There seems little doubt about it – the New Zealand experience could change the way the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) works in the future.
The decision was taken last year, because of Covid-19, to make New Zealand's hosting of APEC – 21 member economies, 11 time zones and about 20,000 attendees – into a virtual experience.
It sounds almost an impossibility. However, APEC New Zealand Deputy Secretary Andrea Smith says the transition to a virtual event has been remarkably smooth, even with almost four years' preparation for a physical event swiftly transitioned into a few months of preparing for a giant virtual series of meetings.
"It has been an awful lot of work," Smith says, with a diplomat's knack of understatement, and she answers a question on whether APEC will adopt a virtual meeting culture in the future by saying: "Well, I think that's the million dollar question, not just for APEC but for New Zealand and countries and businesses round the world.
"There will always be some form of physical meeting, I would say, but I personally doubt that the world will look back and say 'Oh well, I think the way we did it in 2019 is the way to go in 2022'."
Much of how APEC operates in the future could hinge on how well New Zealand can carry off this enormous digital undertaking. The signs are good so far.
APEC always involves preliminary meetings – Senior Officials Meetings, held over four weeks recently, involving large numbers of delegates. Smith's team took the opportunity to survey them.
Of those who responded, 40 per cent felt that APEC would continue to work virtually in future years – though not necessarily saying that all future meetings would be virtual – while 60 per cent felt business could be conducted virtually. Another 75 per cent were happy with progress made at the Senior Officials Meetings.
"That is a pretty good sign and I am sure, if that same survey had been taken two years ago, the findings and comfort levels would have been very different," Smith says. "The world has learned a lot because of lockdowns, the lack of travel and technology."
The delegates' overall satisfaction rating was 4.1 out of 5 and, for New Zealand's hospitality, 4.4 out of 5 – "a really positive endorsement and encouraging signs from APEC delegates of how things are tracking and how they are finding it," says Smith.
Not that the work is done, far from it, though Smith says New Zealand's early decision not to risk it with Covid-19 (and to give all countries and delegates certainty about how the APEC meeting would be held) has paid off.
"I think the most surprising thing has been the complexity of the task," she says. "APEC meeting sessions tend to be 2-3 days of meetings at six hours a day – but that can be hard going on a computer screen.
"So we have to know how to hold a meeting, when to take a break and how to structure things for the best possible experience.
"It's also all about the scale. We have hundreds of meetings, many happening at the same time, and thousands of delegates. We have to ensure the right people are in the right meetings, that they are engaging, that they are still seeing something of New Zealand and that there are smooth transitions.
"If you touch even one of those elements, it impacts on all the others; it's highly complex."
That said, her team has striven for simplicity to deal with complexity. The meeting technology of choice is Microsoft Teams – with which many people, businesses and organisations have become increasingly familiar over the spread of Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns.
"We knew people were au fait with the technology," she says, "and the early decision to go virtual – taken in July last year – meant we provided not only certainty about the shape and form of APEC this year but also the time to make sure it worked effectively.
"We worked on the basis that, even if New Zealand was out of lockdown, other countries might not be – so the technology we used had to be capable of being operated from someone's living room or bedroom and from a number of potential devices."
There has been bespoke technology too – including marrying up APEC's event management system with Microsoft Teams – and Smith says the preliminary meetings so far and "my skilled and highly diverse team, with skills that I do not have" mean she is quietly confident all will go well.
You get a sense of what that means when you realise what Smith and her team have been through. Back in October 2019, they were in full planning mode when their intended venue, the Sky City Convention Centre, literally went up in smoke.
Hard on the heels of the fire came the pandemic – and Smith found herself thrust into New Zealand's Covid-19 response as Ministry of Foreign Affair's Deputy Secretary for Covid-19, addressing issues like Kiwis overseas, foreign diplomats here and Kiwi diplomats overseas, sorting out border restrictions and the diplomatic implications of all that.
After three months, the Covid work was able to be mainstreamed into all the ministry's work, and she found herself back in the APEC frame – a frame that had changed significantly.
She will have done her job, she says, if virtual APEC runs well, with the delegates able to focus not on the technology or the virtual aspects but "if they are able to focus on the business of APEC and the issues they have to address, like Covid-19, where APEC has a considerable role to play".