Making the Leap to Virtual - A Year of Innovation for Challenge Events

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Making the Leap to Virtual - A Year of Innovation for Challenge Events

Maria Waugh 

Maria Waugh headshot.jpgMaria is an experienced events fundraising and has worked in the charity sector for over 15 years. She has been in her current role as the Senior Running and Challenge Events Manager at Parkinson's UK since September 2017 and is responsible for the strategic direction of the Running and Challenge event portfolio.  She has had continuous success of growing the income by implementing a range of diverse events and she is also the project lead for the implementation of their new online registration platform. 


We asked Maria Waugh, who manages the Challenge events programme at Parkinson’s UK, how they have moved from virtual event novices to masters of the format in under 12 months.  


Who would have thought that 2020 would be the year that most or nearly all events across the world would just stop and everyone, including me, was thinking now what do we do?  As an Events Manager, I always pride myself on being able to pivot and adapt to any situation no matter how challenging it is. Early ion in 2020, it was apparent that this was going to be one of the biggest challenges of my career, but I knew by working closely with my team that we could do this.  


As the events started to fall off the planner from March 2020 with the likes the super-szed challenge events such as the London and Brighton Marathons being postponed until the Autumn, I had to seriously start reviewing and replanning our events offering, and fast.  


However at this time, we could only plan short term - and I would not have predicted the level to which the chairity events industry would suffer, and that practically all physical events wouldn’t take place in 2020. A positive person at heart, I just got stuck in and started to plan other event options that were focussed around virtual events.  


“This was going to be one of the biggest challenges of my career, but I knew by working closely with my team that we could do this.” 


However, this wasn’t my first venture into the virtual format. Back in 2017, and with some trepdiation and push back from across the chairty, I launched Parkinson’s UK’s first virtual event  - three years before the 2020 lockdown began. In doing so, I now realise I had a slight advantage on many of my peers across the sector. I  already understood this remote event format, was confident in its abilities and reach, and, as we trialied the format on a few events, myself and my team had a number of virtual events under our belt 


Working with my team, we were able to quickly evolve and adapt our charity’s approach to virtual events, and expand our reach to include not just the expected physical activity, but to explore other areas such as entertainment, comedy nights, Christmas themed evenings and webinars.  


With the support of the country-wide 2.6 Challenge event concept, which really assisted us and many other charities in terms of income and enaggement, we were able to further transform our 2020 events programme by offering more diverse and daring types of virtual events than ever before  while a few of our traditional physical events, such as skydives and Chilterns Challenge, were still able to take place.  


I’m not going to say that all these sudden and complex changes were easy. In fact far from it. I, like many of my event fundraising colleagues, had no choice but to react and adapt to the quickly changing market place, and accept that we couldn't change or control what was happening. We just had to become far more creative to broaden the offer of events we had on offer. 


Without a doubt, 2021 was one of the hardest I’ve experiencec in event fundraising, but I would not change. I learnt so much about myself and the colleagues around me - and now truly believe we can achieve anything when we put our mind to it and work together. There has been so much support from my peers and mentors across the charity event fundraising sector, with colleagues really supporting each other through this difficult time. 


So what does 2021 bring? More virtual events of course! These innovative types of events have allowed many charities to truly widen their reach to a more diverse audeince than ever before- allowing new and exciting supporters of all physical abilities to get involved. I am also very hopeful that  - of all goes to plan - traditional physical face to face challenge events will start to return this Autumn. I just can’t wait to get back out there to cheer on our Parkinson’s UK participants in whatever type event they have chosen to do - be that virtually or in person 

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