Over the course of the last 90+ days, virtual events have taken centre stage. The pandemic forced the global meetings and events industry to find new ways to drive engagement and keep the show running – all without bringing people together in-person. The answer was virtual events. This crisis has highlighted something those of us in the industry already knew: The value of face-to-face interaction will never go away. But there are times, as we have seen, when going virtual is a necessary part of any event programme.
So, now that the pandemic has seemed to bottom out, lockdowns are being lifted, and in-person events are on the horizon (check on local regulations for size and capacity restrictions for venues that are now open for events), what’s next? In a word, hybrid. Hybrid events – or events that incorporate elements of both the in-person and virtual experience into one blended event – are the future. And not just during this interim recovery phase, but likely for the foreseeable future. Three-plus months of nothing but virtual events have given us deep insight into the value virtual experiences can bring to the overall event experience. Now that in-person events are coming back, event organisers should be looking to capitalise on their virtual event expertise by offering it is an added element of their in-person events moving forward.
There are a number of reasons why event organisers should be focused on offering hybrid events. For one, it gives attendees the flexibility to experience the event in a way that suits their needs and preferences. As cities and regions start to reopen, comfort levels for attending events will be varied. Some delegates will be keen on the idea of connecting with their peers in-person, while others will be less so. By offering both the in-person and virtual experience, you’re accommodating your attendees’ needs – key for maximising the potential of your event and for driving repeat attendees.
Second, hybrid events mean more registrations, expanded reach, and in the end, bigger impact. The delegates who want to be at your event in-person will always make it a point to do so. Those who are on the fence – or who have travel constraints – are the ones a hybrid event really caters to. In this recovery phase, not only will personal comfort levels impact in-person event attendance, budgetary constraints will also come into play. Every single industry has been impacted by this pandemic. As such, budgets are tighter, and every penny spent will be scrutinised. By offering a free, or discounted, virtual experience, event organisers will be able to capture hundreds, even thousands more registrants than an in-person only event would typically attract. So, with these added benefits and opportunities that hybrid events offer, it will be critical for event organisers to deliver a truly impactful experience for both the in-person and virtual attendee.
How to make the most of your hybrid events
- Make sure you have the right technology. With hybrid events, the overall event complexity is higher than ever. Hybrid events require higher levels of video production and planning so that virtual attendees are provided a similar quality to in-person attendees, meaning event organisers will need to go beyond just having a streaming service hooked up for online session consumption, but rather plan a comprehensive virtual agenda that caters to keeping the virtual attendee engaged and informed. Additional technologies such as a mobile event app and online event experience “hub” are critical for keeping both in-person and virtual attendees engaged.
- Embrace the event technologist. With the increased level of event complexity, event organisers who have not traditionally focused on the virtual experience may find it beneficial to hire a technology expert – who has a background in meetings and events. Event technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace and as such, the “event technologist” role is fast becoming a necessity for many organisations that run robust event programmes. Bringing a specialist onboard allows event organisers to focus on the in-person event, while partnering with someone who can focus on the virtual side as well.
- Plan the in-person and virtual experiences concurrently, but also, separately. This sounds confusing, but really, it comes down to this: make sure you’re planning a cohesive event, but keep in mind that the virtual and in-person experiences will need to be planned individually – as well as collectively. They are unique offerings and should be treated as such.
- Focus on great content and speakers. Just like with in-person events – the focus should always be on offering a comprehensive agenda with exciting speakers, and great content, that resonate with your target audience.
- Navigate networking in the “new normal.” People attend events for two main reasons: to learn and to network. And offering valuable networking opportunities can be extraordinarily difficult for hybrid events if you don’t have the right technology in place. Virtual breakout sessions can be leveraged for happy hours and coffee breaks, live Q&A and in-session polling can help to drive in-event engagement, and mobile event apps with real-time chat functionality helps to support increased interaction between delegates.
- Start small and then scale. Event organisers should start their hybrid offerings small. Maybe offer 25 per cent of the agenda for the virtual experience for the first few events and use it as a test run. Analyse what worked and what didn’t. Collect attendee feedback and make improvements. Then scale up – but remember, be strategic about which elements of your events should be made virtual, and which should be just for onsite attendees.