Case Study


When Covid-19 made it impossible for digital agency Dept to host its annual employee festival, it sought to recreate the electric vibe in the virtual world.


3rd December 2020

Each year, digital agency Dept hosts an annual festival in Amsterdam for its global workforce, bringing together 1,500 employees from across 13 countries to bond over a weekend of talks, workshops and parties.

Covid-19 had different plans for 2020, however. Determined not to disappoint employees (the festival is legendary in the company), Dept decided to bring its three-day festival online.

Max Pinas, creative director at Dept, says: “We go all out for our festival – and people really look forward it. Knowing this, we spent more time than we should have hoping for Covid-19 to blow over, before finally addressing it.”

Cancelling the festival outright was never an option. Remote working had put an end to water-cooler chats and much-valued face time, something the Dept culture thrives on. The agency wanted its people to know they still mattered, and to ensure they continued to feel connected on a human level during a difficult time.

“Online calls and meetings frequently lack the personal interactions that we take for granted when we’re in the same space,” says Max. “People often feel they have to get straight to the point, especially when time is scarce.

“We wanted colleagues to have the opportunity to see each other and feel free to laugh and cry and do whatever else they wanted to do, which is exactly what our festival has always been about.”


Bringing the online festival to life

An initial reluctance to scrap the physical event meant planning the alternative began later than Dept would have liked. The idea was roughly six months old, but, by the time the agency got started, it had two months to prepare. They were at an advantage, however, as its workforce is filled with professionals who are creatively and technologically minded, so resources weren’t in short supply.

With so much to consider, Dept chose to focus first on one simple question: What will make us feel good?

“People often jump straight into the tech and functionality of virtual events,” says Max, “but you need to first think about what people actually want to do and what it is you’re trying to achieve.

“If the event is the first of its kind for your company, it can be a bit like a blue ocean – there will be so much to learn. To avoid it becoming overwhelming, get your idea together first, and then wrap the tech around it, adapting as you go along.”

What Dept lacked in time, it made up for in effort, not wanting the virtual event to be seen as a half-baked idea with substandard execution. “Virtual events deserve real thought,” says Max. “If you’re adapting a physical event into a virtual one, don’t just do a quick and rough job – employees will notice.”

Activities at Dept’s festivals are always split between business and non-business sessions, a concept replicated in its virtual event.

“We wanted to create a festival that catered to all of our people and whatever emotional state they were in. We believe that sharing knowledge binds us, so we always try to mix that into our events alongside entertainment,” says Max.

The non-business-related sessions included:

  • a DJ
  • a personal yoga class with an instructor
  • a fortune teller
  • cocktail making
  • food workshops
  • a pop quiz
  • bingo.


Business sessions ran simultaneously. These included a talk and Q&A from a famous designer, and a management-led talk explaining Dept’s strategy and outlook during Covid-19.

As Dept’s workforce is split across multiples time zones, the event’s running hours took careful consideration. “We chose to host the festival predominantly during working hours,” says Max. “In the end, the best time overall was 15:00 to 18:00 CET. For some, this was a reasonable time in the morning; for others, this was towards the end of the day around 16:00 or 17:00.”

The festival ran for three hours – long enough to pack in a busy schedule, but short enough to suit the differing time zones, and avoid colleagues losing interest or getting online fatigue.


Explaining the unexpected

The virtual event was a change of pace for Dept, so it was important to drum up as much excitement as possible in the lead up to it. The agency started a near-constant stream of promotion 10 days before the event was due to take place, building suspense and explaining, in a fun way, what employees could expect.

“People were sceptical when we told them we were doing a virtual festival,” says Max, “but then we started doing social drops and they became really curious.

“Drops included a short movie with our CEO, which had a cool virtual element, and announcing competitions in which colleagues could win Dept merchandise. 

“We also made a 3D map of a festival terrain with stages and tents detailing what was on offer, as well as random interactive elements like a cat walking around. When people clicked on the cat – which many did – it took them to a mixture of cat videos alongside comments saying ‘Go back to the map’, etc. It was lighthearted and really fun.

“We also had Pride flags in the map, which when clicked on transported people to a 3D immersive monument explaining the history of the Pride movement.

“It’s these small touches that people really appreciated and which hooked them in.”

If your budget is tight, it’s still possible to create noise around your event.

“You don’t need to go 3D to have an impact,” says Max. “Just get creative and use whatever means you have available. Create a landing page for the event and spend time designing it and making it look fun. Use WhatsApp, slack, memes, GIFs – whatever you can to create a buzz and get people talking.”

Max recognises that Dept’s virtual event was ambitious, and an event of this scale won’t be suited to all companies: “If you’re lacking time, resources or budget, then scale the schedule down and focus on spending more time on a handful of things that you know you can nail.

“Make sure you have some business-centric sessions, and some fun ones, and have them run simultaneously, with recurring sessions, so people feel like they have a choice of what they do and when.

“If you can’t get external speakers in, use the talent in your own company and have a colleague tell a cool story or lead an engaging session.

“And finally, don’t get caught up on the tech. Using something as simple as Zoom to host your event can work well – it’s all about the schedule at the end of the day, and packing that with cool and fun things for employees to do.”


An event to remember

The event itself went off without a hitch and, for participants, it flew past.

“The entire event had such a great energy and vibe,” says Max. “It really came alive. From hearing the amazing speakers, to seeing our colleagues taking part, it was so nice to share this unique experience.

“A personal highlight was how much I saw people smiling and looking engaged as I dipped in and out of sessions to check everything was running smoothly.”

The event was not compulsory, but that didn’t dampen turnout – an incredible 80 per cent of Dept’s employees are estimated to have joined the event at some point.

“Afterwards, I got so many messages from people all over the world saying they really enjoyed the event,” says Max. “We’re definitely going to do more of these on a global and local level moving forward.”

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