#VappuAtHome: Celebrating a virtual May Day

entered by City of Helsinki (Credit: Miltton Ltd)

The City of Helsinki took home our 2020 Award for Best Citizen Engagement for their creative approach that invited citizens to enjoy the May Day celebrations from home by joining a virtual concert. A year on - and with another virtual concert planned for this year's May Day celebrations - we wanted to throw back to the original campaign that wowed our judges last November.

Finland's annual May Day celebrations gather tens of thousands of people to the public parks in the capital city of Helsinki to celebrate the beginning of the summer season. 2020 was different: no street parties, no traditional park picnics, no concerts or any other offline events were allowed.

Normally, the City of Helsinki has no organizing responsibility for the May Day festivities ("vappu" in Finnish), apart from the cleaning and park maintenance duties. Due to the COVID-19 situation, the local authority took over the major responsibility of motivating people to stay safely at home, since the last thing that anyone wanted was for the May Day celebrations to be cancelled altogether.

Creating a virtual celebration

A new phenomenon, “The once-in-a-lifetime #vappuathome” was created, and it turned out to be a great success, both locally and internationally. The City of Helsinki needed to give people reasons to stay inside for this very special May Day to turn it into an exceptional and historical event that gave everybody the opportunity to become an everyday hero just by staying home. The Helsinki City Museum asked people to share their special #vappuathome celebrations and promised to save some of the photos in their collections for future generations. Almost all of the traditional May Day events were rethought in a digital form.

"Nothing will be happening in physical Helsinki. But instead of a traditional May Day, the best virtual May Day in the world will be celebrated," Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori stated, and urged people to remember the government guidelines on preventing the spread of coronavirus.

Since the key message was simply “stay at home,” the main KPI was to see empty streets and parks and no large gatherings. The concept “The once-in-a-lifetime #vappuathome” (#etävappu) made the case for celebrating this vappu like never before. The City of Helsinki invited the entire country to a virtual concert, positioned as an innovative public service preventing the possible spread of the pandemic. The concert was a huge success with 1.4 million people attending - 24% of the population.

Inspired by the success of gigs in gaming platform Fortnite, the city partnered with the local VR agency Zoan in order to bring citizens virtually together on this special holiday. One of Finland’s most popular rap bands, JVG, performed live from a studio using green-screen technology, appearing as if it was giving the concert at the iconic Senate Square in the centre of Helsinki.

One of the most effective measures was to build a fence around the statue of Havis Amanda, the iconic gathering site of vappu, and turn it into an advertising space.

Connecting citizen engagement into an overarching place brand strategy

People were given ideas and tips of how to make May Day 2020 one for the records and five influencers were chosen to share their #vappuathome tips on social media. Local solutions were made global. This virtual experiment was pitched for the international media as part of the ambitious Virtual Helsinki development, thus strengthening city’s reputation as the digital forerunner.

#Vappuathome became a phenomenon. The national and local media supported the #vappuathome concept and the social media reach was extremely good. People were motivated to rethink the May Day celebrations. On the day itself, only a handful of people gathered to the major picnic parks and the streets were empty. Moreover, Helsinki served globally as a test-bed for VR, with the COVID-19 lockdown spurring the trial. Helsinki’s international reputation as a digital forerunner was significantly boosted and media coverage reached more than 500 million people worldwide

The 2021 City Nation Place Awards are now open! Find out how to enter here.

Related reading:

Helsinki: The city of the future | Interview with Laura Aalto, CEO at Helsinki Marketing

Rethinking place attractiveness in the fallout of COVID-19

Launching a place brand strategy amidst a pandemic

Ten essential lessons all places should learn from a year of lockdown

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