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Farnborough International Airshow (FIA) has long been a prominent fixture of the defence and aerospace events calendar. With the Covid-19 pandemic putting a stop to mass gatherings this year, leading to the cancellation of all major exhibitions and events, the organisers have responded swiftly by moving the airshow into the digital space: FIA Connect, a series of free-to-attend digital events, was held on the original event dates in late July.

“The decision to cancel our July 2020 airshow was a big shock to everyone at Farnborough International, but the team decided that there had to be a way to create an online event and it’s amazing how being faced with a challenge generates innovation,” Farnborough aerospace commercial director Joe Muir told us ahead of the event.

Creating a digital airshow

FIA Connect represented a first for the organisation as it had never hosted a purely digital show before. At a time when the defence industry cannot meet in person, virtual events and webinars have emerged as a popular alternative allowing the industry to stay connected and do business.

But moving large-scale, international defence events online is not an easy task. “One of the biggest challenges has been being realistic about what we can successfully offer,” Muir explained. “There were so many ideas and a lot of ambition, but we’re a small team and trying to achieve too much could impact quality.

We started with FINN – our digital news service – which runs the FINN sessions during the airshow. A huge amount of work was underway on these and we knew that panel discussions and keynote speeches would work well in a digital format. It is vital that FIA Connect provides tangible opportunities for business growth and we are delighted to host ‘meet the buyer online through a completely secure facility.”

Another popular aspect of Farnborough which the organisers were keen to maintain is the workforce-focused Farnborough Friday. The aim, Muir explained, was to offer as many of the event’s regular activities as possible, as well as to develop a new web hub for those looking to get into the aerospace industry.

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“We’re aiming to replicate as many activities as we can, such as an impactful speaker programme and practical support services,” Muir said. “However, we’re building on this and creating a dedicated hub for our website which will serve as a 365-day portal for those interested in securing a career in the industries we represent, and for employers looking to connect with an engaged workforce.”

Muir said that amidst the Covid-19 crisis, industry and governments welcomed the plans for FIA Connect.

“Global industry is facing unprecedented challenge as a result of Covid-19 and so any event aiming to help recovery is positive,” he adds. “Through our biennial airshow we have been privileged to serve as a platform for connecting industry and facilitating business growth. It is our sincere hope that FIA Connect will be a valuable week of networking and business growth opportunities, thought-leadership and insight.”

While online events may not be able to fully replicate the face-to-face experiences, networking and business opportunities we know from live events, they are proving invaluable in keeping the industry connected this year. And with fresh ideas from organisers adding new digital dimensions to , we wouldn’t be surprised to see virtual events establishing a permanent presence in the defence calendar in the years to come.