As industry pros try to predict what the future of events will look like post-COVID, most agree that some type of virtual or digital component will need to be included in almost every event going forward—whether that’s a live stream or a more robust social media presence.
Health and safety concerns aside, event attendees have now grown to expect a Zoom call (although we may be sick of them), on-demand content, or even just a fun Instagram fill-in-the-blank as part of the experience. This is why hybrid events are destined to be the new normal.
Amy Pooser, Convene’s global chief operating officer and chief people officer, says that the New York space has been receiving an increase in requests for hybrid meetings to be held at the end of this year and into 2021.
“Many of our clients who planned to host in-person meetings in November and December and into 2021 are now reaching out to discuss what it could look like in the case that they had some or all of their audience in a virtual environment,” she says. “This is a trend we are seeing continue to increase—planners are trying to contingency plan around the fact that, until there is a vaccine, an in-person event may need to pivot to hybrid or even completely virtual at any given moment leading up to the event.”
Carolyn McCammon, director of commercial services at The Confidante Miami Beach, has also seen a greater demand for hybrid events, not only for corporate meetings but also for social events. “We see this trend moving well into 2021, as this increases the number of attendees you are able to reach and is also a cost-saving measure.”
Read on to learn more about this two-for-one format and how you can plan a hybrid event.
What is a hybrid event?
Hybrid events combine both in-person and virtual experiences, as opposed to just strictly one or the other. These events allow organizers to reach the greatest number of attendees by offering a low barrier of entry. That’s because participants won’t be required to travel, which they might not be able to do due to health concerns or budgetary and time restrictions. Also, a hybrid event allows you to host more folks even if the venue has limited capacity, so this strategy can cut costs (by using a smaller venue) as well as help reduce your carbon footprint. Plus, hybrid events provide sponsors more bang for their buck since you’ll be able to offer both on-site and digital marketing opportunities.
What to consider when planning a hybrid event
Typically, trade shows, conferences, and town halls make the most sense as a virtual/ on-site event, and many companies and brands such as Cisco have been offering a version of this concept at their annual gatherings for years. Of course, as we’ve all recently learned, not everything translates well into a virtual event. For example, product launches where attendees need to touch and feel the item can be a tricky experience to offer digitally.
Plus, folks will be craving face-to-face interaction even more now, so when it comes to planning consider how and if your event can do double duty. “It’s important to remember that physical events don’t translate one-for-one into a virtual experience,” Pooser says. “You want the experience to be equitable, but that doesn’t mean identical. …We’re finding that many planners aren’t adjusting their in-person event to take into account the user experience on the virtual side. Hybrid needs to be all about the audience experience—whether that audience is in a meeting room or at their dining room table.”
Pooser says she takes cues from TV—a popular game show in particular—when planning a winning event. “I like thinking about hybrid events like we’re shooting an episode of The Price is Right. You have your live, studio audience and your much larger virtual audience.” With this in mind, there are several elements you’ll need to assess when it comes to going hybrid:
Timing: Are the sessions short enough to hold a virtual attendee’s attention? “With your at-home audience, you’re competing with whatever is in their living room,” Pooser says. “Keep your segments relatively short, so you don’t lose their attention. You’ll also want to give your at-home audience the benefit of ‘commercial breaks’—time to stand up, go to the bathroom, get a snack, or attend to whatever else may be distracting them.”
Also, remember to think about from where (and when) your audience will be tuning in. Not all of the attendees might be able to watch the keynote address as it’s delivered live, so consider posting recorded content or offering the same sessions at different times.
Programming: Does the programming engage both virtual and on-site attendees? Pooser warns against “copying and pasting” your in-person agenda for the virtual version. “Time and time again we see viewing numbers dip as the program goes on and on. To ensure that your audience watches and engages with the content you produce, be sure to give them natural breaks or even spread the programming out over multiple days. While eight-hour events were standard in the physical realm, sitting for eight hours at a desk, after having sat there for the past five months can become arduous and disinteresting leading your audience to tune out. No one wants to be at their desk for eight hours in a digital environment.”
Visuals: Do you need to tweak the staging to accommodate a live stream? “No one wants to stare at a static image of four talking heads. Even something as simple as switching between two camera angles, cutting between speakers, and panning to show the in-person crowd will go a long way toward making your content more visually appealing for the folks at home,” Pooser explains.
Engagement: “Make sure both of your audiences feel like they’re part of the same show,” Pooser says. “When you’re watching The Price is Right, everyone is very aware that there are two audiences, and [the host] does a great job of speaking to both. The host talks about the virtual audience, looks directly into the camera to engage with the virtual audience, and asks the live audience members to send messages to ‘the folks at home.’”
Also, will the virtual attendees participate in on-site discussions or will you offer a digital-only option? Pooser says that networking is a common client request, “as they want the in-person audience to be able to interact in an authentic way with the virtual audience.” To this end, Convene employs engagement features that work for both audiences including polling and Q&A capabilities that are embedded into the virtual platform and are also accessible via a smartphone. “We don’t want our virtual attendees to feel like they’re missing out because they can’t raise their hand to ask a question in person,” she explains.
Cost: Pooser says that the cost of a hybrid event doesn’t vary that much from an in-person meeting. In theory, if you’re hosting a smaller in-person crowd, you would be saving on F&B, but those funds are then reallocated to a streaming platform and other necessities. “If you really want a highly produced event that translates well digitally, cameras are key, and you could potentially need multiple roaming cameras to capture different stage angles and perspectives,” Pooser says.
And if your on-site event remains the same pre-COVID size, you’ll need to tack on extra for the virtual elements, but you might be able to make up the difference in virtual attendee revenue and sponsorship money. Also, keep in mind that you may want to offer the virtual experience at a lower price point, if you’re not able to provide the same comparable value to the on-site experience.
What event tech do you need:
Because of the increase in demand for virtual and hybrid events, venues like Convene and The Confidante Miami Beach have amped up their meetings offerings. For example, McCammon says that during its recent meeting space enhancement project in 2019, The Confidante increased its bandwidth, offering high-speed wireless on a complimentary basis. The upgrade allows clients to stream from multiple meeting rooms without worrying about a spotty signal. The meeting spaces are also equipped with built-in screen and wireless projection for virtual sessions. Plus, the hotel boasts a “Meeting Owl” camera, a 360-degree, voice-activated conferencing camera that allows operators to feature any area of the room.
“The biggest requests our clients have are seamless streaming and enhanced bandwidth capabilities,” McCammon says. “Natural light is also important to clients as this helps with the quality of images being streamed. And of course the biggest request is that they have the technical support they need from our audiovisual team on their event day.”
To handle this new normal, Convene created a whole new position—Virtual Meeting Producers (VMP)—to offer some human support to meeting and event planners. The venue space also offers the tools to build a customizable event website, which is key for a hybrid event. (You’ll want to create separate registration paths for your in-person and virtual attendees so they can sign up for the right sessions.) Convene also provides an admin portal that allows planners to evaluate analytics in real time, so they can monitor how attendees are engaging with the event.
As planners continue to contend with restrictions on venue capacity due to physical distancing guidelines, hybrid events offer a way to extend the reach of an event to a potentially unlimited remote audience without sacrificing safety or the experience.