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Interview with RTPI's Dipty Patel: "Up-skilling has been the biggest challenge”

Dipty Patel, national events business manager of the Royal Town Planning Institute in the UK, talks about the challenges and surprises of switching to virtual.

Event manager Dipty Patel works at The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), a membership organisation and Chartered Institute for planning professionals in the UK and Ireland.

The Institute’s national events team organises a variety of conferences, meetings and awards to provide around 25,000 members and non-members with CPD, learning and networking opportunities.

What type of events do you typically organise?

The portfolio includes one or two-day annual conferences, awards gala dinner, lectures and seminars.

Pre-Covid, the team organised five to eight events per year on average. The majority were held in London except for one conference, which takes place in one of the UK regions. The location changes annually.

The RTPI’s flagship events are The Planner Live and Young Planners’ Conference, which both reach 500 attendees and have up to 25 sponsors and/or exhibitors.

Have you run any virtual events?

Since Covid-19, the Institute has transitioned to provide an online offering. We had to change overnight. All of our events have been held virtually since March 2020. Due to demand, the number of events that we have produced has tripled. We will continue with virtual events until at least the end of Q2 in 2021.

Which online platform did you use?

The Institute overall has had to increase the use of Microsoft TEAMS, GoToMeetings and GoToWebinars, which has become our go-to platform (mind the pun) for many months, enabling us to arrange online recordable webinars in a shorter timeframe and upload them to our YouTube channel.

What type of events have you organised virtually?

Since joining in May, I have arranged webinars for the Planner Live Online week series using a combination of TEAMS and GoToWebinar, either live or pre-recorded. The pre-recorded ones are then ‘Premiered’ on our YouTube channel at the time scheduled.

In June, we created a ‘virtual conference week’, which attracted in excess of 4,000 delegates. I spent a considerable amount of time researching the best platforms and came to the conclusion that the platform must suit the event type and offer, rather than trying to make all events fit one particular platform.

I produced the flagship Young Planners Conference virtually using Hopin for a one-day event in November. The conference had several plenaries, breakout sessions, plenty of networking opportunities, and sponsored expo booths to visit throughout the day. We reached 400 registrations with 91% attending on the day itself.

For our Planning Excellence Awards this year, we had to find an alternative in a short space of time as it was held in April. With the help of an AV company, we created a 20-minute ceremony that premiered on YouTube at a specific time.

For our next awards event we have moved the judging process online, which makes such a difference as none of the judges will be able to meet in one room for the judging day. The awards will be on a virtual platform (Evessio), which allows engagement between everyone in real-time.

Major challenges?

Firstly, I would say, presenting management with the various platform options so they could visualise which would be the best way forward. Secondly, the upskilling – from an event management point of view, digital platforms require a vast amount of training. We had to learn how to build the event from start to finish online, learn the technical side, production and watch all the demos and arrange the event in detail with everyone involved from speakers and moderators to sponsors, exhibitors and internal staff.

Biggest lessons learned?

When it comes to online events, one size does not fit all. It is important that you do your research and find which platform works best for the event format you want to offer. Planners must consider things like bandwidth and the technical abilities of delegates and speakers.

Also, when you organise a face-to-face event, generally you have support on the day, and just prior, from a number of people: venue staff, caterers, AV technicians, registration teams, colleagues. Managing an online event often means the events team has to operate pretty much without that support.

What has surprised you most about virtual events?

Virtual events have taken off better than I had expected. The market is saturated with various platforms. Developers are listening and making changes to give a true virtual experience for their clients. People are embracing the change. Gone are the days of being shy in front of the camera.

What advice would you give to other event planners who are new to virtual delivery?

Look at the value proposition offered for clients and delegates. Research the virtual products on offer and make sure you try before you buy. There is no ‘one’ specific platform that caters for all your events. I would also delve into the attendee journey experience, what would you want to take away from the event that would make a lasting impression?

Event plans for 2021?

We plan to host our events programme online and to expand our programme coverage so it has a more intentional scope. We’ve seen a huge increase in participants attending from all over the UK and beyond. Going virtual means our events can reach a wider audience.

We will also push out a clearer calendar of events with ad-hoc, topical webinars in response to new government and planning updates. As many of our members will be working from home for the next quarter, these webinars will play a vital role for them. I definitely see virtual remaining for the foreseeable future because the Institute is able to connect with our nations, regions, national and international members this way.


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