Associations are facing a transition phase where most meeting planners have to consider in-person attendees and virtual viewers. To serve everyone well, don’t fall into the trap of hosting both versions simultaneously, and lean on the community.
Quietly and without much notice, hybrid events that mixed in-person and virtual elements were already a growing trend before the pandemic. Now, as associations plan for events amid a COVID-19 vaccine rollout that will eventually make in-person gatherings possible again, even organizations that might have initially eschewed a hybrid approach will likely need one.
Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president of professional connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, says that for many associations, it probably won’t be realistic to record all sessions and present them simultaneously online.
“The biggest obstacle people are really facing is the cost,” she says, noting that this tactic is tantamount to putting on two events at the same time. “Suddenly now we’ve got to stream everything—we’ve got to stream the main room experience, we got to do the breakout sessions? There’s just no physical way.”
Instead, meeting planners may need to take a digital-first approach, at least for the time being, building events for the larger, remote audience while ensuring that people onsite are engaged. She compared the technique to how a TV studio might handle a live audience when filming a sitcom.
“It’s built for broadcasting out to millions of people that are watching the show, and it’s an asynchronous thing,” she says. “When the TV audience is watching a commercial, a comedian comes out for entertaining the live audience, or things pop in.”
The result is that the event works in both settings: Virtual viewers have access to the content they want, while a smaller group of in-person attendees gets a rich onsite experience.
The Problems With Hybrid On-Demand
Just because you’re building content for a remote audience doesn’t mean you should simply load sessions into an LMS and expect your users to find them. Instead, Michel (and Velvet Chainsaw’s managing director Dave Lutz) recommends repackaging content from your onsite meeting as a scheduled replay of the event, which can be timed to encourage a community element and speaker interaction.
“We come together as a community,” she says. “There’s a social aspect to it because we’re on chat together and the speaker is there. And in some ways, people are going, ‘Oh, this was even better, because now I actually get to interact with the speaker and chat while watching the video play.’”
Some more advice from Michel on hybrid events:
Use apps to bridge the gap between in-person and remote. It’s a challenge to create engagement among people in different locations. Encourage attendees to interact via the apps your association has already built—think expo halls where in-person attendees share the benefits via a video chat for remote viewers. Longer term, “I think we’re going to be less worried about a platform and more about having a robust mobile app that connects the entire community, no matter where you are,” she says.
Think beyond the expo hall (at least virtually). Expo-style events give suppliers a way to show off their products and services to potential users—a model that is proving challenging to translate to a virtual environment. An alternative is to allow suppliers to sponsor individual sessions, which facilitates more direct interactions with potential customers. “We’re seeing really big upticks in sponsorship opportunities but also ways to bring exhibitors in front of members and potential buyers in more of an informal way,” Michel says.
Give attendees a good reason to come back to in-person events. No matter how much your members miss face-to-face events, it’s hard to predict when they’ll feel safe enough to return to in-person conferences post-COVID. Michel says leaning on the community could help get people on the plane. “What’s going to make them come back is creating a can’t-miss opportunity where the networking value is so high,” she says. Another option might be a hybrid style of flipped learning, where the learning session is remote but discussions happen at an in-person event.