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RSA and post-pandemic "new normal" for conferences (Part 1)

Events RSA Blog

Part 1

This blog is one of a series of blogs explaining the RSA’s response to the pandemic. It aims to lift the veil on our thinking as we’ve tried to bring our community with us on this strange and challenging COVID-19 journey. Part 2 will be published tomorrow where the RSA will unveil its post-pandemic strategy for 2022 and beyond.

What informs our decisions?

The Regional Studies Association (RSA) is a value-led organisation. Some years ago, we defined our values as being a “Leading” and “Impactful” “Community”. These three values have served us well as we’ve adapted to our new COVID-19-imposed circumstances. We have put our community first. We are not seeking to go back to the “old” normal but rather to explore and embrace a “new” normal. Finally, we’ve tried to ensure all changes have a positive impact for the regional studies community. It’s been pleasing to receive many messages of thanks and support from members and non-members alike as we’ve postponed events with full refund policies and rolled out new webinar series.


COVID and the RSA – Immediate actions

In March 2020, the UK went into full national lockdown. RSA team members headquartered in the UK and around the world began a year of working from home. The RSA cancelled the June Annual Conference planned for Ljubljana, Slovenia and provided full refunds. The RSA also cancelled its Winter Conference normally held in November in London and a number of other events including the Early Career conference.


COVID and the RSA – Long-term responses

The Board and staff team had a flurry of meetings to determine an ongoing strategy in response to the global health crisis. With the help of many dedicated team members, the RSA made a swift and smooth transition to digital operations. We began offering new programming such as two new webinar series that are still running today.

The Regions, Cities and Industry series runs monthly and showcases the work of leading researchers, hosts conversations and panel debates. Given the topics and the people involved in these meetings it has been no surprise that the series attracts large audiences. By contrast the RSA Professional Development series was a surprise hit. This series of short, often 30-minute, webinars attracts large audiences to have a quick run through on key researcher based topics like “how to choose a journal”; “how to network at conferences”; “hints and tips on online presentation”. This series became a pandemic silver lining and attracted large numbers of non-traditional RSA audiences. A group of people previously unable to engage with the RSA suddenly had access from their desks or phones.

Both series are completely free to attend live, and the recordings are kept in the RSA Lounge for members to access.

A redesigned Winter Conference presented a virtual “balloon journey” around the globe with a series of locally led meetings featuring keynotes, capacity building sessions and panel debates. The RSA worked closely with RSA Divisions and Territorial Ambassadors to convene 7 meetings across the globe covering Australasia, China, Africa, North and South America, Europe and Russia. Our virtual balloonists would have been exhausted trying to cover all that ground especially as we didn’t follow the prevailing winds! The event which ran over three weeks attracted more than 700 registrations from more than 51 countries: a far wider reach than we would have achieved with a London-based meeting.


What next? 2021 – The “old” normal gives way to a Global E-Festival

As the global pandemic wore on into 2021, the RSA decided that a fully in-person format was impossible for the 2021 RSA Annual Conference. This was a tough call because the conference is an important annual milestone for the community – bringing together members to meet, discuss, catch up, think new thoughts and widen their networks. However, the obstacles were considerable: new, more risky variants; variable vaccine roll out; national quarantines coming and going with little notice; travel hesitancy; cuts to university conference budgets and institutional travel bans; crises in the airline industry and more. To protect our members and wider community it was clear that there could be no business as usual.

The challenge then became: How can we offer an alternative that was even better? The solution was a Global e-Festival.

The Regions in Recovery Global e-Festival is a research-led celebration of thinking about our regions and cities in a time of great crisis and change. Designed as a collaborative event with a collegiate spirit, the goal has been to bring together an inclusive institutional partnership and their communities to network and share research. A programme of events will be offered in the field of regional and urban policy and research.

This event is founded on principles of accessibility and inclusion. The most expensive participation fee for a speaker in an RSA Band A or B country is £45. The concession rate is £20. For non-presenters, the entire research element is free to attend.

By working alongside partners such as FinGeo, RSAI-BIS, AESOP, LDNET and many more, we hope to highlight research that has been ongoing throughout the past year. By making the fees so globally affordable, we seek to extend our reach to new communities now enabled to participate in a virtual format.

At the time of writing more than 400 presenters have registered. Non-speaking participants are over 150 and more than 55 countries are represented in 150 sessions. As organisers we took the decision to run the conference over almost three weeks using spaced out time slots allowing delegates to juggle the event with home schooling, teaching and meeting commitments. We are offering an “opt in” to recording the sessions which will be available to watch until the end of the summer to accommodate those in different time zones. We are including a well-being and social programme to enhance those “festival” feelings.

The RSA was fortunate that in early 2020, pre-pandemic it has sourced and committed to a new membership app – the RSA Hub that is available free from app store providers. This app includes full online conference capability. It gave us a head start both practically and financially as the price had been fixed pre-pandemic getting ahead of rising prices associated with a rising demand. The app allows as many meetings as we wish to host – it does not work on an event-by-event basis. Download it to see how you might benefit from its many features.

We hope that this innovative, accessible and community-wide event will bring as many people together as possible to share and discuss innovative research that. An event such as this is important to consider how our regions and cities will emerge from the pandemic.



Although this global health crisis continues to have unprecedented ramifications, a glimmer of hope shines through as new collaboration strategies re-define organizational operations. The RSA has been pleased to apply its values of being a leading and impactful community to current circumstances and will continue to introduce new activities and ways of doing things and we hope to see you at future events. Check back tomorrow for the second part of this post where the RSA will unveil its strategy for 2022, post-pandemic, and beyond.



Sally Hardy (Chief Executive, Regional Studies Association) began her career at the Economic and Social Research Council where she worked as a Scientific Officer in the Industry and Employment Committee dispensing funding to UK based social science academics. Sally moved to the Regional Studies Association where she has been CEO for just over 30 years. She has developed the organisation from a small, UK focused organisation into a global Association with an international footprint. Sally has become an advocate on publishing issues for the learned society sector speaking regularly at national conferences and events.


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