By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

July 9, 2020 | 6 min read

Events and experiences the world over have been forced to make the journey into the digital space. For many, however, a virtual gathering is always going to be a poor imitation of the real thing. So, how are Eurovision, the Edinburgh Festival and the Guinness Book of Records – events centred on fun, interactive experiences and artistic expression – facing up to these difficulties?

Several weeks ago, The Drum explored how publishers are moving their events from the physical to the virtual. Networking, thought leadership and interesting panels have, it seems, been migrating online without too much friction, and in many cases reaching even greater audiences than they would have otherwise. There is a slither of irony that this is a discussion point during The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, our virtual answer to cancelled summer ad festivals. But for artistic expression and live experiences, the move has been even more difficult.


Jon Ola Sand, the executive supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest and head of live events for EBU/Eurovision, mourned the loss of this year’s live event in Rotterdam. Every meticulous detail had been accounted for in order to deliver the grand final on 6 May, he says, explaining that it is “the first year we’ve missed it since 1956“.

“Unfortunately, we had to put on the brakes. It was impossible for us to host any type of contest in any way or form due to travel restrictions. We didn’t have a contingency plan for a situation like this.”

While many bookings and assets are merely delayed a year, for Eurovision, next year will need new songs and artists, and broadcasters are left without another ratings guarantee.

Instead, the song contest has been running programming on its social channels and has digging into its extensive archive for weekly viewings in order to deliver some engagement to disappointed fans. There have been some localised competitions, while national landmarks have been lit up as they would have in a sign of pan-European solidarity.

A two-hour programme shared from the Netherlands hit more than 75 million viewers around Europe, but it wasn’t Eurovision as we know it says Ola Sand. “It is no substitute for the real thing.”

That said, he has been touched by the “tons” of emails and letters sent in by Eurovision’s loyal fanbase, saying that for the organisers it has been an affirmation that they’re doing something right.

Edinburgh Festival

The Edinburgh Festival had to rip up its plans and start from scratch. In a week from now, it should have been announcing its full itinerary, but instead is working hard to queue up artists for fundraisers while finding the best ways of engaging audiences remotely.

Oliver Davies, the head of marketing and development for Edinburgh Festival, says that if it goes off 2019 figures, there are currently 4,000 shows, around 3m ticket sales and 30,000 artists left hanging by this cancellation. And of course there is the huge importance of the event to the local economy.

“Artists are unable to earn a living, so our first priority was to try and make sure that the money we’ve taken from them goes back fully into their pockets,” explains Davies.

Digitising an arts festival is, it turns out, pretty difficult. Part of the art is about how it resonates with audiences, so there needs to be interaction.

”You pop up in a tiny venue that probably isn’t a venue the rest of the year, you’re cheek to jowl with everyone else in the room, and maybe you’ll be stuck in the front row scared you’ll get picked on by the performer. That’s part of the DNA and we don’t want to lose that.”

No app is ever going to emulate that unique experience that attracts visitors from all over the world, but it isn’t stopping organisers from looking.

“We’re talking to broadcasters about the potential of a series of fundraisers that, hopefully, will involve some of our great and good alumni going back many, many years,“ says Davies before listing off a few of the festivals most famous ever emergent acts, from Billy Connolly to Maggie Smith.

“We need to try and find a way of bringing something of that spirit of the festival, that interactivity, irreverence and playfulness.“

Guinness World Records

Can you really break a world record remotely? This was a tough question the publisher and events company had to ask itself when the lockdown was initiated.

’Yes’ was the answer – and, from an existential perspective, it had to be. Guinness World Records had been adjudicating between 20 and 40 events a week all around the world. Now, its six offices are shut and it has flipped to online record-breaking.

Samantha Fay, its senior vice-president of global brand strategy, explains: “We had to pivot our business from being live-events-first to digital-first, and moving to mass participation gatherings to online pledges, videos, Hangouts and live streaming records.”

It wasn’t a hugely difficult shift as GWR already had a huge online presence, its 8.7 million followers making it one of the most followed brands on TikTok, only behind NBA and Nickelodeon. The difficultly is in tapping into the power of shared experience during these record-breaking efforts.

”If you told me three months ago that we’d be able to get thousands of people together to break records, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” admits Fay.

Among the new developments was the launch of a new daily podcast that highlights its ’Record of The Day’. ”We should have done this earlier, but in times of crisis you start to look at things in a different way.”

In the future, she sees the company embracing more of a hybrid model, with some events being virtual and others live, and ends on some good news – its office in China is starting to open up again. We wait to see how long it will be before its five other offices reopen too and these events find life again in the real world.

The trio spoke with The Drum‘s Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum‘s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

Eurovision Song Contest The Drum Can-Do Festival Edinburgh Festival

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