Hybrid and Virtual meetings are not just a COVID-era fix. The demands for them are not showing any signs of diminishing. On the contrary, they are increasing in popularity, boosting events attendance numbers and creating a unified community.
While in-person events are taking place again all over the world, the hybrid and virtual events are expected to expand dramatically in the next five years. The key elements that stand out are flexibility and engagement. By offering in-person meetings and events coupled with a virtual component, planners are able to include a wider range of attendees to their meetings. Those who are unable to show up in person can still get the content remotely.
John Chen, CEO of Engaging Virtual Meetings, in Seattle, WA, who is an award winning designer, producer, speaker & MC for virtual and hybrid meetings, has seen demand for hybrid meetings increase 128% over the past year.
“In a hybrid meeting, you get the energy of the in-person event with the reach of a virtual event,” he said. “In addition, many attendees can now attend, maybe having reasons that would have that prevented them from attending in person. In many programs, we’re able to increase the attendees by 50 to 100% or more by running hybrid.”
Paulina Giusti, senior meeting and events manager for Cvent, in McLean, VA, the largest hospitality technology company in the world, realizes hybrid meetings are often touted as offering the “best of both worlds” — the special high-level engagement from in-person and the broad reach of virtual; and this opportunity is appealing to many organizations.
“Despite the rapid return to in-person events, the need to reach and engage a broader audience via virtual experiences remains,” she said. “It’s important to remember that prospective attendees might not have the time or ability to travel long distances to attend events. Not to mention, there can be hefty price tags associated with traveling for corporate meetings.”
This is where hybrid meetings come in. They can boost attendance numbers, encouraging those who might not have otherwise been able to attend due to cost or travel restrictions to tune in to a meeting.
Falon Veit Scott, CMM, MBA, is the CEO of EES Agency in Nashville, TN, which helps brands “tell their unique stories through events that blow away expectations.” She notes that while hybrid meetings are usually more expensive than a typical in-person meeting, it will result in lower travel costs. Because hybrid meetings also offer an improved ability to reach more attendees, they are a better option for a more consistent meeting cadence.
Keith Willard, an award-winning event planner, international speaker and president of his Keith Willard Events in Oakland Park, FL, regularly plans corporate meetings and has also seen more people go the hybrid route.
“Hybrid meetings are still taking place at a high rate,” he said. “One thing that the pandemic taught us about having meetings like this is that it’s a lot more cost effective and convenient for all the attendees. The idea of someone needing to catch a plane to meet with one group in the morning, to then catch another plane for a different meeting in the evening, has mostly gone by the wayside.”
Tina Husemoller, vice president of meetings & incentives for Fox World Travel, a travel management company for Business Travel, Vacation Travel and Events in Oshkosh, WI, notes that while hybrid meetings are still popular, because so many companies have a remote workforce, they tend to want to bring people together for in-person team building, collaboration and face-to-face time with executive leadership when possible.
“Hosting a hybrid meeting allows for everyone to participate and takes travel out of the equation,” Husemoller said. “In addition to making the meeting accessible to everyone, hybrid meetings allow for some cost-savings to a company related to travel expenses.”
Fox World Travel is seeing many hybrid meetings taking place at company headquarters or convention centers. However, some companies are choosing to host in-person meetings at destinations because a large percentage of their workforce is remote. “They want to make it an experience for employees to attend the meeting in-person since they don’t have as many opportunities for face-to-face interactions with their team members,” she said.
No matter the location, the easiest way to make sure everything runs smoothly is to work with a travel management company that has the technology and know-how to make the virtual experience just as engaging as the in-person experience.
Hybrid meetings also tend to be more sustainable than in-person meetings. A recent Cvent report found that 31% of event planners surveyed reported that sustainability would predominately shape their event planning priorities this year and the next.
As a result, Giusti said, “Many planners find hybrid events to be an appealing option since they tend to produce less waste. By lowering the number of onsite attendees, which boils down to less energy used for travel and transportation, and less food waste, hybrid meetings have the potential to decrease an event’s overall carbon footprint.”
Hybrid meetings also tend to generate more content. Regardless of the event format, boosting attendee engagement is top of mind for planners. Hybrid events tend to offer a lot of optionality in this regard.
“Because hybrid events require live streaming capabilities, event planners can record sessions and make them available for viewing (or rewatching) after the event has wrapped,” Giusti said. “Making content available on-demand can help planners drive engagement well beyond the event dates and helps to give session content a longer lifespan. Another perk is you have more flexibility to repurpose your live event to fuel your post-event marketing campaigns, including in social media posts, webinars, blogs and gated content, such as case studies.”
Meetings technology speaker and consultant Corbin Ball, principal of Corbin Ball Co., which helps clients use technology to improve corporate meetings and trade shows, notes that because a planner is essentially running two meetings simultaneously, hybrid meetings come with their share of issues.
“It’s more expensive and more difficult to do because you’re planning for two different audiences,” he said. “However, the analytics for the virtual part of a hybrid meeting are superior to face-to-face in many ways, so for many groups, it makes sense to still hold, especially for the larger and more international companies.”
The number one challenge for any meeting planner is engagement, and that rings true for hybrid meetings as well. “Often the virtual attendee is treated as a second-class citizen, so the challenge for their planner is to design and plan the hybrid to engage both the in-person and the virtual audience,” Chen said.
Another challenge is how to run the meeting. For instance, less than 20% of all hybrid meetings use a virtual MC, which engages the audience as soon as they log on. They can create networking and education between sessions, and, more importantly, they can smooth over any technical issues that may happen on the virtual side.
Planners need to make sure the virtual experience matches the in-person experience. Husemoller notes this can be one of the biggest challenges with planning a hybrid meeting and a good reason to hire a travel management company to assist with hosting it.
For example, if everyone attending an in-person meeting is receiving a book at the end of the event, then all virtual attendees should also have that book mailed to them. This creates a unified sense of community and belonging between everyone who is a part of that meeting.
Veit Scott said an issue with planning corporate meetings in this way is that planners need to be well versed in both in-person and virtual events or one segment will suffer.
“Understanding how to manage a hybrid budget, being able to offer valuable content to two different types of audiences and maintaining engagement are a few challenges for planners,” she said. “We have learned that it is critical to educate clients on the additional coordination time, increased costs, dynamic insights on live and virtual attendee engagement, and the critical nature of presentations and messaging.”
Whenever tech is involved, Matt Tuffuor, co-founder of Toasted Life, a community-based experiential brand empowering connections for people of color in Oakland, CA, notes there are unexpected technical problems. Whether it is due to unstable internet connections, poor audio quality or software glitches, no meeting is entirely immune to such challenges. Hybrid events require the right technology solutions, onsite support and some creativity to really do them justice. It’s not as simple as setting up a camera, recording a session and posting the session online.
Willard agrees. “It was fine when you had a blurred-out background or low light when we first started learning, but now appearance online is just as important as appearance in person. Nothing is more irritating than a screen freezing or the speakers voice coming in and out.”
Planners bear the responsibility of developing contingency plans for when the unexpected occurs, according to Tuffuor. He suggests allowing time and support for technical rehearsals and equipment quality checks. “Depending on how high profile the hybrid meeting is, planners may need to hire technical experts to provide immediate support for a smooth event,” he said.
“The good news is that as hybrid events become more ubiquitous, hotels and venues are starting to upgrade their technology offerings to ensure virtual attendees can feel as involved as those at the venue,” Giusti added. “It’s exciting to see venues starting to think outside the box about how to engage hybrid event attendees. For example, Radisson Hotels offers ‘Meetings Broadcast Studios’ at select hotels, which give planners access to the latest meeting technology for both larger events and smaller, hybrid meetings.”
“The event planner should work with the venue to determine if they have enough internet bandwidth to support the virtual component and the proper technology in place, and that the travel management company they are partnering with already has this technology component and the knowledge to put it into practice,” Husemoller said. “They also must ensure that there is enough room for the in-person piece.”
Although a hybrid meeting can be done using one laptop, a savvy hybrid planner will use a device such as the Owl Pro, which has a microphone that can cover up to 18 feet, and a 360-degree camera. This allows every person who is participating to be seen by the virtual people.
Chen feels a perfect hybrid setting would include a high-speed computer, two monitors, two wireless headset microphones, two wireless handheld microphones, three cameras, a mixing board and a stream deck, which is an automation device.
“This allows for professional production at an affordable price,” he said. “Everything is in one box with rollers, and it can be set up in as little as 30 minutes in almost any venue.”
While pretty much any venue can work for a hybrid meeting, as long as it can accommodate the in-person attendees, a venue must have some technical components, such as high-speed internet to serve the virtual audience.
“The best hybrid venues have all the necessary components, which includes large screens, projectors, sound systems and multiple cameras,” Chen said. “It’s much easier for the planner if the venue takes care of the tech equipment, assuming that it is all tested. And, by the way, that assumption is not always true.”
For instance, there was one venue Chen worked with that had a video camera, and it was very far back in the room. There were more than 1,000 attendees and the room floor was not designed well, as any time someone walked by this camera, it would shake. “So, for the virtual audience, it would appear to look like an earthquake was happening all the time,” he said. “The virtual became unwatchable at that point.”
Hybrid meetings can take place in almost any venue; although indoor is best for production value. Most planners should want to control the production equipment and management to ensure proper messaging, graphics and overall quality, Veit Scott said.
Hybrid In Action
Learner Palooza, a top conference for innovation and disruption for learning and development, recently held its first-ever hybrid meeting with 150 attendees in-person and 150 virtual across the U.S., and UK. There were keynotes and then there were also three simultaneous breakout sessions, and every room had three cameras setup with a producer.
“This setup allowed for any virtual attendee to ask a question, and that virtual attendee could be on screen with the speaker,” Chen said. “Every room also had a mic runner to ensure that in-person people asked questions with a microphone so the virtual audience could hear them. Every room also had a virtual MC.”
Chen worked with the speakers ahead of time to prepare them for talking to both the live and virtual attendees.
“We asked them to do some key things, such as acknowledge the virtual audience as soon as they start, take their first question from the virtual audience, and make sure that they know that they have a virtual MC,” Chen said. “We coach them to ask, ‘Hey, what’s happening out on virtual?’
Attendees said this was the best hybrid event that they have ever attended and many of them said they were going to take the best practices to their next hybrid event.”
Willard arranged a recent hybrid meeting for Zoom — the actual company — and 50% of the attendees were there to see the presenter in person and half the attendees were at several offices throughout the country.
“We had a screen mounted slightly to the right of the camera with a speaker mounted just below that,” he said. “That way, when someone asked a question from one of the remote location, the speaker automatically appeared to be answering directly to the person. The speaker allowed others in the room to hear the question so that the presenter didn’t have to repeat the question to those that were in the room. It takes some work due to feedback issues between the microphone and speaker, but it can be adjusted to ensure a smooth event.”
He also had someone monitoring the remote rooms to ensure that if anyone dropped off, that they could be quickly added back into the room when they came back on.
Continuing to Evolve
There are still some misconceptions around what putting on a hybrid event actually entails, especially now as attendee expectations (whether in-person or virtual) are higher than ever.
With the right support and technology, hybrid events can be more engaging and effective than offering either just a virtual or just an in-person experience, Giusti said. “One thing we’ve noticed is that attendee registration behavior is changing. We’re seeing various patterns, but most notable is an individual’s rotation between in-person attendance one year, and then virtual attendance the next year. Additionally, we’re seeing team participation, one to two team members attend in-person while remaining team members tune in virtually. In short, attendees are finding value in both experiences.”
While hybrid meetings allow everyone to participate, the focus has shifted from accessibility to flexibility. “With greater flexibility, there is the opportunity to bring more people together despite roadblocks, such as available time for travel, budgets or geographic location,” Husemoller said. “This allows people to participate in events they otherwise might not be able to partake in. By thinking through how you include virtual attendees, so they feel fully a part of the meeting or event, you can host a hybrid meeting that is successful and enjoyable for everyone,” concluded Husemoller. “This is the key to hosting hybrid meetings, and once you can master that, you create accessibility for everyone, no matter their location or limitations.” C&IT