You’re likely seeing more invitations to in-person events, whether they be small, intimate networking affairs, or larger conference-style shows. Everyone is slowly emerging from a year of self-isolation protocols and tentatively starting to explore how to navigate airports, standing in line for food, registering for events or planning to attend in-person training again. While there is still some uncertainty around how quickly people can revert to “normal”, we know that in-person events are coming back, but possibly not in the same way that we remembered them.
Time in the “virtual” event world has changed how many organizations and event planners approach conferences, training events and even networking activities. Digital channels and apps that made it easier to connect last year are likely here to stay, and with it, the preferences and habits that people have developed over this timeframe. Think about your own online habits when it comes to meetings that run more than an hour. Before the pandemic, it seemed ridiculous to be on the same zoom meeting for more than 60 minutes – but now, attending a virtual event via a webinar or similar app for half the day doesn’t seem so unusual. What’s more is that people have become accustomed to remaining in front of their screens for extended periods of time and have even built some routine habits out of it. What’s notable is that professionals have realized that they can learn concepts and participate in discussions without needing a travel budget to be with their peers, session leaders and keynote speakers in person.
Virtual events over the past 18 months have racked up impressive “wins”. Increased “attendance” as content and programming are made more accessible to an audience that may not have previously had the budget to travel onsite. More virtual participation in the form of website visits, downloadable content, social media posts, and long chat room transcripts are all indicators of successful virtual events. At first, trying to replicate the in-person experience digitally, was the initial strategy of planners scrambling to get their events ready. A lot of emphasis was placed on trying to replicate the “welcome hall’, having digital booths for sponsors, games, and prizes to attract crowds. Attendees could create avatars and digital badges and “connect” virtually with other attendees.
While initially considered a success, additional metrics zeroing in on actual participation and engagement found that attendee attention spans were short, and the distractions were many. Those working from home and sharing their home offices with families, opted out of sessions later in the day, or skip networking events like virtual happy hours. If the content wasn’t captivating enough or not exactly what the attendee expected, attendance levels dropped before the session wrapped up. With live events, if you’re in a room listening to a presenter and the session isn’t quite what you thought it would be, you’re less likely to physically leave the room. With a virtual event, you can click out of a browser and go to another session – or worse, multi-task and check your inbox – not the ideal level of engagement hoped by planners.
Hybrid Events – the best of both worlds
What organizations and event planners have concluded is that the future of successful events lies in combining the very best elements of both in-person and virtual events. Instead of trying to replicate the same type of event in a physical and digital format, event planners are carefully watching data patterns and behaviors to identify the specific activities that create a truly experiential experience whether it be in-person or remote. To that end, there are 5 specific elements that can influence a truly effective hybrid event:
#1 – Compelling Content & Programming
If you have compelling keynotes, informative sessions, effective speakers, and generally interesting tracks, you’re more likely to draw people to register and attend (both in person and virtually). It’s important to recognize that virtual programming is very “competitive” – you’re literally competing against another browser tab, the email inbox, or mobile text messages – activities that are usually curbed during in-person events. Creating engaging programming for your hybrid event requires you to create demand for your content. If your in-person event is exactly the same as your virtual programming you’re likely to erode your physical attendance rates – after all, why spend the money to attend in person, when you can get the same information by staying at your desk, or just downloading the content once the event is over? You’ll often see effective programming presented in a way that gives the attendee a compelling reason to try to attend BOTH the in-person event as well as get access to the virtual tracks. This is where event planners may look at their original event format and tailor tracks based on previous attendee behavior.
You’ll often see attempts to showcase content that isn’t duplicative, but instead complementary. Either a virtual, invite-only pre-event session, or a post-show activity for those who missed the original session. While some sessions are delivered in a lecture style format, “virtual” debates have increased in popularity as they bring an interactive element while remaining relatively easy to produce. It’s important to remember that while in-person sessions require their own set up in terms of a room, microphone, lighting and a lectern, virtual sessions require some production talent as well. However you plan to combine your sessions, either leading into a dedicated day of in-person programming or broadcasting pre-recorded content to virtual guests, you’ll definitely need to push your technology planning and focus to the next level.
#2 – Technology is Key
Virtual components are all about the technology game. If you’re pre-recording your sessions, factors such as video and sound quality are key, even if you don’t have the budget to do a lot of fancy video editing. You’ll want to consider the type of virtual experience you want to deliver. Do you want to live stream your event to your virtual audience? Have you selected a software application that allows you to broadcast your pre-recorded sessions to appear live? If so, make sure you’ve planned for tech support on the day you plan to stream. You’ll also want to make sure your presenters log in early and are familiar with all the features they need. After having more free time under our belts, when it comes to virtual events mistakes and technical glitches are more noticeable now. Attendees are less forgiving than they were 18 months ago. As with any event, live or virtual, plan to have your back up contingency plans in place. If you’re working with a specific vendor or meeting space, make sure they have the resources to support your event format and vision for the ideal hybrid experience. Continuity becomes increasingly important when you diversify your event format and you’ll want to work with a partner that understands the vision for your hybrid event, while supporting your efforts to tie the full experience together for those attending in person or virtually.
Think of ways to connect your in-person and remote audiences using the technology and apps available to all. If you’re in a venue that is fully wired with Wi-Fi, why not explore AR (Augmented Reality) through mobile phones apps in a single session? There are a lot of different ways to create unique experiences that connect both sets of audiences.
#3 – Digital Access and Accessibility
Planning for the future matters, which makes your reliance on technology more important. Make sure that your sessions are recorded in their entirety – even if you don’t plan to release the recorded content to attendees, you might want to use the footage for post-show promotions and follow up. If you are making it a point to have your virtual attendees register for access to digital material, make sure you’ve accounted for a high quality rendered video, as well as an easy way to download large files. It’s important to ensure that digital content is produced in a way that is accessible for the vast audience. A benefit of virtual events is that they are far more accessible to those who require additional assistance, so ensuring that your programming has visual and hearing-impaired support is very important. Consider closed captioning displayed simultaneously for live events or videos. Hybrid events provide opportunities to create authentic, unique experiences that can be inclusive for all, so be sure to lean into that.
#4 – Know Your Audience
The key here is to remember that hybrid events will appeal to a wider audience, so you might be attracting those who have never attended your events in the past. Understanding the behavior patterns of introverts and extroverts will make a difference when it comes to planning your networking activities. The past 18 months have revealed that while in-person events forced introverts into a room to network and talk to others, virtual events provide a very appealing option for them to opt out (in a positive way of course). This results in lower attendance rates for virtual social events like happy hours or networking. Event planners have an opportunity to create an experience through their hybrid events which appeals to both types of audiences – those that want to interact in person, and those that prefer the virtual or more socially distanced activities. Not only can you create an experience that keeps everyone happy, the options available are more budget friendly since you can refine your spend to reflect accurate in person versus virtual attendee numbers.
#5 – Work with the Right Space
Continuity in a hybrid event becomes very important for event planners looking to manage in-person and virtual programming. The most effective hybrid experiences are those that use their resources to weave an interactive experience throughout the event for both tracks. How do you do this effectively? Partner with a vendor who has the physical space to accommodate both large and small events. Consider using smaller breakout rooms for those attending in-person – this works well for training, team building or networking events. Look for venues that offer both indoor and outdoor spaces in the same location with the flexibility to break up the monotony of the traditional, one room event. Moving your in-person attendees to different spaces, then “dialing in” your virtual attendees ensures the remote component of your event doesn’t feel like an afterthought. Integrated rooms which allow you to connect large screens, projector and solid Wi-Fi will amplify the experience overall.
Planning the Experience Will Deliver Results
While it may take additional effort to incorporate virtual elements into your live event, there is value in the return. Putting together an effective hybrid event will increase your overall attendance and brand awareness. Focus on your content to meet the needs of your virtual audience while keeping them engaged. You’ll likely find that you’re being more effective with your event budget and have access to more data. Hybrid events are here to stay, so be sure to find the right venue partner who can accommodate the overall experience seamlessly.