As the meeting industry continues to evolve during its post-recession recovery, one significant new trend is the increase in the use of hybrid meetings that cater to two distinctly different kinds of audiences — live and virtual. In order to be successful, planners need to understand the unique needs and challenges involved in helping speakers and presenters deliver maximum impact, based on the underlying objectives of the event.
“You have to plan for two audiences having two different kinds of experiences,” explains Troutdale, OR-based veteran speaker Roger Courville, author of “The Virtual Presenter’s Handbook” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009) and the former president of the Oregon chapter of the National Speakers Association. “That’s a meeting planner problem and a speaker problem. And both of you have to address the challenges.”
The speaker, Courville says, needs to be fully aware that there is a second audience and plan very clearly for how they’re going to engage that virtual audience. At the same time, however, the planner and presenter must carefully plan for maximum impact at the live event, too.
“If there is a mistake or shortcoming, it starts before the meeting, because you have to start the process by designing a new experience that is tailored to a specific goal,” Courville says. “And a big part of that is always thinking through how you are going to engage people and bring them into the conversation.”
At the heart of that mission is a fundamental requirement for careful planning of how attendees — live and virtual — will be equipped with the essential information they need in order for the goals of the meeting to be met and success to be measured. “And one of the things I would suggest, as a speaker and presenter, that planners can do more effectively would be to ask — if not prod — the speaker about how they can help design that new experience, and what supporting information before, at and after the event is required to be able to do that.”
Chris Kelly, co-founder and principal of New York City-based Convene, which operates state-of-the-art offsite meeting venues in Manhattan, has been directly involved in the ongoing maturation and evolution of hybrid meetings. As a result, he has identified another obvious key to success.
“One of the things that we find that is basic but is often forgotten or overlooked is proper preparation, which requires a walkthrough with the speakers,” Kelly says. “What we have found time and time again, regardless of how many times the speaker has made similar presentations before, is that doing a simple walkthrough and getting the presenter familiar with whatever the presentation method is — meaning how things are set up and will be executed — often is the single most effective way to mitigate against problems with the presentation.”
It’s also a proven method for making sure the speaker clearly understands the goals of the meeting and how those should be translated into the presentation.
Given those kinds of practical considerations, Nicholas Cox, Convene’s director of technology, stresses that comprehensive rehearsals are another key to success. “Ideally, you want to do a lot of formal rehearsals, to make sure that both the live and virtual components go as planned,” he says. “The basic idea is to make sure that the experience is essentially the same for both the live and virtual audiences within the context of the meeting. And part of that is making sure that audio levels are right and that your bandwidth allows the right speed of delivery to your virtual audience so nothing is delayed or disrupted. And accomplishing that sameness of experience, in real time, requires a very formal, quality-control process.”
There probably aren’t many meeting planners left in the industry who do not grasp the notion that the catch phrase of the last few years has been “attendee engagement.”
However, Cox says, there are quite a few who still do not fully understand the differences between engaging a live attendee and a virtual participant.
By definition, he notes, the methods and quality of engagement are fundamentally different for live and virtual audiences. “That’s one reason why so many companies still want to have only live meetings, where they have face-to-face engagement,” he says. “That’s because in a virtual meeting, there are only two dimensions — audio and video. You don’t have the human element that you do in a face-to-face meeting. So you have to know how to compensate for that to get the same results from a virtual audience in terms of engagement.”
For example, Convene preaches the need for a dedicated person in the live audience who will act as the onsite representative of and advocate for virtual attendees.
“The reason that is important is because the people who are at the event physically tend to take precedence with their questions and comments over the virtual audience,” Kelly says. “So the best way to prevent that or correct for that is to have someone who actually represents the virtual audience and makes sure they are equally engaged and heard.”
That advocate can field questions and comments from a live Twitter feed or Facebook page and relay them to the presenter. In another variation, tweets from both live and virtual attendees can be prominently displayed for everyone to see and react to, which in turn drives a deeper level of collective engagement.
However, Kelly says, one hard-learned caveat for many planners is that while there are an ever-increasing number of technology options that can produce very dynamic events, the greatest audience engagement comes when the program or app interacts with the technology that participants are already most familiar and comfortable with. “As opposed to adding additional or new technology onto the conference platform,” Kelly says, “we like to think in terms of what kinds of tools are already in play with a particular group of attendees that we can adapt to the conference, instead of asking what kind of crazy new technology we can impose upon the audience.”
His point is that often the simpler the technology, the better the results. “Instead of looking for what’s newest and most technologically advanced, planners really should look for the lowest common denominator based on who their audience is, their relative degree of technological sophistication, and the tools they know best and are most comfortable with,” Kelly says.
Another unfolding realization among meeting planners responsible for staging hybrid meetings and making sure presentations go off without a hitch is an understanding of ever more complex technical challenges.
For example, Cox says, the available bandwidth in many hotels and meeting venues — and the cost of accessing it — is a fundamental issue that must be analyzed and addressed. Related to that is the reality that with regard to the delivery of problem-free hybrid meetings, a venue is by definition only as good as its capabilities.
The rapid evolution of Wi-Fi technology and the numerous types of devices that many attendees carry means a planner must look carefully at how many total participants will be at a meeting and how many a prospective data network can handle.
Meanwhile, the list of new technology options that support meeting effectiveness keeps on growing.
One current trend that is generating a lot of excitement is highly interactive, cloud-based technologies. “One is TeleOffice, from iDeep Solutions Corporation, which provides innovative engagement capabilities with touch-panel screens,” Kelly says. “Attendees can actually interact with the screen itself and make notations, and those notations will be received by every attendee who has a Wi-Fi enabled mobile device. From a presenter’s point of view, that allows you to share screens in real time with your entire audience, both live and virtual. The only requirement on the recipient’s end is a Wi-Fi-enabled device.”
Regardless of the type of meeting or the technological flourishes deployed, getting in-depth feedback from both live and virtual attendees is vital in order to assess the success of the event.
That is particularly important to Christina DeHaven, CMP, project manager at Universal World Events in Allentown, NJ, because she specializes in pharmaceutical meetings. And no component of a pharma meeting is more important than effective presentations and attendee comprehension, she says.
Therefore, a key weapon in her arsenal, especially for hybrid meetings, is an audience response system (ARS) that allows her to monitor and measure attendee engagement and learning.
“I have found that is necessary to help the speaker overcome the kinds of engagement challenges that can come up at both live and virtual events,” DeHaven says, adding that her common practice now is to make sure there is a steady flow of questions and comments from attendees — in real time.
One innovative provider she favors is Tallen Technology, which offers an assortment of ARS tools. Among the newest — and the one DeHaven likes best — is a Reply Ativa keypad equipped with Tallen Audience software. The device, about the size of a smartphone, features a fully dynamic color touch screen. Its capabilities include a virtual QWERTY keyboard, SMS text messaging, customizable viewing space, smart-card programming, self-paced testing and advanced Q&A management.
DeHaven finds such a sophisticated device essential to the ability of her clients to assess every aspect of the effectiveness of speakers and presenters and the overall success of a meeting.
However, she also uses the kind of on-site “attendee advocate” that Kelly and Courville recommend. DeHaven uses the same person to facilitate engagement of both live and virtual attendees.
“I believe that the most advanced ARS tools are critical to ensuring that the physicians that attend my meetings are engaged and that they are absorbing and understanding the information being presented to them,” DeHaven says. “So we throw in a lot of polling questions, just so we can get feedback and assess who was actively participating in the presentations. It’s not all just about information of data. We also want the speakers or presenters to have fun with the material and make it fun as part of the larger engagement strategy. It can’t just be about an overwhelming amount of technical information.”
What she has learned as the use of hybrid meetings increases, DeHaven says, is that planners and meeting hosts must be able to gather a clear measurement of just how engaged attendees were, both in the live audience and in the virtual arena.
“I want to know who we kept engaged for the whole time and who we lost,” she says. “And if we lost someone, we know whether we lost them at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. Or did everyone stay engaged and then say they enjoyed the meeting? And that kind of detailed knowledge about how your presenters are performing is very important.”
Although April Abernathy, director, program management, at Beaverton, OR-based Opus Events Agency, agrees with DeHaven’s assessment of the importance of attendee feedback, her focus is on making sure the right equipment and technology are deployed for a meeting and that everything will work as planned when it comes to problem-free presentations.
And for many planners like her who are new to the world of hybrid meetings, Abernathy says, a focus on technical fundamentals precedes a focus on more sophisticated capabilities such as audience engagement and feedback. “For us,” Abernathy says, “because we are relatively new to hybrid meetings, the most important thing is making sure that speakers and presenters are properly prepared and ready to go, with an understanding of the goals of the meeting and how success will be measured.”
But, she quickly adds, she has already mastered a valuable lesson she can pass on to other planners who are a step or two behind her on the learning curve. “And that is to take nothing for granted when it comes to staging a hybrid meeting and making sure your presentations accomplish what they are supposed to,” she says, adding that wise planners also will combine that with respect for Murphy’s Law — and that indeed, anything that can go wrong likely will.
And that, in turn, she says, just reinforces the need for extensive preparation and attention to every detail of the meeting.
“And when it comes to doing a hybrid meeting, the other thing I’ve learned,” Abernathy says, “is that you have to think in terms of the performance in both arenas. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s really a live meeting. I just have to set up a WebEx event as the online portion. It’s not that simple.” C&IT