We may miss seeing our colleagues and attendees in person, but it's clear that digital meetings technology is here to stay, in one form or another. As travel begins to ramp up again for in-person meetings, those meetings will likely use a hybrid approach — welcoming attendees both face-to-face and remotely.
"The global pandemic has forced the event industry to embrace and explore the realm of virtual meetings like never before," said Annalisa Ponchia, director of innovation and customer experience for AIM Group International, in a new guide on how to successfully organize virtual and hybrid events. "Virtual meetings are expected to become an integral part of corporate and association meeting strategies … There will be much more hybrid execution in the event space."
But just as meeting models have shifted, so too have attendee expectations. According to Ponchia, many digital meetings that were held in the early days of the pandemic lacked innovation and a strong strategy or design. This will no longer cut it.
Organizations looking to stand out in an event space that has become increasingly crowded due to the avalanche of pandemic-related postponements will need to raise the bar for their meetings — and better meetings start with better preparation. Below are three tips from AIM Group International on how to prepare for best-in-class virtual and hybrid meetings.
Assemble a Trained Team
The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a new set of must-have skills for event planners. Chief among them are a strategic mindset and technological expertise. Ponchia recommends assembling a digital event team that includes the following roles:
- Digital event strategist: Should possess a strong knowledge of the digital event technology landscape and costs; responsible for finding ways to improve attendee engagement, create online networking sessions and more
- Content and resource manager: Will be tasked with collecting all presentations, resources and downloadable assets from speakers and sponsors, and ensuring they are uploaded to the digital platform and accessible to attendees
- Digital tools expert: In charge of managing all of the digital event software, making sure everything runs smoothly on the day of the event and fielding any technology questions or issues that may arise
- Speaker/moderator coach: Will serve as the primary contact for the event speakers and moderators; must ensure the speakers are comfortable with the platform and presenting in a virtual/hybrid format
- Communications expert and social media moderator: Responsible for managing social media and engaging attendees before, during and after the event
- Fundraising and virtual exhibitions specialist: In charge of finding and coordinating sponsorship opportunities; it is their job to find fruitful ways to connect audience members and sponsors in a virtual or hybrid setting
"The role of event professionals is changing and digital is driving its evolution," said Ponchia. "The new normal requires a team of experts who bring together knowledge of virtual, strategic event planning as well as technical competencies."
Adapt the Content
Content remains king, no matter the meeting format. According to Ponchia, content should be one of the first things meeting professionals consider and adapt when moving to a virtual or hybrid event.
She recommends moving away from a packed agenda to more carefully curated content sessions that are scheduled throughout the day with breaks in between. Polling attendees to see how they would like the event to be structured and what topics they would like to see covered is a great place to start. She also suggests offering live panels and small group discussions that provide a more engaging experience for virtual attendees, compared to a traditional general session.
"When going virtual, event professionals tend to think about the best technical solution over the type of content you need to disseminate," said Ponchia. "An inspiring and highly educational event can still be delivered in a virtual format, but you need to adapt the content to the format, the agenda, the topics and presentation style. You also need to bear in mind the personal expectations and needs of online attendees."
Select the Right Platform
After the team has been assembled and the content expectations have been set, it's time to select the digital platform. But doing so can be a bit overwhelming given how many options there are to choose from.
Ponchia recommends deciding whether it will be a hybrid, multi-hub or fully virtual event and paring down the options accordingly. Then, consider the platform elements, including ease of use, networking options and adaptability to different devices.
"The features that your hybrid or digital event should have are vast," said Ponchia. "Some are must-haves and others are optional."
Must-have features include a seamless registration process; integrated agenda, metrics and analytics reports; the ability to run multiple sessions at once; and attendee messaging and contact-exchange capabilities. Other elements, such as discussion forums and the ability to share slides in real time and get transcripts, are nice to have but not necessary and might not be the worth the higher price tag.