How La Trobe City Council's rose festival planted the seeds for virtual engagement

La Trobe City Council details how it pivoted the Annual International Rose Festival from a physical to hybrid event and the marketing and engagement lessons learnt

Highly engaged local and international audiences and influencers, strategic marketing content and an appreciation for the power of online engagement are just a few legacies La Trobe City Council has secured after delivering its annual rose festival virtually.  

The Annual International Rose Festival is a free community festival devised and run by the La Trobe City Council aimed at showcasing and recognising the hard work of volunteers who devote over 6000 hours annually to maintaining its Morwell Centenary Rose Garden. The festival quickly evolved from a one-day event in 2018 to a two-day festival in 2019 including talks, workshops, live music, children’s activities, food and wine masterclasses, stalls and an evening light installation.  

But faced with COVID-19 challenges and concerns, the council opted to rethink its 2020 festival as a hybrid event incorporating an online program on 14 and 15 November 2020 plus the AGL Midsummer Night Lights installation across both days.  

La Trobe City Council major events officer, Michelle Tones, told CMO the team was determined to run the event and showcase the rose garden, especially given so many festivals in 2020 had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.  

“The challenge was how to do that, make it interactive for viewers and provide an experience that made them feel they were at the rose garden and taking part in all the usual festival activities. The only thing they weren’t able to do was smell the roses,” she said.  

Virtual impact

La Trobe City Council partnered with Alive and its Alive TV offering to facilitate the virtual festival elements. The brief was to incorporate all aspects of the physical offering and make them accessible virtually, from the rose garden tours to market stalls, talks, masterclasses, art and music.  

Virtual registration was set up before the event commenced, paving the way for appropriate updates and invitations to be provided for attendees, Tones said.  

“We wanted people to be able to explore the garden virtually. This was the main element we wanted to achieve and secondly entertain people with a variety of talks, workshops, music and art with elements they could download and participate in from home,” she explained.  

Festival regulars including ABC Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis and Dirtgirl returned with pre-recorded shows and were live on the day to answer questions from the audience. Rose and bee talks were priorities and online chat a necessity, Tones continued. To achieve this, a purpose-built event website was created that complemented the festival brand and was simple and easy to navigate for first-time users.  

Alive TV facilitated a live Q&A panel with gardening experts and affiliated presenters, as well as activities such as the 360-degree rose garden tour with navigation and interactive pop-ups integrated into an immersive segment to maximise engagement. The event also featured a local component inviting guests in the vicinity of the physical space to enjoy a stroll through Morwell Centenary Rose Garden at an allocated time.  

Internally, the city council team finalised the program, secured overseas and Australian presenters and a host, created content, locked in virtual stallholders/manage relationships, managed stakeholder relationships and undertook marketing and promotion  

“As a first-time event for council, we didn’t have any specific targets aside from delivering a professional, seamless event that maintained the festival brand,” she said. “We wanted to reach a global audience of all ages by providing a unique online event that people could enjoy from their home during COVID and hopefully encourage them to visit our region one day in the future.”   

While the path ahead was clear, Tones noted several challenges it had to overcome, from the uncertainty of the event proceeding due to COVID-19 to running the council’s first-ever virtual event. In all, the team had 10 weeks to deliver the virtual festival, with all staff working from home and a reduced team in place. What’s more, the budget was slashed by half, while a council caretaker period mean minimal advertising and promotion was permitted.  

A post-event legacy was another important aspect of the work, with all video content and the council’s 360-degree virtual tour integrated into the existing festival website and for future event marketing.  

Tones said Alive, a former council partner, was chosen as its online event delivery partner because of its experience in virtual events. “We also wanted a team that was willing to create something unique and custom to transport our festival into the virtual space in a tight timeframe,” she said.  

“We were impressed with the team at Alive Events, the creativity and willingness to be involved in our vision. They were great to work with and the event was seamless with no technical difficulties experienced.”  

Related: Can virtual events fill the physical conference gap?

Covid effect sees digital events on the rise long-term


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