unisonSteadfast Independence Day Conference, Prague Interview

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Following is an interview conducted with Wolfgang Mercier, CEO of unisonSteadfast in a free-wheeling exchange and a recap of an outstanding global conference held in Prague both in-person and virtually. Unfortunately, I was a virtual attendee but not next year!

Interview: 

unisonSteadfast: “Mission: Impossible” successfully completed.

After more year of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions, the global unisonSteadfast community re-united for a memorable three-day Independence Day Conference hosted live and online.  Held in the Golden City of Prague, one of the most beautiful European capitals, the conference attracted international insurance professionals from all over the world and was strongly supported by the major insurance carriers. The in-person attendees enjoyed the majestic “City of One Thousand Spires” and exclusive networking receptions at the famous Prague Castle, U Fleku - one of Europe’s oldest breweries. The online attendees joined the event via the virtual space designed especially for the event.

How does the international network, which is based on personal relationships and whose core mission is to keep the members from all over the world connected, cope with new challenges in organizing international events?

IRL spoke with Wolfgang Mercier (Founder & CEO) and Polina Balko (IDC Project Coordinator) (pictured below) about the first hybrid conference of the global network hosted under the conditions of the new normal. 

(Questions)

IRL: With the pandemic, which has turned our lives completely upside down, a lot of organizations worldwide chose to postpone their events to better times. What motivated to host you an international (!) conference in times of travel restrictions and ongoing pandemic? 

WM: As many of organizations did, we cancelled our annual conference in NYC in March 2020, hoping we would be back to live events by the end of the year at the latest. The stark reality, however, looked absolutely different. Early in 2021, as the entire Europe was still under lockdown, we realized that a larger international event with over 300 participants from all across the globe would not be possible. However, keeping our members connected is the core task of unisonSteadfast as an international network. It was important for us to be proactive, not reactive. Thus, we saw ourselves responsible, as organizers of an event, to live up to what is at the core of our conference: to be innovative and apply a new solution. We  decided in favor of the hybrid format to give all of our members the opportunity to be part of the event, chose Prague as a destination in the heart of Europe to make our conference easily accessible, limited the number of in-person attendees and partnered with local event specialists in Prague to create an absolutely safe conference experience for our guests. 

PB: The entire network was keeping fingers crossed for us for the event to take place. The pandemic and the associated restrictions made it extremely difficult to proceed on the event planning at a certain stage. Even our site inspection tour in Prague had to be postponed three times in a row due to the imposed travel restrictions, so until the begin of the conference nobody really believed we would manage to come to Prague one day and bring international guests.

IRL: Is this the reason why you have decided to give the event the working title “Mission: Impossible”?

PB: Yes, it is! As we finally arrived in Prague in February, after numerous tests, a big deal of paperwork and three months behind the schedule, we were impressed by the silence and the serene, majestic beauty of the city. The lockdown had left this famous and vibrant European travel destination virtually empty: Prague was crowd-free and absolutely stunning. We were walking down the deserted streets, watching the local photographers taking the unique opportunity to capture the Charles Bridge in all its beauty. Hotel directors and vendors were opening the uninhabited properties just for our visit. It felt like a surrealistic environment, like in a movie scene. When our Czech partners told us that “Mission: Impossible” was filmed in Prague, the unofficial title of the IDC 2021 was born. 

WM: I cannot tell you how grateful and proud we are looking back on our IDC 2021. Despite all the uncertainty and travel restrictions, more than 70 guests representing brokerages and insurance carriers from 22 countries were present at the event in-person, about 200 participants from Australia though to Argentina joined IDC virtually. The conference was greatly supported by the major insurance carriers and set us a stage for the professional exchange between brokers, carriers and experts on the international level.     

IRL: How challenging was the new hybrid format for you a organizers?

PB: Organizing an international event always means a tremendous time investment for us, as we would like every conference to be very special. The landscape of the hybrid events was absolutely new to us with plenty of new additional details to consider. We aimed to create one event, consisting of two different components – an in-person conference and a virtual forum. The main challenge here is to is to keep the connection and the harmony between in-person attendees and virtual attendees and create maximum opportunities for them to interact with each other. Choosing the right technology, which makes such an interaction possible, is crucial.  You need to be prepared for technical issues during the event and to know how to connect virtual speakers and the live audience. Further, it was of high importance for us to make our IDC engaging and enjoyable for both audiences. Beside the conference program and the networking events for our guests joining us live in Prague, we also offered an additional program to our virtual attendees such as virtual teambuilding, a virtual sightseeing tour in Prague and even a virtual “Cocktail Hour” with livestream from Prague in a virtual rooftop bar. 

MK: What made the live event special this time?

WM: It was the warmth of the personal contact that will make the live IDC special this time. After more than a year of lockdowns and endless Zoom meetings, we were all desperately looking forward for the live events to come back. unisonSteadfast was one of the first organizations hosting a live international conferences under the new conditions. Every attendee joining us in-person in Prague was our personal highlight and I believe this event was a very emotional one for all of us. We absolutely enjoyed being together again.   

IRL: What benefits did the IDC offer to the virtual attendees? 

PB: With the IDC 2021 held in a hybrid format, we aimed for “breaking the borders” in accordance with the motto: “If you cannot travel to the IDC, we will bring the IDC to you – no matter where in the world you are.” To make the virtual part of the IDC as unique as possible, we have partnered with exVo - one of the world’s most innovative software developers for virtual events with the web designer team based in Tel Aviv, Israel.  The event space was designed in 3D and felt absolutely real! Every attendee could create their own avatar and visit the virtual carrier booths in the exhibition hall, participate in the live sessions and roundtable discussions or meet with colleagues from all around the world - the digital networking opportunities are nowadays endless and easy.  

MK: The IDC 2021 was hosted under the title “The new world”. What were the highlights of this year’s program

WM: We live and do business in very challenging times, characterized by the pandemic, hardening markets, ongoing mergers and acquisitions. The recent developments raise many questions around the status quo the future of brokers as our world has changed completely since the pandemic. The technology imperative is now indisputable. The IDC 2021 focused on innovation and new technologies and covered topics such as digitalization, artificial intelligence, automation and data analytics. We invited trend futurists to present their views on the future development of the global economy and on the insurance markets. Speeches by Gilles Moec, AXA Group Chief Economist, “The post-COVID global economy – How international events are impacting financial markets” and by Ph.D. Tomas Sedlacek, Member of the National Economic Council if the Czech Government “Capitalist Communism  - future of insurance?” were definitely the highlights of the program. In his keynote “ Using digital capabilities to improve interactions of brokers and carriers”, Jonathan Newbery, Head of Digital Experience, Zurich Commercial Insurance, presented the Zurich vision on how new technologies can be used to create greater engagement and communication between brokers and carriers, and put the clients’ needs at the center of the proposition. Martyn Thompson, Executive General Manager, Steadfast Group and Josh Giansiracusa, Director and Co-Founder, Steadfast Risk Services, provided an overview of risk management tools, which will be made available to the members of the network as of this year.

One block of the conference was devoted the development in China and the new business opportunities China’s evolving insurance market holds for the brokers. Just to name a few!  Commercial Risk Europe, our official media partner of the event, hosted a panel discussion with international and local insurance carriers on the challenges of the hardening insurance markets, creating a highly interesting direct dialogue between brokers and carriers.  To pay tribute to our hosting country, we invited Czech start-up companies to present their vision of the new world and their products.  

IRL: Looking back at your first hybrid event, was the virtual experience able to convey the unique spirit of the unisonSteadfast real IDC?

WM: We are very appreciative of our members and partners who have become a real global family throughout the years. It is always a very special feeling to host our international community who have travelled to our events from all over the world for more than 15 years. Our last live IDC in Vienna was attended by more than 270 insurance specialists from 45 countries! So many beautiful memories were created and so many laughs were shared. I believe no virtual experience will ever be able to convey this very special vibe when people meet in person, but it can be very enriching and help us keep our community connected. 

IRL: Will the hybrid format be the new normal when it comes to your future events?

PB: I believe that the future of the events is definitely hybrid, as hybrid is destined to be the new normal. This format provides plenty of new opportunities in terms of the content and removes all distance issues and location barriers. Technology supporting hybrid events is advancing rapidly. Should this format be well received by our members, we will definitely choose hybrid for our future IDCs. 

IRL: So, your personal “Mission: Impossible” is to be regarded successfully completed? 

WM: It is, Alex! And are already looking forward to welcoming you to our IDC 2022 and - hopefully – in person again!

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