As with the rest of the world, keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has been at the top of the priority list for the meetings and events industry. And while meetings and events are still vitally important, technology has provided many online and virtual solutions. Zoom or other online communication programs have helped bridge the largest of the gaps, and have allowed meeting professionals to pivot to a hybrid approach.
Sarah Freeman, meeting planner and director of sales at Evolution Event Solutions, says COVID-19 forced the live event industry to stop in its tracks. Companies lost millions of dollars overnight with event cancellations, and thousands of meetings and events professionals lost their jobs. “The combination of the lack of business and employees caused over 10% of event companies to close their doors in March 2020. The lucky few of us who already had multiple revenue streams, and were able to pivot to the virtual world, have been able to limp through these hard times,” Freeman says.
So what did that pivot look like? Quite simply, it has taken different shapes since March. “At first, our focus was to postpone all live events instead of canceling. This then shifted to learn [how to do] virtual, and learn it quickly,” Freeman says. “We went from people getting burned out on non-engaging virtual meetings to the hope of hybrid meetings, and now we are in a mixture of all of the above. Everything has happened really quickly, and only those who are able to be vulnerable, honest, creative and innovative have survived.”
Keith Willard, president of Keith Willard Events, agrees. “It was up to us as the planners to become intimately knowledgeable about all of the pieces and parts to make sure not only that our clients could continue doing their meetings, but that it was done efficiently without issue,” Willard says. “When it came to in-person events, we needed to quickly investigate any venues under contract to see if they had alternate locations due to reduced numbers of guests, that the staff were following CDC guidelines, as well as make sure that any food or beverage service was using Plexiglas separators and gloves.”
When state mandates and lockdowns began in March 2020, many within the meetings industry had to shift overnight into reaching out to clients, assessing options, writing addendums to contracts, and encouraging clients to consider postponing instead of canceling. Event planners, producers, designers, rental companies and so on, whose business model is structured around events, lost revenue in a blink, and COVID has continued to make operating challenging despite the availability of vaccines. But, thanks to the creativity of meetings and events experts who grace the industry, hybrid events are proving to be an effective avenue for meetings and events of all sizes.
As Janel Bailey-Keen, executive creative director at Vivid Expressions LLC, explains, since the sizes of gathering has been reduced tremendously — in some cases not exceeding 15 to 50 attendees — most event planners, designers and rental companies have turned to redefining what an event can look and feel like. “The technology, design and innovation over the last few months has given birth to several different types of hybrid events,” Bailey-Keen says. Generally, she sees four of these types of events:
When taking an event hybrid, meeting planners really have to focus on making sure that the experiences of in-person and virtual attendees are engaging, seamless and purposeful. As Freeman explains, you are planning two events that will take place at one time, so be sure to think through the experiences of both perspectives, and don’t neglect your virtual audience.
“We hosted a small hybrid event in October that had 13 live guests and 30 virtual guests. Our live guests checked in on-site, entered the meeting space, sat down, enjoyed some education, and then moved from the meeting space to the rooftop for appetizers, cocktails and networking,” Freeman says. “Our virtual guests logged in virtually, viewed announcement slides, enjoyed the same education, and then were transferred into breakout rooms for networking. This allowed all guests to accomplish the same goal and have a similar experience — receive education and network.”
Technology and social distancing, especially if there are event-gathering size restrictions, may seem the most obvious when you consider hybrid event challenges, but there are also opportunities to explore unique and innovative solutions. For example, as Bailey-Keen points out, in the case of guest speaker presentations and breakout session for conferences, an interesting hybrid model is “flipping” the idea of attendees moving from one room to a different one during breakout sessions at a conference. “Instead, attendees can be designated a ‘home base’ or their own area of a ballroom — complete with comfortable seating, table and perhaps access to a personal charging station — as they’ll most likely be using a device through the day and then having each presenter rotate to a new room throughout the conference,” Bailey-Keen says. “To be honest, the advances in livestreaming and simulcasting are some of the best I’ve ever seen.”
The technology for virtual attendees can be a challenge, but it’s creating a clear, defined and effective communication system to manage instructions, expectations and experiences for all attendees — live and virtual. This is where having a strong communications plan in place is key. “In a pinch, individuals can livestream, conduct polls, hashtags and do virtual walk-through demos from their phones to enhance a social media presence and promotional marketing,” Bailey-Keen says. “Working with professional videographers and tech specialists will guarantee the delivery to off-site guests, and on-site attendees will have an engaging experience.”
In the situation where an event will create a simultaneous experience over multiple locations, Bailey-Keen has seen and has created special “packages” designed and mailed out to participants with various presentation materials, supplies/worksheets, props, sponsor gifts, favors, collateral, etc., that they will be prompted to use in conjunction with presentations, speakers or highlights of the event. “This can help create a more engaging, branded, styled and cohesive experience,” Bailey-Keen says. “For those in multiple locations and platforms, be sure to design a consistent look and feel — including colors, branding, theme, style, etc.”
For on-site attendees, use visual directional guidance or ‘wayfinding’ for attendees that direct guests in a single flow through an environment with floor stickers, acrylic barriers, large plants or floral installations, and other visual cues. “With hybrid events, what’s in the room is what is seen by the audience on the screen so event space designs, staging, props, backdrops and visual presentation will be more impactful than ever,” Bailey-Keen says.
One additional area of focus hybrid events require is communication. You have to over-communicate with all of your attendees more so than ever. For in-person attendees, planners need to over-communicate safety protocols. For virtual attendees, planners need to over-communicate how to log onto the event. If the event is going to be recorded, planners should provide a direct troubleshooting contact for people to utilize, and explain any live or silent auction rules, how breakouts are going to work, etc. “You want to feed any and all information to your guests multiple times prior to the event to avoid any issues,” Freeman says. “People say for live events, valets can make and break your event — this is because [they are] the first and last impression you have of the event. In virtual terms, if your guests have issues logging onto your event because you haven’t been thorough with your communication, it will leave a bad taste in their mouths.”
For Darryl Diamond, CMP, senior meeting manager with Talley Management Group Inc, his No. 1 rule is to remember that both in-person and virtual attendees at a hybrid event need to feel valued. “It’s easier for us to recognize the in-person audience because they are physically in our line of sight. However, the virtual audience has to feel like they are more than just voyeurs watching a screen in the back of the room,” Diamond says. To make this happen, meeting planners should budget for extra costs to support more technology and staff. Some of these costs can be offset by saving in areas such as food and beverage and travel, as well as finding new opportunities for additional industry support/sponsorship of the virtual audience.
“A hybrid meeting does not consist of just livestreaming the sessions/talks, and then leaving the virtual audience to fend for themselves,” Diamond says. “You have to go out and engage that audience considerably more than the in-person audience. Do not rush into hybrid meetings without thinking about event design.” Diamond suggests using the time and communication before the meeting to connect both the in-person and virtual audiences by creating engaging communities and experiences. Continue this once the event begins with such things as photo sharing, roving hallway cameras, and interactive, hands-on activities to connect both groups. “Don’t be scared to provide more value for the virtual audience with extra interviews with keynotes, multiple camera angles inside the session room, food kits, etc., so they can feel they aren’t sacrificing by not being there in person,” Diamond says.
As many planners are new to hybrid events, they are bound to be susceptible to various mistakes. For example, avoid not having “standards of practice” policies created, accessible, distributed and clearly communicated. This should include everything from their own company protocols for health and safety, to rescheduling/cancellation policies, to terms revisions and updates in their contracts, to reviewing individual venues, vendors, city, state, and federal requirements and practices. As Bailey-Keen says, this is especially important in the case of a hybrid event where the experience may be different depending on if an attendee is in person or virtual. “It’s extremely important to have a system for communication, both internally and externally, in place, because confirming communications will prevent issues,” Bailey-Keen says. Another problem? “Not mapping out a plan that is cohesive and manages continuity for all elements of the event, and not clearly visualizing, designing and communicating the environment, layout, look and experience for all participants.”
Another mistake is being complacent, not taking advantage of the opportunity to educate, network and partner during this time, especially in the areas of technology and innovation. “This is a good opportunity to hone their skill sets and knowledge or educate potential clients,” Bailey-Keen says. “This is also a great time to network, brainstorm and nurture potential partnerships that will help serve more clients as the landscape continues to shift over the next several months.”
Shayna Moskowitz, DES, director of meetings and event technology at Part 2 Events, echoes that, due to COVID-19, the biggest challenge currently is creating meaningful virtual experiences which people want to show up to and stay engaged. “When it comes to hybrid events, you need to focus on the attendee experience and design your event with various audience types in mind — usually that’s an in-person audience and an at-home audience,” Moskowitz says. “Remember that it is highly likely that there will be many more people watching virtually than will be in the room, and they are not going to stay engaged if you’re simply livestreaming an in-person meeting to them. The biggest strategy I would suggest is to think of a hybrid event as a virtual meeting with an in-person audience.”
Putting aside the unique challenges that face purely virtual events and purely in-person events during the pandemic, Moskowitz thinks the biggest challenges for hybrid events include capturing what takes place outside the ballroom, as well as budgeting.
With the first, it is much easier to capture content, and even reframe content, to be applicable to both in-person and remote audiences than it is to figure out how to create hybrid expo halls, gala dinners and impromptu small-group meetings. “To overcome this, treat your audience experiences as unique to each group; they may not do the same things at the same times all day,” Moskowitz says. However, also consider how you can tie their experiences together. If you have a gala dinner, and the budget allows, plan for a celebrity chef with an at-home dining experience in which all attendees can participate, and send meal kits or dining gift cards to at-home attendees.
When it comes to budgeting, Moskowitz says there are a lot of new expenses to consider with COVID safety procedures for in-person meetings, the need for new technology to bring the remote audience into the venue, and technology to bring the two audiences together. “Event strategists will need to balance organizational revenue goals with other strategic priorities that are usually accomplished through meetings and events,” Moskowitz says. “They’ll also need to create new budget templates, and explain to their finance and procurement partners that virtual and hybrid does not mean cheaper.”
Willard says the technology will reduce time and reduce costs dramatically. Being able to meet with a group of people in different cities was once for large companies, but it is now literally in our day-to-day lives. “Add in some of the suggestions mentioned, it will help build the gap and give attendees for both virtual and in-person events memories that can be told to help connect people with similar memories or situations,” Willard says.
Planning for the in-person audience experience more than the virtual audience experience is definitely the biggest mistake Moskowitz has seen. “I get it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in perfecting the details of the face-to-face meeting because we all miss it and are anxious to get back into our favorite hotels and venues. Plus, there is a huge new list of things to plan for to make the in-person experience as low-risk as possible,” Moskowitz says. It isn’t that you don’t need to plan for those things, but planners need to remember that they could have thousands more attendees online, and their experience cannot be an afterthought. Moskowitz recommends having an overall event director as well as separate planning leads for the two distinct meeting locations — the physical location and the virtual location.
For years, the meetings and events industry has been talking about hybrid events, and industry players have watched many successful hybrid programs take place. “I think that after COVID subsides, attendees are going to expect to be able to attend events as they want, because you can’t go back once you’ve given them those options,” Moskowitz says. “There have always been reasons for people to prefer one type of meeting experience to another, and those aren’t going away.” C&IT