Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, planners have had to become more comfortable creating digital meetings. Many now believe virtual meetings are here to stay, and that it will be necessary to incorporate some digital component into most of the in-person events they're beginning to plan again.
But creating a successful hybrid is not simply a matter of streaming sessions from a socially distanced ballroom. We spoke with several experts, as well as venue representatives who have recently hosted such conferences, to get their tips, ideas and examples of how to get the most from a multichannel gathering.
Planners can easily become overwhelmed by the variety of platforms, tools and technological gizmos now available to execute a hybrid meeting. During a recent Northstar Meetings Group webcast, "Why Hybrid Events Are Essential to Your 2021 Strategic Plan," Denzil Rankine, executive chairman of AMR International and co-author of Reinventing Live: The Always-On Future of Events, urged planners to avoid getting distracted by that tsunami of tech. Remember, the point of any event is to deliver value to clients and attendees.
"We can say, 'here's a really shiny technology.' Is it called hybrid or is it called virtual?" said Rankine. "That's not the point. The point is to ask what your customers need."
Only after establishing a clear understanding of attendee priorities should you then consider whether both in-person and remote attendance is required, and find the most appropriate tech solution to integrate both.
"It's the same whether there is a pandemic or whether we have digital or face-to-face tools," says Rankine. "What is that personal need? What is that business need? What are the best tools to deal with it?"
Preparing attendees for what will take place at an event has always been necessary, whether the gathering was face-to-face or digital — but it's especially important when combining the two.
"This means making sure your virtual guests know how to log in, that your live guests know there will be a virtual audience and that both know how the agenda will play out," says Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, founder and director EventMind, a digital- and hybrid-event production company.
All promotions should make it clear that the event will have both digital and in-person elements and audiences, allowing prospective attendees to select the delivery option that fits their comfort level and current ability to travel.
Michelle Hopewell, regional marketing director at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, encourages the setup of an interactive platform with a live-chat element long before the event to stimulate engagement, even allowing attendees to submit questions and suggestions during the registration process. "Let your attendees guide your content," she urges.
The convention center used this approach for its own gathering, Hybrid Events: Confusing Possibilities Made Simple, held on July 15. The conference, a collaboration with Prestige Audio Visual and Creative Services, began with a webcast, followed by in-person breakouts. Attendees interacted at the center and digitally in sessions on topics such as "A/V Health and Safety Tips" and "Contract Negotiations During and Post-Covid." The event drew 50 on-site and 250 remote participants.
When making decisions about speakers, room layouts and the day's flow, digital attendees should stay top of mind. "Recognize the reality that a remote attendee is just not going to have the same level of attention span," says Alex Patriquin, CEO of event-management platform Circa. Plus, the digital audience will need to be able to interact with those at the in-person sessions — asking questions of the speakers, meeting with exhibitors or networking with all other attendees.
Nick Hoare, COO of etc.venues, says planners must focus on keeping remote viewers engaged while also meeting the needs of in-person participants.
"In our experience, shorter, more focused sessions keep attendees' attention better. This supports the in-room attendees, as well, by shortening the overall program," he says. "Presentations, panels, fireside chats, breakout discussions, informal groups, sponsored sessions, networking areas — all keep delegates moving between activities and create a flow for the day."
Apply that thinking when considering the length of the daylong schedule, as well. The 8:00 a.m.-to-6:00 p.m. agenda of an in-person conference might work better running from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for a hybrid event. You can schedule additional activities around this for the in-person participants, such as meals and networking gatherings.
The bottom line is that you want your event to be considered essential viewing for people who can't be there in person. "I always give people the example of the Super Bowl," said Joe Schwinger, cofounder and CEO of virtual event platform MeetingPlay, during a recent Northstar Meetings Group webcast. "I'd love to be there in person, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to fly to San Francisco and spend a week doing so. But I'm totally comfortable watching it at home on TV and I enjoy doing it. We need to think of hybrid environments the same way. There will be people who don't want to travel who are happy watching it at home."
Planners should make every effort to bring the presenters to the physical event, particularly when arranging panels and other sessions where a lot of back and forth takes place.
"The interaction and energy onstage become far more authentic and credible," says Hoare. "Virtual panels are not as engaging or effective."
He speaks from experience: Etc.venues recently partnered with online-event platform Glisser, showcasing a solution for their Hybrid Event Masterclass series. Thought leaders arrived in person for panels at Etc.venues' County Hall in London, while more than 1,000 people from Europe, the United States and Central America tuned in remotely, asking questions and chatting with the panelists.
This in-person element, even if it's just a few panelists gathered in a studio together, creates a better experience for those at home. "A solely virtual event usually lacks the spark of interaction that most easily comes when people are in a room together," he notes.
Travel restrictions are changing from one day to the next, so host organizations need to allow participants to change their plans easily. Someone who might not be ready to commit to attending in person today might find the prospect of traveling more appealing in a few months. Make it easy for registrants to upgrade to in-person attendance if circumstances allow — or to shift from attending in-person to joining virtually if new restrictions keep them home.
Bentil-Dhue of EventMind says this flexibility should extend to the agenda itself, particularly for those joining remotely. "We've seen people increasingly want to be able to customize their own content schedule," she says. "So, you should be sure they have that option — selecting between tracks or choosing which parts they'd like to engage in."
Flexibility should extend to access options. Patriquin gives the example of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the massive trade show for the publishing industry that will be held as a hybrid gathering Oct. 14-18 in Germany, offering a range of options depending on registrants' profiles and what they want from the event.
"There are private and public sessions, and meetings that are happening with both remote and in-person attendees," he says. "This mix between in person and remote using meetings technology I think will result in a lot of great books getting published."
Exhibitors can secure a booth for the in-person fairgrounds and select from several digital presentation options. Participants can join as private or trade visitors, either virtually or physically, with a host of specific access options. And a new event has been added, Bookfest Digital, an online extension of the popular Bookfest City readings and talks that take place at the end of each show day.
Facilitating interactions between the remote and in-person audiences is the true challenge of hybrid events. Solving the dilemma might mean putting a screen onstage to allow remote attendees to take part in a presentation or ask questions; or providing individual tablets to in-person attendees for one-on-one exchanges with digital participants.
"It's important to blend audience engagement throughout the sessions as much as possible, to keep them all equally involved," says Hoare. "The moderator should take as many questions from the in-room attendees as from those online, no matter the numbers."
Duke Energy's Hopewell suggests flanking the main stage with large screens to help with presentations, and to bring in the online crowd.
Ice breakers or networking games should be geared toward getting both types of participants talking with one another. Hopewell also advises making a game out of audience involvement, awarding points when people sign up for the event app, join in meetups or sessions, etc. Those with the most points can win a prize, be entered into a raffle or simply be recognized for their engagement during the meeting.
"Keep asking yourself, 'How can you collaborate with speakers, with your visitors, with your guests?'" says Bentil-Dhue. "How can all of those parties collaborate with each other before, during and after an event?"
A successful hybrid event requires a strong partnership with the in-person venue. That means not only having high-speed internet access and a strong on-the-ground A/V team to deal with technical issues, but also optimizing the room layout and breakout spaces for remote attendees.
"We're seeing the most innovative venues offering a kind of immersive experience where they can put screens around the stage or other layout options so that the folks at home feel like they're in the room," says Patriquin.
Bentil-Dhue of EventMind has worked with facilities that have converted breakout rooms into production studios, where in-person producers can create content going out to remote attendees or on social media channels, and where videoconferencing can be set up for private meetings between those at the venue and those joining remotely.
"In the past, the sales manager might have been focused just on selling the physical things in the venue," she says. "Now it's not just about a conference that's going to happen for that number of people in that room, but also all of the other considerations for virtual audiences."
One of the major advantages of the digital part of a hybrid event is that the content can be captured for on-demand use long after the meeting ends.
"Keep session chats open following the event to create a community resource center and continued networking opportunities," suggests Hopewell. "Trade virtual business cards and encourage guests to share and create connections based on the virtual meeting."
"Recorded sessions can be used in their virtual capacity by those who have been unable to take part in the live event," says Hoare. "Training courses have been delivered in this way for decades — content delivered in the classroom is backed up by e-learning tasks in the weeks following."