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How to hold a virtual APEC

New Zealand is hosting the most important event in a generation. But what is APEC, and how does it work?

Privacy, time zones, registration, security - holding an entire year of virtual meetings is a complicated process, and New Zealand is in the thick of it at the moment.

It is host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a group of 21 economies around the Pacific-Rim. Each year a different economy hosts the year-long set of meetings. New Zealand last hosted in 1999, and spent several years planning the minutia of APEC 2021, until COVID-19 forced the event to move to a virtual platform.

APEC New Zealand Chief Technology Officer Stuart Gregory spoke about this mammoth process at the recent IDC 2021 Government Insights Executive Forum.

“Hosting an entire year of APEC meetings is complicated, and that includes a lot of unique requirements specific to APEC. The organisation has a lot of conventions and working structures that we needed to replicate in a virtual setting.”

There are 11 time zones across 21 economies to contend with, and the working environment of APEC requires space for both formal and informal discussions. 

As the meetings are all private, each of the thousands of attendees must have their own user account set up. The accounts must be easy to use, and safe and secure. 

Chief Technology Officer Stuart Gregory and APEC New Zealand Deputy Secretary Andrea Smith talk to media ahead of Senior Officials' Meeting 1.

“There are some really stringent security requirements,” Mr Gregory said. “While all meeting content is unclassified, it is ‘in confidence’ and so things that are discussed amongst members are kept in confidence to members.”

 Even with all those requirements met, New Zealand officials wanted to keep the cadence of an in-person meeting.

 “We wanted to try to  replicate the simplicity of human-to-human interaction as much as possible, however we did have a number of considerations to contend with,” Mr Gregory said.

 Months of work went into making the process simple and seamless.

 APEC New Zealand’s requirements were to use a platform that:

  • Had appropriate security that could facilitate hundreds of people joining a single meeting
  • Could support video, photos, presentations, working documents, breakout rooms, informal interactions, and sidebar conversations
  • Was available and accessible across a number of economies and geographies
  • Was scalable across unknown end-user devices and variable internet connections

One element that had come as a surprise for delegates was “the voice of APEC”, Mr Gregory said.

“To help with the feel of a real meeting, and ensure everyone appears at their best, we have one person before a meeting who works with delegates and officials. He ensures their lighting looks right, framing looks good, their audio’s fine, puts them at ease and gets them ready for the meeting. It’s been really welcomed and a complete surprise to a number of delegates.”

New Zealand is also working with several firms to help bring the project together.

They include Microsoft – provider of the Teams meeting platform – Satellite Media, Uno Loco, The Enthusiasts, Spark, CCL, Qual IT, InPhySec and Tenzing. 

SOM Chair Vangelis Vitalis is pictured in the main meeting room for APEC 2021, with officials and the production team.

“We’re a time-bound programme team, so we took the approach of setting the direction we wanted to go and then working with innovative companies to get us there,” Mr Gregory says.

This includes integrating the APEC registration portal with the Microsoft Teams meeting platform – meaning delegates had a one-stop-shop experience and allowing them to see meeting updates, schedules and the platform itself all in one place.

Mr Gregory said it was all brought to life in an “incredibly compressed timeframe”.

Since New Zealand’s host year began, more than 3000 officials and delegates have registered to take part in meetings – surpassing all estimates.

APEC New Zealand Deputy Secretary Andrea Smith says while COVID forced everyone to change their plans, the virtual host year will show APEC’s work can continue even in a crisis.

“We knew it would be a challenge, but the entire APEC team was focused on making this work.

“In the time of a global pandemic, it is now more important than ever that we work with our APEC partners to support the COVID recovery. APEC is an economic forum and the relationships we have established since the beginning of APEC are already showing value.”