Things are slowly getting better as we draw near towards the next phase after COVID, so we’re all asking new questions like, “Can I do my meeting/conference/event in person? If so, how?” The answer? Sure! Do a hybrid event. But what’s a hybrid event, and what does that look like?
First, what’s a hybrid event?
Simple. It’s a meeting/conference/event where part of your audience and presenters are in the same location, live, and the rest of your audience/presenters are still remote/virtual. The definition is easy. And based on the description alone, many of you have already held hybrid events. But meetings and events produced with a growing live audience, along with a continued virtual audience, is a wonderful new challenge.
There are many benefits to hosting these events, such as increased attendance from those who have less time for travel, higher retention rates due to the increased engagement with content, and an opportunity to get feedback on your product or service before it becomes available to the public. However, some challenges come along with this type of event too!
Here are some considerations and ideas:
There is a percentage of your audience who will come to your event in person no matter what.
By attending in person, they will reap the rewards of the “all-powerful in-person experience.” Networking, relationship building, socializing. These are the time-tested reasons why people attend meetings/events/conferences. Nothing replaces looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand, and being there in person to read people. So, to quote one of my favorite movies, “if you build it, they will come.”
And if you build it, be very clear about the measures you and your venue will need to ensure a safe environment.
Cleaning, air purifiers, ample space for socially distant seating, how meals will be served, and if/when/where masks will be mandatory. I can’t think of a hotel or convention center that isn’t jumping at the opportunity to prove how they can provide a safe in-person environment. Work with your venue partners to provide clear information to your attendees on what the venue is doing to keep everyone safe.
There’s also a portion of people, especially for the next six to nine months, who will not attend in person. No matter what.
As an industry, we have become quite good at providing meeting and conference experiences virtually. And as a society, we’ve gotten used to it. Social distancing is the norm, and like it or not; it’s the way we’re now comfortable interacting. For me, just walking into a restaurant that’s socially distanced but at capacity raises my guard. And because of this normalizing of socially distant practices, virtual audiences will persist. I believe from now on, we will always have a portion of our audience who will attend virtually for a variety of reasons.
So, what to do?
For your virtual attendees, make the virtual experience as “live” as possible, and provide content the in-person audience can’t get. In other words, you want to try and make a virtual experience as worthwhile as the in-person. Why? Because in-person will always be better, but you don’t want to alienate your virtual attendees. And because you’re producing an in-person experience, it can enhance the virtual experience. Some things I’m considering are:
Make the in-person ballrooms virtual friendly.
Place streaming cameras in different locations like the back of the room to see the audience and the stage. Or place cameras in a few other audience seats and let the virtual viewer choose the view they like the best. Virtual viewers get their choice of seats.
Award ceremonies can be terminally long.
But now that the world is more virtual why not make your awards more virtual? I’ve done this with an organization that has hundreds of awards at their conference. And the attendees liked the change—lots of participation and positive comments.
Do special, virtual-only interviews of keynote speakers, organizational leadership, and special guests.
- For example, if your conference hires any name entertainment, you could do a short interview that’s only for the virtual audience.
- Use audience participation apps that allow chat, audience polling, etc., that can be used both by the in-person audience and by the virtual audience.
- Gamification is popular. Why not join one in-person and one virtual attendee as a team. And make some of the tasks or info required for a team to score high be information that only virtual attendee can provide.
- If you’re holding a tradeshow, have volunteers or staff commit to being the “feet on the floor.” Virtual attendees can schedule a time to video call/Facetime/etc. an in-person volunteer and have the volunteer walk and talk with exhibitors for the virtual attendee. Finally, virtual attendees can walk a tradeshow floor!
- Networking is tough to mix in-person and virtual effectively. But why not craft situations where in-person and virtual attendees can have pre-arranged small group discussions on a specific topic?
- At keynotes and large breakout sessions, have at least one or two questions brought in via live video from a remote virtual audience member.
- With social media, it’s already integrated. Just show and share the live and virtual equally. The key is to incorporate both audiences as much as possible and make their experiences worthwhile.
Many of us pine for the old days when we all traveled and gathered by the hundreds or thousands in the name of our company, industry, or conference. And we will do so again. But it will be different. Going forward there will always be a percentage of people who join virtually. It’s part of who we are as a society and industry now. But let’s work to make the in-person or virtual experience inclusive and memorable.
Chris Cherek is a freelance Producer/Writer/Creative Director who has worked in the meeting and events business for decades. As a resource to David James Group, Chris has helped provide live and virtual programs that are on message and cause a positive stir with client audiences.