What’s New with PastForward Online 2020

By Priya Chhaya posted 09-29-2020 15:06


Note: The early bird deadline for PastForward Online 2020 is October 7! Be sure to register before then, rates will increase October 8.

Every year the preservation community gathers for PastForward, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual meeting. However, this is not a typical year, and we would like to welcome preservationists and preservation lovers to the nation’s premiere online conference for those who work to save, sustain, and interpret historic places.

But what does PastForward Online 2020 look like? When the pandemic hit, the conference team was well into planning mode for our in-person conference that was to be in Miami, but it was quickly evident that while things could not be business as normal, they wanted to present a conference that had all the things attendees love with the added benefit of increased access.

I talked to Rhonda Sincavage, director of content and partnerships, to find out more about what you should expect with the new format, and why you should join us October 27-30, 2020, online!


Let’s talk about the theme: Resilience and Relevance. Why did the team pick that for this year?

So this theme was actually the original theme of our in-person conference, and after this spring it felt appropriate and applicable for this new virtual iteration of PastForward.  While we did have to do some pivoting, we wanted to make sure we were responding to current events and their impact on the work we do as preservationists.

I think when attendees look through the online schedule at a glance they will see we’ve done that by focusing on issues related to social justice, the pandemic, natural disasters, and climate change. It really speaks to this moment in time and what the preservation field is facing. We are hoping that the sessions are both through provoking and provide practical information to address current challenges.  In addition, we had the good fortune of working with a national steering committee that provided a great deal of advice and insight in planning the conference this year.

What’s different about the format for this year’s conference?

The biggest difference this year is that PastForward is a virtual conference. Consequently, as we were planning this, we wanted to be mindful of people’s schedules and their bandwidth for sitting in front of the screen for many hours a day. So the first thing we’ve done is adjusted the schedule so that it the core of the conference is from noon-6 eastern, which will account for most time zones in the United States. Because we are virtual, we expect that this will work for attendees across the country and the world.

We’ve also shortened the sessions to fifty minutes to allow for screen breaks, and since we recognize that people have other responsibilities, we built in breaks throughout the day.

Finally, we recognized, especially in the work-from-home era of the pandemic that in reality, attendees can’t entirely step away from day to day responsibilities. So, we’ve made the commitment that most content will be available for up to a year after the conference (there are some exceptions to that which we will share at a later time).

This is great because if you miss a session, or have a hard time deciding between sessions, you can see everything you wanted to see, just after the fact. Or, if an attendee is like me, if there is something you need a refresher six months from now you can go back and reference it through the recording.

How is this conference more accessible than the in-person model?

We’re really hoping that the virtual format will open up the ability to attend to a broader group of people, especially because no one needs to travel to attend. We’ve also adjusted registration price accordingly to incentivize attendance.

We also wanted to broaden access through the Diversity Scholarship Program. In the past we’ve been only able to offer scholarships to attend to 25-30 individuals because we cover registration and lodging for those attendees. This year, without the in-person requirement we are able to fund up to 200 attendees with that money.

In what way is the technology really an asset to the program?

As I mentioned earlier, we are hoping to use the technology to our benefit. There are some instances that wouldn’t be available to all in traditional format. For example, our field studies are usually limited to the city and the region of the conference. This year, we can take attendees to projects across the country, including some of the newly developed virtual tours.

There is also the fact that we are able to engage speakers who normally couldn’t attend, such as international speakers, or others who couldn’t travel in person.

Then there are the tools we are using for the conference itself. In a lot of ways making sure attendees understand and know how to use these tools is important. If you register for the conference you will get access to the conference app (for those who have already registered it will be available in early October) literally at your fingertips. To use a metaphor our conference director has been using, if our conference website is our marquee telling you what to expect, the app is your entry into the theater—showing you how to access each event to experience all there is to offer. Don’t worry! We’ll make sure you know what to do to access all this great content.

For many of our regular attendees, the best part of conference (besides the educational content, of course) is the networking with peers. Can you tell me how that is going to look this year?

Because we are expecting a larger registration than normal, there are challenges to how the networking part of the conference can be effective.  We decided to dedicate the evening sessions to be focused on different disciplines—for example architects, planners, individuals who work at historic sites. We are also are planning some fun things like Preservation Trivia and a session building preservation oriented Zines.

As far as the sessions themselves, each of the three days will include a Town Hall, as a way to get insight and input from attendees for the critical topics we are discussing that day. The plan is to use the breakout group feature as a way to create space for small group discussions.

You mentioned that it is not too late for attendees to influence the program? Can you tell me more?

There are two ways you can still be involved in the program.

The first is by submitting a question to Governor Brian Vallo on Forum Connect for him to address in his plenary speech. As governor of one of the earliest continuously inhabited communities in the United States, Vallo is also the founding director of both the Acoma Historic Preservation Office and the Sky City Cultural Center and Haakú Museum.

The second involves a collection of attendee videos that we hope will kick off each of the daily Town Halls discussions. We'll share out more information on how you can submit your video for inclusion soon. 

I can’t wait to see everyone (virtually) in just a few weeks. Don’t forget the early bird deadline for registration is October 7.

For more information on PastForward Online 2020 visit

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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