The freeze on live-in-person events in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many meeting planners to become more comfortable creating digital meetings. As physical gatherings slowly and haltingly return, these same planners can channel their new digital experience into the design of hybrid events, combining the in-person and remote audiences to accomplish meeting goals.
"We're seeing all events being planned now as being hybrid by default," says Alex Patriquin, founder and CEO of events management platform Circa (formerly EventGeek). "It's really a new world. Really all of the events going forward should really be hybrid."
Meeting professionals are preparing for that future. According to survey results released by event-venue provider etc.venues at the end of July, 95 percent of planners said they expect to hold a hybrid event in 2020 — a sizable increase from the 73 percent that said the same just one month earlier.
But creating a successful hybrid event is not simply a matter of streaming sessions from a socially distanced ballroom. There are a number of best practices that planners should keep in mind to ensure they are leveraging all of the opportunities the format offers. We spoke with several hybrid-event experts, as well as venue representatives who have recently hosted hybrid conferences, to get their tips on how to get the most from a multichannel gathering.
Preparing attendees for what will take place at an event is key, whether the gathering is face-to-face or digital — but it's especially important when combining the two.
"The pre-work and pre-marketing activity that happens before the hybrid event is especially important," says Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, founder and director of virtual and hybrid-event production company EventMind. "That 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."
Planners should make it clear in all promotions that the event will have both digital and in-person elements and audiences. This allows the prospective attendee to select the option that best fits their comfort level and current ability to travel.
Michelle Hopewell, regional marketing director at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, encourages the use of an interactive web platform with live chat, set up long before the event to stimulate engagement by allowing attendees to submit questions during the registration process.
"Let your attendees guide your content," she urges.
This was the approach the convention center used for its own hybrid event, held on July 15, Hybrid Events-Confusing Possibilities Made Simple. The gathering, held in collaboration with Prestige Audio Visual and Creative Services, began with a webcast program and was followed by live breakouts. Attendees could interact with industry professionals and peers, either in person or virtually, and participate in breakout sessions on topics such as "A/V Health and Safety Tips" and "Contract Negotiations During and Post-COVID." Altogether, the event drew 50 attendees on-site and 250 remote participants.
Prioritizing the digital elements might seem more natural now than pre-COVID-19, but as face-to-face events return, even when small or local, planners will need to hold on to this digital-first mindset. It's crucial that the content and format are engaging to the attendees participating from home.
When making decisions about speakers, room layout and the day's flow, virtual attendees should be top of mind. In particular, this means "recognizing the reality that a remote attendee is just not going to have the same level of attention span," says Patriquin. It also means that remote audiences should be able to interact with those at the live session: asking speakers questions, interacting with exhibitors or networking with other attendees, both in-person and remote.
Nick Hoare, COO of etc.venues, which recently opened its first U.S venue in New York City, describes how this focus on keeping remote viewers engaged will better meet the needs of in-person attendees at the same time.
"In our experience, shorter, more focused sessions keep attendees' attention better. This supports the in-room attendees as well by shortening the overall program, leaving more time to travel to and from the venue," he says. "It is just as important to try to vary the types of sessions for hybrid as live events. It keeps things fresh — presentations, panels, fireside chats, breakout discussions, informal groups, sponsored sessions, networking areas — all keep delegates moving between activities and creates a flow for the day."
That thinking applies to the length of the daylong schedule as well. The 8:00 a.m.-to-6:00 p.m. agenda you might have considered for an in-person conference might work better as 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for a hybrid event. In-person attendees might then have additional activities scheduled for breakfast or dinner and networking gatherings.
Host the Education On-Site When Possible
Planners should make every effort to bring the presenters to the physical event, particularly in the case of multi-speaker panels and other sessions where (socially distanced) interaction takes place.
"The interaction and energy onstage become far more authentic and credible [when speakers are there in person]," says Hoare. "Virtual panels are not as engaging or effective."
He speaks from experience: etc.venues recently partnered with meetings-tech supplier Glisser on a hybrid-events solution that it showcased for its Hybrid Event Masterclass series. Thought leaders participated in person for panels at etc.venues' County Hall in London (with 19 people attending in person), while more than 1,000 remote attendees tuned in from across Europe, the U.S. and Central America, asking questions and interacting with the panelists. Hoare emphasizes that this in-person element, even if it's just a few panelists gathered in a studio together, creates greater engagement 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," says Hoare.
Keep Registration Flexible
At a time when travel restrictions are changing from one day to the next, hybrid events offer the advantage of giving registrants the confidence that they will be able to take part in some way. Today, a person might not be ready to commit to attending in person, but in a few months, travel might look more appealing. A planner should make it easy for registrants to upgrade to in-person attendance if circumstances allow — or shift from attending in-person to joining virtually if new restrictions prevent them from travel.
Bentil-Dhue adds that this flexibility should extend to the agenda itself, particularly for those joining remotely.
"We've seen with the rise in virtual events, people increasingly want to be able to customize their own content schedule," says Bentil-Dhue. "So, you should be sure they have the options to create their own schedule — selecting between tracks of content or choosing what parts they'd like to engage in."
Use Tiered Access
Flexibility should extend to access options as well, whether joining in person or remotely. Patriquin gives the example of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which this year is planning to host the massive trade show for the publishing industry as a hybrid gathering with a range of access tiers, depending on registrant profile and what they need to get out of the event.
"There are private and public sessions and meetings that are happening with both remote and in-person attendees," he says. "So, it's this mix between in-person and remote using meeting technology that I think is going to result in a lot of great books getting published."
Exhibitors can secure a booth for the live "fairgrounds" and select from a range of digital presentation options. Visitors can join as private or trade visitors, either virtually or physically, with each tier offering its own specific access options. And for the first time, the event is holding Bookfest Digital, an online extension of its popular Bookfest City series of live, literary events.
Encourage Collaboration Between Remote and In-Person Participants
Find ways to facilitate interactions between the remote and in-person audiences. That might mean having a screen onstage, allowing remote attendees to participate in a presentation or ask questions, or providing individual tablets to in-person attendees to allow for one-on-one exchanges with virtual audience members.
"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 Center's Michelle Hopewell suggests flanking the main stage with large screens to help with presentations, and using that as a way to bring in the virtual audience.
"Show photo grids on both screens to allow those live and virtually to feel connected," she says.
Any ice breakers or networking games should be geared toward getting both sides of the audience not only participating, but also interacting with one another. Hopewell encourages making participation in the event — signing up for the event app, joining in meetups or sessions — part of a game as well, allowing attendees to earn points the more involved they get.
"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?"
Work With Venue Partners
A successful hybrid event requires a strong partnership with the live venue. That means not only ensuring high-speed internet access and a strong on-the-ground A/V team to deal with technical issues, but also that steps are taken to ensure the room layout and breakout spaces are optimized for remote attendees.
"We're seeing the most innovative venues offering a kind of an 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 and can interact with attendees and speakers," says Patriquin.
Bentil-Dhue has worked with venues 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, or where videoconferencing can be set up to allow for private meetings between those at the live event and those joining remotely.
"In the past, the venue sales manager might be focused just on selling the physical things in the venue," she says. "Now we see more of an understanding of what other benefits the client might want to get from using their space. Now it's not just a conference that's going to happen for that number of people in that room, but also all of the other considerations of virtual audiences."
Keep the Event Going
A hybrid event should represent the best of both meeting approaches, and one of the major advantages of digital events is that the content can be offered on-demand, long after the meeting ends. Hybrid events should leverage that benefit.
"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 the opportunity to share and create connections based on the virtual meeting."
Longer term, the educational content created during the event should continue to provide valuable marketing material for lead generation.
"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 then backed up by eLearning tasks in the weeks following."
Use the content to extend the event's value. Continue to share clips and links to the event's highlights on social media and elsewhere to entice prospective attendees to register for the next gathering. Smart use of the material in an on-demand fashion can increase the ROI for all event stakeholders.