In a crowded field of requests for online attention, an email invitation Convene received from the Netherlands Tourism Board a few weeks ago stood out. It was an invitation to “Dis-Connect” — to spend some time Oct. 20 in a virtual workshop, painting white tiles with blue paint in the style of the famous “Delftware” that has been manufactured in Delft, a Dutch town between Rotterdam and The Hague, since the 17th century.
“Dis-connect” is a counter-intuitive description of what turned out to be a relaxing — and deeply connecting — hour spent in the digital company of meeting professionals from North American associations and venues and destinations in the Netherlands. And for those planning digital events, it offered insight into meaningful ways to work around “Zoom fatigue” — the painting exercise offered participants something tangible to touch and somewhere to look rather than at a grid of faces on the screen.
The intention behind the event, said Antonia Koedijk, North American director for the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC), was simply to touch base with meeting professionals, including some who had to postpone large events scheduled to take place in the Netherlands this year. NBTC’s style always has been to build relationships experientially, rather than focusing on sales, Koedijk said, an approach that seems particularly relevant now as industry professionals navigate the effects of the pandemic on meetings. And after working with some clients for many years, “we’re now friends,” she said. “We wanted to give something back.”
‘A Different Part of Our Brains’
But what might that be? Koedijk worked on the event with Pinar Ozcan, NBTC’s project manager for business development & marketing, whose background includes leading workshops on mindfulness mediation. Koedijk and Ozcan hit upon the idea of a painting workshop conducted live from the museum at Royal Delft pottery factory, which has made the distinctive blue hand-painted tiles since 1653. Participants would not only get a taste of Dutch history and culture, but — as Ozcan explained — painting activates a different part of our brains than we usually engage online, giving our minds and bodies a break.
For participants, it couldn’t have been easier: A week in advance of the event, a parcel delivery service dropped off a box containing ceramic tiles that were marked with charcoal in a variety of traditional patterns, blue paint, two squirrel-hair paintbrushes, and shards of pottery for practice. After we logged onto Zoom, Edo Anceaux, marketing and sales manager for Royal Delft, introduced participants to the museum and some of Delftware’s historic highlights in a short video. After we took a look over the shoulder of one of the factory’s master painters at work and were given paint-mixing instructions, Anceaux turned us loose on our tiles. While we worked, Koedijk and her colleagues talked with individual participants as they painted in their kitchens and home offices stretching from Rotterdam and Amsterdam to Washington, D.C., and Miami, Florida. From my perspective, the conversation, which also worked in a bit of the history of Delftware, flowed effortlessly. As it turns out, Koedijk and her team scripted nearly every second of the hour-long event.
If she’s learned anything recently, Koedijk said, it’s that digital events aren’t copies of physical event. Digital events “are broadcasts — they’re theatrical performances,” she said, and require a different approach. Koedijk and her colleagues began planning nearly three months ago for the event, and — given the nature of the pandemic — even then, had to make last-minute changes. The original plan had been for destination partners to join the painting workshop live at the Royal Delft museum, but in the days leading up to the event, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asked citizens to avoid non-essential travel. Paint kits were hastily mailed to partners’ houses and apartments, and new scripts had to be written, Koedijk said.
There were a few places where the event didn’t go exactly as NBTC had planned, Koedijk said after the fact, but from my point of view, everything went off perfectly and, as a screenshot with all of our heads bent over our tiles shows (above), the goal of giving participants a break from our screens for a few minutes was achieved.
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.