In August, I found myself sitting down (virtually) with the volunteers who make up the NWA Tech Summit committee to determine the best course forward for our October event. This experience closely mirrored a conversation we’d had almost exactly a year prior, when COVID-19 was still a relatively new phenomenon.
While there were certainly some differences, I was struck by what remained the same: A resilience and an optimism among our volunteers that was, frankly, inspiring. When faced with the unknown (again!), this dedicated group leaned into uncertainty and, together, we landed on an approach that felt right for 2021.
This year’s Tech Summit is hybrid. All presentations will be made virtually, and there is the option for Summiteers to participate remotely, join us at Record in downtown Bentonville for an in-person watch party, or to combine both, based on the needs of their schedule.
The virtual option allows participants to catch Tech Summit programming from anywhere, whether they live in San Mateo or on Central Avenue. At the watch party, we’ll offer two different viewing spaces and will activate the Record’s bamboo terrace, so in-person attendees can step out to make a call, share a cup of coffee with a friend, or catch a pre-recorded session that isn’t being aired on-site.
Candidly, this shuffle-ball-change (I’m giving the word “pivot” an indefinite break from my vocabulary) came easier for us than many: 2020 taught us we could welcome a more diverse array of presenters if we removed the requirement for travel. Accordingly, we carried that best practice into our 2021 planning. We’d also intended all along to host our welcome party and VIP reception outdoors. Some changes were necessary, though, and we knew those decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. We surveyed our stakeholders, sponsors, and 2020 Summiteers to learn what kind of gathering felt like a good fit for them in 2021.
Based on what we heard, we reduced the Tech Summit footprint from four watch party hubs to one, and we selected the remaining location based on its size. This gave us the opportunity to gather a meaningful number of people, even if we needed to socially distance them within the space. We also dialed back the after-hours, or “off trails,” experiences we planned to offer and met one-on-one with the folks in our community who’d offered to host additional experiences on our behalf, so that they could let us know if — and how — they wanted to proceed.
The result is a mix of virtual and in-person gatherings that will follow the conclusion of each day’s formal sessions. These include virtual mentoring with graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Arkansas, a virtual hackathon hosted by i2i labs and Intel, an in-person (outdoor) mentorship mixer hosted by Endeavor NWA at Bike Rack Brewing in Bentonville, a Built Environment block party on Emma Avenue in Springdale, hosted by Cromwell, and an “All Things IP” happy hour at WeWork Labs in Bentonville, hosted by Rose Law Firm.
With just a handful of days left until this year’s event, I’ve had time to reflect on how we made it here. I still haven’t found that crystal ball we’re all looking for, and I can’t stake any claim on other-worldly foresight. Instead, I’m tremendously grateful to the NWA Tech Summit committee, our community stakeholders, sponsors, and our Summiteers, all of whom have generously shared their perspective and have continued to enthusiastically support this ever-evolving event. Their guidance and vision make the Tech Summit better in any year, particularly this one.
In fact, it was their input – and the idea of going hybrid – that led to our tagline: Your Summit. Your Way.
That’s our commitment in 2021 and beyond.
Ashley Wardlow is executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, scheduled Oct. 17-20. The opinions expressed are those of the author.