New Zealand will attempt to redefine what's possible for virtual conferencing next month when it hosts the first Apec CEO Summit in three years.
Thousands of business leaders from the 21 Apec nations are expected to attend the two-day summit, logging in online not just for the main panel events but for extensive networking opportunities via a groundbreaking portal of informal hangouts and live meeting rooms.
Rioting in Santiago saw hosts Chile cancel the 2019 event and Covid forced Malaysia to cancel it in 2020.
But despite the set back with the Delta outbreak, local organisers were determined to make it happen this year, says Apec CEO Summit executive director Jonathan Alver.
Apec organisers will stick with plans for the event on November 11 and 12, with the venue at Auckland's Aotea Centre effectively becoming a live broadcast studio for the fully virtual event.
The point of the CEO Summit was to bring together the ABAC (the Apec Business Advisory Council) and leaders week, Alver said.
"This is the opportunity for 1000 CEOs from around the world, invited by the host, to come together and communicate with each other with the host economy, but also with a selection of the Apec leaders.
"It's the coming together of the Apec leaders and the business leaders before they go into the bit, which everyone knows about, which is the retreat with the funny shirts."
When Alver took the job, that was the plan anyway.
But Covid has changed all that.
"We've sort of had to pivot and we've had to really look at what the CEO Summit has become," he said.
"Because the history is almost broken now with the two missing years, we were in a position to start again, and when we started looking at what the hybrid summit could be."
The aim was to not waste the opportunity for New Zealand businesses to
communicate with the rest of the world, but also to retain the intimacy of personal real-time meetings.
The Apec organisers had worked with commercial partner Microsoft to access the best and latest products available to allow people to meet and to network, he said.
"To try to get all the bits around the edges of those plenary sessions, because when the CEOs come to your town they don't actually sit in the theatre for two days.
"They pop in to see certain sessions and in between they're all having meetings with each other or meetings with domestic business."
That sense of what makes a conference valuable and enjoyable for delegates had underpinned the design of the virtual event, Alver said.
So just as a real conference allows meetings in informal spaces, around the sponsors' stands and in more formal private spaces, there would be a range of different virtual networking spaces available and accessible from a tool-bar at the top of the main conference screen.
"That networking thing, that for me was the crux," Alver said. "We knew it was going to be easy, in a way, to deliver the plenary sessions, what we needed to work out was how we deliver the rest of it.
"I think we are certainly breaking the mould in terms of what you expect out of something like this and what you'll actually get," Alver said.
Some of the technology to do this was pioneered by Microsoft at the all-virtual CES conference (the world's biggest tech show) in Las Vegas earlier this year.
"We looked at all the lessons that they'd learned on that and we said to them okay, can we start building a brand new platform for CEO Summit on that basis.
"We're almost able to replicate standing in a queue with someone at lunch because you'll be able to go into one of the lounges, maybe the sustainability lounge, where you will bump into someone."
The summit will feature panelists and keynote speakers including: human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, public relations trailblazer Richard Edelman, social psychologist and author Professor Jonathan Haidt, environmental champion Dr David Suzuki, digital media leader Amber Mac, entrepreneurial business leader Tony Fernandes and former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
More speakers will be announced in the next couple of weeks.
There are five central themes which will be the focus of discussion at the CEO Summit this year.
• The state of the world with and post Covid. Economic recovery, trade and protectionism.
• The Digital Disruption Opportunity - digital transformation, technology and innovation – the summit will tap into the best of current global knowledge and insights on this subject.
• The Primacy of Trust: how businesses can strengthen trust and be seen as a force for good in the communities in which they operate.
• The Future of Energy: clean technology, renewable energy, and energy transition including hydrogen.
• The Sustainability Imperative: sustainable growth, climate change, food sustainability and provenance.
This was a great opportunity for New Zealand to showcase how adaptable we are and for businesses to connect, said CEO Summit chair Barbara Chapman.
"Given the many challenges that businesses in New Zealand and around the Apec economies are facing, it would be easy to dismiss this opportunity and focus on the day-to-day issues," she said.
"But given the critical need for international connections, trade pathways, and digital technology to revive and repair some of the Covid-damaged parts of our economies and our trading networks, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for New Zealand businesses, organisations and individuals to hear from the world's leading thinkers and be part of these important conversations."
The fully virtual CEO Summit will be hosted from Auckland, New Zealand, on 11-12 November (NZT) and will be broadcast "as live" to audiences across 21 APEC economies.
The New Zealand Herald is a media partner for Apec 2021.