Today’s Top Industry Experts Explain How to Host Successful Hybrid Events
As we look to the future of events, it’s important to think about how the past year is going to shape the industry in both the short- and long-term. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, previously in-person events had to be entirely transformed into fully virtual experiences out of necessity. Yet as we begin planning for the end of 2021 and beyond, there will always be an imperative to capture the uniquely social and communal aspect inherent to in-person experiences, and as we look ahead, the industry is beginning to see the advantages of hybrid events, which combine the distinct value of in-person with the convenience and reach of online experiences.
Think of events as though they were on a spectrum; on one end is a purely virtual experience with no in-person component at all, and similarly, on the opposite end is an in-person event with no digital offering whatsoever. In the middle, however, lies hybrid events.
And within that vast area in the middle, there are a number of forms hybrid events can take. For example, digital offerings can be minimal, with the primary focus of the event being the in-person component, or the event can be nearly all digital with a small in-person component. Regardless of the approach, there are a number of considerations and nuances when it comes to putting on a successful hybrid event that engages attendees and builds a lasting and interactive event community.
In this article we talk to three industry experts, Timothy LaFleur, CMP, Technology Solutions Lead at Cisco Systems, Sarah Michel, CSP, VP of Professional Connexity at Velvet Chainsaw, and Keith Johnston, Managing Partner at i3 Events to get their insights on the state of the events industry, and to get their take on how to harness hybrid events going forward.
Meet The Experts
The Rise of Virtual, The Power of In-Person, & The Growing Demand for Hybrid Events
With the onset of the pandemic, it was remarkable how quickly the event industry adapted to the changing reality of the world. By leveraging technology and embracing new ideas, the agility displayed by event organizers set a new standard for events that will live on within the industry for years to come.
“I have been blown away at the ability—when things are done well—when there’s platforms that leverage chat, set up small meeting rooms, and create spaces for meaningful connection. Events can be executed, virtually, quite well,” says Sarah Michel. “I get feedback all the time from attendees that have more introverted preferences that say, ‘I’ve never felt more heard. I’ve never felt like my needs were ever met in a face-to-face meeting that are now being met here. Please don’t ever change.’”
What the past year has demonstrated is that all of these approaches to events: in-person, all-virtual, or a hybrid of the two, have unique value. Going forward, event organizers have the ability to leverage different aspects of all of these event types to create the most successful events based on their unique needs and to support their distinctive business objectives. As vaccination continues to be widely available and broad reopening measures are put in place, we’re entering an inflection point of what events can and will be in the second half of 2021 and beyond.
“People still want to connect [at live events],” says Timothy LaFleur, Technology Solutions Lead at Cisco. “People are still going to want to see people face-to-face. People are still going to want to have that experience of meeting somebody live. That will always be there.”
Experts’ Guidance & Key Considerations for Navigating the World of Hybrid Events
Hybrid events are unique, because by definition they cater to two types of audiences, remote and in-person. The truth is, when it comes to planning a hybrid event, our experts agree that it’s really planning two events simultaneously: an in-person event and a virtual event. This basic fact can lead to divergent approaches and considerations depending on an event itself.
“When people ask me, ‘How do I get good at hybrid?,’” says Michel. “My first response is, ‘Are you really good at digital [or virtual events]?’ If you don’t know how to run a virtual meeting or event, you’re going to fail at hybrid.”
“The biggest challenge that I think many event planners are going to face—and it’s not a challenge—it’s a challenge that’s in their head,” says Keith Johnston. “They think that they’re going to have to replicate the live experience in the virtual world. They’re absolutely destroying themselves trying to do that. I think it’s very important for everyone to understand that, no matter what the virtual platforms tell you, you can’t. You cannot fully replicate the in-person experience in a virtual world. So, don’t try. That being said, both [in-person and online event experiences] can be extremely successful.”
One of the foremost considerations when it comes to hybrid events is connecting remote audiences with in-person audiences to facilitate networking and foster community. Because at the end of the day, events are as much about creating connections, as they are consuming content. How to create networking opportunities that drive attendee value, whether online-to-online networking, in-person-to-online networking, or both, is the hardest part of any hybrid event. Part of the key to overcoming this challenge in order to create those connections is identifying “mesh points,” where both audiences are engaging with the same content alongside each another.
“What is the message, or theme, you are wanting to resonate, and where do we want to engage [the attendees] is where I would start with it,” LaFleur says. “Is there a message that lends itself both to the online and in-person attendees and would it resonate the same? And, if the answer is going to be ‘No,’ then I wouldn’t mesh those two points together and instead look for different ways and opportunities to reach those two audiences in their own unique attendee journey.”
Even though hybrid events can appear to be complex, singular experiences, they can also merely be an in-person event with a digital event that covers the same ground for a virtual audience. One workaround that can serve to engage virtual audiences is leveraging asynchronous video; it doesn’t require real-time live streaming or additional production and can still deliver on-demand content to remote, or online, attendees.
“We’re going to video capture what happens in the session,” Michel explains, “and then we’re going to host a scheduled replay and invite the speakers back in chat, and we’ll have a shared social learning experience watching what happened live the day before with the opportunity to interact in chat with the speakers; so that’s one example of a common workaround.”
The truth is, when it comes to creating connections among virtual and in-person audiences at hybrid events, there is no one “silver bullet” for success. Don’t be afraid to get creative and leverage whatever technologies, approaches, and internal support you can that can serve to bridge those worlds, and deploy them at the points that make the most sense for your team and your event’s attendees.
Event organizers looking to create a unified experience for virtual and in-person audiences face a bit more involved endeavor. A major part of executing a more unified hybrid event experience is investing in the right people and support, particularly for the speakers, moderators, and presenters, who also need to be specifically chosen, trained, and equipped to successfully engage with a hybrid event audience.
“It’s not simply any speaker that can get up and do this,” Michel says. “It’s a skill set. It’s like walking and chewing gum and scratching your head at the same time while also standing on one foot. So, you’ve got to coach and support your speakers. Really come at it from an experience design, recognizing that both audiences have different needs.”
“From a speaker perspective, one of the considerations we looked at when going to digital [events] was making sure that they were equipped to be successful. Checking components like, internet, cameras, microphones, lighting, etc. and acclimating them to be able to speak to an audience that isn’t necessarily in front of them and that they can’t see,” LaFleur adds.
Remember, each event is unique, and each audience has different expectations. Understanding your technical capabilities, attendee needs, and event budget is essential before diving into the project, as it can help set guardrails for executing the event to the best of your ability without inadvertently overextending oneself in the process.
“I think people just need to go slow and steady on their first hybrid event,” Johnston recommends.
Best Practices for Leveraging Technology to Power Your Next Hybrid Events
By bringing in trusted technology partners and leveraging the tools you and your team know best, you can set yourself up for a more successful execution overall.
Yet, according to our experts, with the growing number of event technology solutions on the market, it’s important to choose the tools that only include what you and your audience find valuable and avoid getting stuck in the trap of chasing too many shiny objects. As event technology has expanded, functions and capabilities have also expanded, which has created products that can be complicated, especially for less tech-savvy users.
“I think attendees are over every bell and whistle being in every platform,” Johnston says. “Many platforms are getting too complicated for the average person to use.”
Choosing the right technology, particularly when it comes to mobile event apps, can be transformative for a hybrid event, providing attendees access to content and community in a way that bridges the divide between in-person and virtual-only audiences.
“Don’t underestimate the mobile app,” Johnston says. “I think it’s mission critical for the success of any virtual and/or in-person event.”
The ascendance of mobile event apps has in part been aided by technological developments in the field, which have unlocked a whole new world for hybrid events.
“Moving forward, the platform will matter less, and what’s really going to ring the bell is mobile,” Michel says. “As we get into everybody having 5G, I could decide not to go downstairs to the convention, to the actual conference room. I could even watch the keynote streamed on my mobile app, and I could interact with people through the mobile app and never leave my hotel room.”
The increase in mobile and digital connectivity has become something of a double-edged sword, however, particularly among event organizers with a long history of planning in-person events. As virtual audiences are given the ability to consume event content and interact virtually, there is a perceived risk that this type of digital event engagement will serve to cannibalize the in-person audience. This line of thinking does require a mental shift for those looking to put on a hybrid event. For hybrid event organizers, all engagement is good engagement, whether an attendee is watching a keynote speech virtually, or attending an in-person happy hour.
“Stop worrying about what you think is going to happen, because it probably isn’t,” Johnston clarifies.
A Truth Today & Always: Events Are All About Lasting Community & Connection
No matter what form an event ultimately takes, whether it’s in-person, entirely virtual, or a hybrid combination of the two, it’s important to never lose sight of the core objective: fostering connection and community. In-person events, in particular, are inherently well-suited to create meaningful connections; because at the end of the day humans are social creatures, and we’re all biologically wired to thrive on physical socialization.
As we look to the future, in-person events and conferences will likely continue to evolve by incorporating innovative ways to create distinct value for its participants to offset the cost of travel and lodging, as well as the time investment of attending an on-site event.
“Now with in-person events, especially as we come back into ‘21 and early ‘22 when we will likely see a significant return to in-person formats, it’s going to be about networking and community,” Michel says. “If we’re going to come together [in-person], it’s got to be about, ‘How do we make each other better? How do we learn from each other?’ So, it’s going to be more facilitative, and much more discussion-focused. I think you can consume the ‘so what?’ remotely by watching sessions in a virtual event setting, as well as consuming other types of digital content around a topic; so, when you show up in person, the goal should shift to become a forum to discuss the ‘now what?’”
The special value that hybrid and virtual events offer is their ability to help foster community year-round, so when the time comes for in-person or any other type of keystone event to take place, they’re much more impactful, valuable, and engaging. Instead of just relying on one annual event, using the digital event tools and technologies at your disposal creates a stronger, more invested community.
Our experts suggest planning digital follow-up events, or even pre-recorded sessions or content, so you’re increasing event community touchpoints throughout the year. These ongoing digital event experiences serve to expand the reach of your community, so when the next big event comes, your attendee community has grown and remained engaged.
“A virtual event or a live event isn’t what creates your community,” Johnston explains. “What creates your community is what you do the other 364 days a year.”
Embracing the Evolving Nature of Events with Resilience & Resolve
If the past year, or so, has taught us anything, it’s the incredible resilience, which all those in the events industry possess. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was unclear how an industry that thrives on in-person gatherings and connections could go forward. Yet by leveraging new technologies and embracing novel strategies, not only were event marketers and organizers able to allow the show to go on throughout the pandemic, but they also amassed a whole new, valuable skill set that can be utilized going forward, as a result.
“Being somebody that’s very focused on networking and very focused on community building, I was shaken to the core when this [COVID-19] happened,” Michel says. “I was very scared for the meetings and events industry a year ago today. But now, I feel very optimistic and very confident that events and meetings are here to stay; they’re just going to look a little different. And, we’ve learned a lot in the last year, including the fact that we’re smarter than we realize. I think the value of events has never been more proven than it is today, and that’s a really good thing.”