As we make the triumphant return to in-person gatherings, we’re also beginning to see the return of live events. While it is certainly exciting to see the return of live group learning and especially the rise of hybrid type events, they’re not without their own set of challenges.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term hybrid event, it is the process of combining a live event with a virtual one, so that people can attend regardless of their location and level of comfort given ongoing concerns related to Covid-19.
While restrictions have been lifted in most places, there is still hesitation from many to travel or attend conferences where there are a lot of people in one place, making the hybrid structure a great avenue to accommodate a larger and more geographically dispersed audience.
Aside from the obvious benefits for those feeling uncomfortable with in-person gatherings or events, there are several key benefits to offering a virtual option to your onsite event.
For many, having a virtual option opens up opportunities to attend conferences and events that never would’ve been available to them pre-pandemic. Travel and schedule barriers are common deterrents for many that have been essentially erased with this new attendance offering.
When traveling to events, participants typically have to take extra time to accommodate travel which can leave a productivity gap for the company and the individual. In addition to the extra time, there is the added expense of transportation, accommodations, meals, and more. A virtual option, can eliminate these types of barriers, opening up the information and content to a larger audience.
Hybrid events also typically allow for a more varied price structure, opening up the opportunity to learn to a bigger audience or allowing a company’s professional development budget to spread a bit farther.
Many presenters prefer to speak live, so having a hybrid-style event will likely draw a bigger pool of speakers but still allow for the advantages of a virtual event.
Hybrid events also allow the participant to take in only the sessions or events that are relevant to them, meaning they may be able to work their attendance into their regular workday, eliminating the need to catch up or front-load their day-to-day responsibilities due to attending.
Like most events, hybrid offerings are not without their own sets of challenges. Logistically, creating an event that will have impact both in person and for participants tuning in virtually is not an easy feat, so it’s not surprising that many are struggling with how to best approach this emerging event structure.
Some of the most common missteps we’ve heard about and witnessed are related to ensuring that the virtual participants are not left feeling like an afterthought with most of the focus going to the in-person experience.
Another challenge that we’re seeing a lot is unclear protocols for Covid-19 safety. Often, with in-person events, distancing is encouraged while the various presentations are taking place with dispersed seating for the audience, yet meals are still offered in a collective, non-distanced space, leaving uncomfortable participants with no option but to leave the premises to secure a meal comfortably. As a result, setting expectations and creating spaces for all comfort levels is being missed by many event organizers. Not only does this hamper the experience for those participants, it also creates an issue when it comes to future registrations, which can lead to low attendance or canceled events if participants are unclear on what to expect.
Finally, and likely the most uncomfortable for most event organizers is the loss of presenter performance due to years of online facilitating. As we know, online facilitation uses an entirely different set of presentation skills, meaning, many once-confident and captivating speakers are finding themselves floundering without their notes or script on screen.
These challenges have made many event organizers hesitant about creating and offering hybrid events, that’s why we have put together a series of best practices for event organizers to use while navigating this hybrid space!
When building out the programming for your hybrid event, it is important to ensure that all participants, both in-person and online, feel that they are experiencing the same event. Otherwise, why bother with hybrid? Why not separate the offers into two separate events?
The best way to do hybrid is to take a virtual-first approach, rather than tacking this portion on as an afterthought to a live event. By incorporating a variety of technical tools that specifically cater to ‘real-time’ audience engagement, including polls, virtual whiteboards, word clouds, etc., you will be able to create engagement options that are tailored to minimize the gaps between audiences.
Make sure to give priority to breaks and shorter sessions and opportunities for interactivity by including a blend of live synchronous group sessions, break-out sessions, and networking opportunities. Incorporating gamification strategies, contests, and other surprise elements is a great way to connect your audiences in a fun and interactive manner.
Remember to consider time zones when planning out your event timelines and include a virtual information desk or concierge service for online participants to use on the day of the event.
Your registration page is a great way to lay out participant expectations and event guidelines to ensure both in-person and online attendees know exactly what will be available prior to, during, and after the event. Begin by clearly outlining your fee structure for both onsite and virtual offerings, and it is advised to offer a reduced rate for the virtual option. This is also the space where you should clearly detail your Covid-19 protocols for the in-person option and also share details about your cancellation policy and process for full cancellation, switching from in-person to virtual or vice-versa. A ‘frequently asked questions’ or FAQ section can elaborate on specific Covid-19 questions related to seating arrangements, spacing during meals, sanitization between sessions where delegates rotate from room to room and mask-wearing practices.
Event Confirmation Page
Once participants have registered, it is important to provide them with the information they will need to participate. For in-person participants, this might include accommodation and venue information with a reiteration of the event details, as well as Covid-19 protocols and cancellation policy. For virtual attendees, this is where you can inform when and how materials will be distributed and login links and instructions if applicable.
Once registration is complete, your pre-communication cycle should start. Make sure this is timed appropriately with your cancellation policy deadline, if applicable!
To ensure you’re effectively setting expectations and offering opportunities for your participants to feel connected to your event as it approaches:
The event day will require tight processes and protocols to ensure everything goes smoothly as you navigate interactivity between both offerings.
Networking opportunities are one of the most attractive elements of in-person events, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate both organic and structured networking elements into your hybrid event as well. We can get really creative when we foster opportunities for digital interactivity!
Encourage in-person delegates to interact with online participants including leveraging the online meeting platform or conference app or an alternate backchannel like Slack. Create breakout rooms for delegates to network and connect with each other ahead of the event, within the event schedule, or during break times. This is also a great time to encourage people to post within your event’s Facebook or LinkedIn group or share on social with dedicated hashtags for online and in-person attendees.
Once the event has wrapped, it is important to gather feedback to gain insight on what worked and what didn’t, especially as it relates to how you were able to merge your in-person and online interactivity and overall experience. Make sure to include opportunities for both onsite and online delegates to weigh in on their experiences with a clear indicator of which type of delegate they were. (Note: if your event was free to attend and you’re concerned about lack of attendance on the day, understand that for free events, the industry norm is roughly 50% of registrants showing up on the day of - however, incorporating the pre-communication strategies outlined above can help to improve this!)
Given that 72% of white-collar workers prefer either hybrid or exclusively virtual events in the advent of Omicron (VFairs, December 2021), it is safe to say that hybrid events are here for the foreseeable future. Using these best practices will ensure that your events run smoothly, offer great value, and create safe spaces for all attendees.