector that will definitely have had an impact on some of your most treasured memories. 

John Bizzell is events and awards manager at MRS