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Going Digital With Crowd Safety Training

Andy Hollinson, Group Chief Executive Officer at The Square Metre Group, talks to The Crowd magazine about a series of highly successful webinars held during the UK’s summer lockdown and his hopes to run more in 2021…

It was all rather surreal. The day was Monday 23rd March 2020 and Boris Johnson had just told the people of the United Kingdom that they were no longer free to do as they wish. Leaving home would now only be allowed for essential food shopping and medical needs. In the words of the Prime Minister, the coronavirus is the, “biggest threat this country has faced for decades”. 

In the space of hours, we saw events get cancelled one-by-one; from small local fayres to huge arena tours and sporting competitions. Understandably, our colleagues across the industry started to ponder on what the future would hold. Our friends in event management, security and crowd management all saw this year’s schedule vanish in an afternoon.

The Square Metre team were still out in force delivering classroom-based training but, as the announcement hit, we were quickly forced to close these courses down. We moved rapidly to ensure our staff were protected and instantly signed up to this crazy new scheme that the government called, “furlough”. For those still operational, a new way of working was instantly born. Luckily for the team at the Square Metre Group, it wasn’t that much of an upheaval. We had previously been using both Microsoft Teams and Zoom to host meetings and very quickly spotted an opportunity to utilise this technology to deliver training. As the world adapted to the new way of online collaborative working, attitudes suddenly changed. Staid online meetings quickly became a thing of the past as it became commonplace for children or pets to appear in the background – much to the amusement of all involved. Luckily for me, as I was working from home with five children off-school and several dogs at the time, it was good that everyone was in the same position! It wasn’t exactly a quiet working environment.

The Inspiration Behind the Webinars

Rewind the years back to 2014, when we held the International Crowd Safety Conference at the Birmingham Motorcycle Museum. That year, The Square Metre Group and Crowd Safety Training were established as a result of my passion for everything about the industry. At that point the sector had been my life for 17 years and, whilst I am a businessman and these are commercial businesses, it has always been our mission to give back to the industry whenever possible.

It was a free event as we wanted to bring the industry together. Smaller organisations who want to grow cannot always afford to invest in conference tickets, so it was important to make it accessible for all. The conference was hosted by the legends Kriss Akabusi and Roger Black, who helped make it one of the best crowd safety events to date. Not my words, I’m not that modest! Delegates attended from around the world – 11 countries to be exact – listening to speakers such as Professor John Drury, Professor Clifford Stott, Jim Goddard, Heather McGill, Robbie Naish and myself. It also featured a talk from my friend, mentor and true crowd safety legend Dr Mick Upton. Sadly, I believe this was his last public speaking appearance before he passed away. Four years later in 2018, we held another conference at the Olympia. Although small, we ensured the event was again provided free of charge.

So how do these events link to a series of webinars in 2020 amidst a global pandemic? Well, back in 2014 when Crowd Safety Training was born, I recall having a conversation with colleagues about providing online webinars to deliver some sessions. The idea was that we could deliver training online, allowing customers worldwide to interact and avoid the added expense of international travel. At the time, we had no idea how to do this and the cost of webinar software ran into the thousands. Fast forward six years and the world was on its backside. It has always been our mission to give back to the industry and we had a global network of professionals keen to learn and pass on their experience to help others. A comment made by my good friend, Dr David Rubens, really hit home. “Now is the time to make friends, not profits”. How very true. We knew our team and contacts had so much to offer the industry, therefore we sought to bring everyone together.

It’s already a close-knit sector. Most people know each other or of each other; I thought that it was a really good opportunity to make the market – and the world – even smaller. It was finally time to get those webinars going that we had planned so many years before.

The Webinars

The idea of the webinars was to provide a series of online Continuous Professional Development (CPD) sessions that our colleagues around the world could access for free to learn about crowd safety. They were all to be hosted by people I consider leaders in their field (no pun intended). On successful completion of the webinar, The Square Metre Group would issue a certificate of attendance, enabling all our delegates to evidence their CPD during the lockdown period. This way, they’d be able to fine-tune their knowledge and add to their toolbox.

The first webinar was delivered by Jim Goddard on Thursday 16th April 2020. Those of you who know Jim will be used to his unique training style and ability to make the most serious of subjects fun and engaging. He agreed to deliver an introduction to the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) and how they could be used with crowd safety management in mind. 

The format of the webinars was a one-hour training session – co-hosted by myself – with a 30-minute question and answer session at the end. During that time, I would read out questions from the delegates to the presenter and try to give them a little bit of a grilling (no pressure). Throughout the webinar, delegates were encouraged to use the chat function to share LinkedIn details and email addresses – think of it as a kind of speed-dating session for us crowd geeks!

We upgraded our Zoom account to allow us to host more webinars; it was at this point that I quickly realised how they make their money. The professional webinar option is expensive! We signed up to their 100-person webinar system and quickly got to work advertising the session. In all honesty, I felt 100 people was far too much but Zoom wouldn’t give us a smaller package. After announcing the registration was live, I very quickly uttered those immortal words from the 1975 Jaws movie – “we’re going to need a bigger boat”.

Over two hundred people signed up on the first evening. Delegates from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Qatar, Dubai, China, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Norway and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had all expressed an interest in our work. “What the hell has just happened?”, I thought. The online classroom had well and truly arrived.

2020 – A Summer Online

Following the success of the first webinar, we quickly had to apply for a new mortgage and upgrade our Zoom account to a 500-delegate capacity. Thankfully, it was a good job we did as our second webinar broke the system due to the amount of signups we received! Even with 500 spaces, people could not get into our webinar. Professor John Drury very kindly took time off from his marking schedule to deliver his session on using Group Psychology to Enhance Crowd Safety. This actually turned into a session that we ended up running twice due to the sheer numbers of people signing up. Emma Parkinson managed to break the system again a couple of months later due to similar levels of interest.

We continued hosting the webinars in the same format throughout the first official lockdown period, holding two sessions a month. They became very time consuming for the team and myself due to the work required setting up adverts, arranging webinar sessions and connecting with presenters for run-through sessions. Not to mention meeting new speakers to discuss future presentations, uploading each recording to Youtube and distributing thousands of CPD certificates.

The speakers that very kindly helped us out were:

1. Jim Goddard – JESIP

2. Rebecca Baker – Marketing for Security/Crowd Safety Companies

3. Professor John Drury – Using Group Psychology to Enhance Crowd Safety

4. Dr David Rubens – Major Events Planning

5. Josh Rayner – Utilising What3Words in Crowd Safety Operations

6. Allan Withers – Medical Management Planning at Events

7. Emma Parkinson – Integrated Emergency Planning

8. Garry Jones – CT Risk Management and the Impact of Covid (The Terrorist is not Furloughed)

9. Robbie Naish – The Tactical Crowd Safety Manager

10. Eric Stuart – Understanding Human Behaviours to Enhance Crowd Safety

The Legacy and the Future

We hope that the webinars we put on throughout the 2020 lockdown gave our colleagues, customers and friends – old and new – an opportunity to learn, change perspective and make their events safer when they return. We’d like to think the legacy of these webinars will inspire a new generation of crowd safety professionals and, in turn, make events safer. The team and myself noticed that towards the end of the series, we were attracting more and more event management students too. This is great as they are the future of the events industry. 

We want to run more webinars and are working to get them arranged early in the new year; perhaps with one a month to start with. We loved hosting the series last summer but work is starting to pick up now and we haven’t stopped since March. It’s fair to say the team is quite tired and needs a well-deserved break!

The global events industry is now a much smaller place. I would urge everyone to keep networking with people far and wide through the various online forums and groups. This industry has proved that it can be resilient and will eventually return to normal. To everyone, stay positive and stay safe.