Four event professionals share with us how they’re approaching planning hybrid events in 2020
In the last few months, the events industry has enthusiastically embraced virtual events. As social distancing measures are loosening and travel restrictions are slowly being lifted, the possibility of hosting in-person gatherings in the near future is becoming more and more real.
If these last couple of months have taught us anything, it’s that business will not resume as usual—and that might be a good thing, in many ways. As organizers approach events scheduled to take place in late summer or the fall, they must reimagine their gatherings in ways that incorporate health and safety precautions into the rituals of their events. On top of that, planners must factor in a lower attendance rate – as many participants might not be comfortable attending a physical event after a long period of social isolation.
As events writer Victoria Copans explains in Event Manager Blog, virtual events at this point “represent a lifeline for events in the midst of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders.” What we have learned so far about virtual events can help organizers in planning events that combine the very best elements of both in-person and virtual.
But first, where do you begin? How do you approach planning a hybrid event? How do you create a sense of togetherness in an environment where part of your audience might be remote? These are just some of the questions we asked four event professionals who are currently in the process of planning hybrid events.
Are you hosting or planning on hosting a hybrid event? What were the factors that went behind that decision?
Angie Ahrens: Yes, we are hosting one in October. We have historically had hybrid events, but we’re shifting more towards offering individual online tickets versus only group hosting opportunities at remote locations. This is due to the reduction of in person tickets being offered because of government restrictions and safety measures we are putting in place. There might also be further restrictions in the fall.
Niccole Reichel: Yes! Our attendees are global, many traveling from China & South Korea. We want to accommodate those from places where there are no travel policies in place yet.
Shawn Cheng: Yes. Most of my projects are international Congresses. I’m in the process of turning most of my 2021 and 2022 projects into the hybrid model. The reason for doing hybrid but not complete virtual is simply because it’s the best option on the table for our client.
There are many reasons conferences exist, and it’s hard to completely replace in-person events with virtual. But we also understand the reality is tough for international travel and large gatherings for the next few years. The hybrid model is the way for our clients to survive. But honestly, even before COVID, I was a firm believer that the hybrid model should be the default model. As tough as the situation we are in, I am somehow glad to see the switch in the industry, whether most of the people like it or not.
Heather Schneider: We are planning a hybrid event for April 2021. We expect to see a drop in in-person attendance that will be due to budget cuts, county and state-level restrictions, and/or a change in the level of comfort people have with attending large group events. Because we want to be able to reach as much of our client base as possible, it makes sense to implement a hybrid component.
What were some of the questions or concerns you had about hosting a hybrid event?
Angie Ahrens: Most of our questions were concerning whether or not people would attend the virtual event, and what price we should charge for those tickets. We know that we can handle in-person, but how do we make sure that the individual ticket holder who is watching from home is receiving enough of a return on their investment?
Niccole Reichel: We are still in the planning phase. Some questions that have come up are: Cost? Logistics? Vendors? When to pre-record and when to stream? What content should be virtual? When should virtual content be available – live during the meeting or post-event? How do we handle time zones when the live event is east coast time but the audience is global? What are the staff roles when producing a virtual event?
Shawn Cheng: The main challenge is how can we design the attendee experience that matches the value we want to offer to both physical and online audiences. When our event is hybrid, technically, we are designing two events. One for the physical attendant, and one for online. Both events are completely independent, but somehow deeply connected with each other. Another challenge is speaker training. The speaker will need to understand their audience now in different environments. Therefore, the way they deliver their content would need to change.
Heather Schneider: How much will this cost? What sessions should we include? Which sessions will be livestreamed vs. recorded? How can we leverage our existing AV partner to help us? What new initiatives can we tie into the hybrid experience to give our attendees more choice and flexibility?
In a hybrid setting, how do you decide what aspects of the event should be live and what should be virtual?
Angie Ahrens: We sit in the seats of those who are attending. If you are live, what expectations would you have? During the sessions, during the breaks, with other people. And same for those who are watching from the comfort of their home. How long can you sit and watch content, how long should your breaks be, what kind of engagement do you need and want to participate in?
Niccole Reichel: Great question! For now we are looking at professional development sessions that can be easily converted to a webinar. These may be pre-recorded and simulated live for a virtual and in-person audience. An in-person career fair may combine with a virtual one. We haven’t made decisions yet.
Shawn Cheng: This is an “it depends” question. It depends on your objectives, and your audience. It also depends on what your audience’s objectives are, and what percentage of your audience will be watching online instead of live? But in general, here’s what I think we should keep in mind:
- We should not simply stream the entire day online. For a virtual setting, I would say limit your event to 6 hours top because of your audience’s short attention span. Ideally, even keeping it to 2-4 hours per day, contents wise
- The session length should be short. A 60-minute session online is considered long.
- Consider content replay for virtual audiences. For example, record some of your live sessions and replay it on the virtual platform later. This is a good strategy for international congress because you can take care of your global audience.
Heather Schneider: Cost is a big factor. Also, logistically, it’s in our best interest to livestream only select sessions like the keynote and some general sessions. We plan on having a news anchor desk-style setup that will provide commentary and special interviews to our virtual audience so that they can remain engaged during onsite breaks and other moments that the virtual audience would miss out on if they were not onsite.
It’s also worth considering which events should be live-streamed in order to drive traffic. Once you have their attention, they will be more likely to stay and consume other content or network with peers.
What does audience engagement look like in a hybrid setting?
Angie Ahrens: There is social media engagement on platforms, but when streaming, having an engaged emcee is extremely important. Having questions asked and an opportunity for virtual audiences to respond, to interact is crucial. You also need to ensure that event content meant for live settings, translates just as well to screens.
Shawn Cheng: It’s like watching a competition TV show, like The Voice. The speaker will need to engage with the live audience in the room, but also somehow engage the people watching online. In some way, you need to pay more attention to the online audience because they are more likely to be distracted. Polling-Q&A,-short stories, and repeat. The speaker is not allowed to just read their PowerPoint for 45 minutes non-stop in the hybrid setting.
Heather Schneider: Utilizing chat and Q&A are obvious ones but it’s also important to make sure that any live streamed sessions includes Q&A where questions come from both the in-person audience and the virtual audience. We also plan to incorporate a 1:1 and small group meeting offering, like braindates, so that attendees can meet and it will not matter if they are onsite, in their home office, or even in their hotel room (while attending the event). We want to give attendees the opportunity to network with each other while feeling safe and comfortable, no matter where that means they are connecting from.
In an event where part of your audience could be participating virtually, how do you create a sense of community?
Angie Ahrens: Through digital platforms, like an app where people can still connect over interests and needs, and it doesn’t have to be face to face. Gamification within apps tends to be helpful.
Shawn Cheng: Give them purpose. It could be a challenge that we hope to solve at the event, that requires participation from everyone, whether you’re in the room or watching the event online. We could also invite our audience, both in-person and virtual, to share their stories around a common theme. We need to give people a reason to be emotionally connected with the event.
Heather Schneider: It’s important to make sure your virtual audience can participate. Simply allowing them to view what is occurring on-site is not enough. By giving them the opportunity to connect with other attendees and ask questions in real time we give them a sense of coming together and connecting, no matter where they are located. We also intend to create a sense of exclusivity in the virtual community by delivering virtual access-only interviews, and other special surprises — a Song Division song closing for each day, maybe?!
What are some of the exciting opportunities that have come out of or will come out of a hybrid event context?
Angie Ahrens: More individuals will receive the content if you open it up to those who can’t travel. My hope is events will become more sustainable due to a reduced carbon footprint. Organizations will need to really focus on why they meet, and ensure they clearly get that message across. In person meetings won’t go away – I don’t want them to go away by any means – but more reach is always a great thing.
Shawn Cheng: I think the most exciting thing, and also the scariest thing is, you can’t afford to have boring events anymore. If people do not need to come to your event to learn or to make business deals, the event needs to evolve. We need to find the irreplaceable values that motivate people to come to your event. Secondly, you are able to broaden your audience pool in a hybrid setting. Your content is not limited to only those who can travel to your event anymore.
Heather Schneider: Our client base is extremely budget focused so being able to reach a broader audience will allow us to provide educational sessions to far more people than we typically can in-person. Instead of an agency having to pick only one person per year to attend our conference, now they’ll be able to ‘send’ a larger group to the event without having to incur all of the travel expenditures that go along with an in-person event.
That said, there is nothing that can replace the in-person experience. We believe that by allowing clients to get a taste of our event via the virtual offering, they will be more motivated to attend the in-person events that take place in the future.
1. Considering the existing travel restrictions and health concerns, hybrid events are for many event planners, the best means of moving forward: This is because hybrid events can not only accommodate larger, more global audiences, but also can also combine the best elements of in-person and virtual events.
2. While planners have many logistical questions around planning hybrid events, a big concern is designing an experience that provides equal value to both in-person and virtual audience at the event.
3. Deciding what elements of your hybrid event will be physical versus virtual depends on your event’s and your audience’s objectives for the event.
4. High engagement at a hybrid event means creating opportunities, via technology, for your virtual and in-person audiences to interact with each other.
5. In order to create a sense of community at your hybrid event, you need to give your audience a common purpose, or create moments where participants can engage with the event content, and with each other — no matter where they are. You might consider including elements like gamification, live polling, or technology such as Braindate for this.