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The Tech Tools and Techniques That Make Hybrid Meetings Work

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Planners of today’s hybrid meetings are working to create more seamless experiences, using new technologies and lessons learned over the past 20 months to better connect their in-person and virtual participants.

The pandemic compelled many associations to quickly get comfortable with moving much of their meetings content into a hybrid environment. But the shift has also exposed some of the challenges of keeping remote groups engaged and has started to identify which technologies can best bridge the gap between two audiences.

Associations have learned that the techniques they used in the early pivot to virtual last year aren’t enough, said Sheena Majette, CEO of SLM Education Solutions.

“When we first thought about virtual and hybrid, it was really about livestreaming content,” she said. “Now we are thinking about how to gain a full experience in the virtual environment and a more cohesive experience with hybrid events.”

One key to that fuller experience, Majette said, is using technology to create conference sessions where interactivity is built in, so that attendees can engage with each other regularly and often. A robust conference app, for example, lets both in-person and virtual attendees participate via regular polling during sessions and in Q&A periods afterward. Remote and in-person groups can also be brought together as active participants in “solution corner” sessions: there, an “event correspondent” who’s assigned to connect with both audiences moderates a discussion on a particular industry problem in a dedicated on-site room where remote attendees take part via Zoom.

Throughout the event, Majette said, interactions should be framed as combining audiences, not creating secondary opportunities for remote attendees.

“For a long time, the chat room was our default mechanism for engagement, but look at how technology has evolved,” she said. “We have opportunities now to bring together the virtual audience and in-person audience in the same space, allowing them to see each other and interact with each other in different ways.”

Among those new tools are holograms and more sophisticated gamification—Majette is a fan of Two-Bit Circus, a virtual-reality entertainment venue that specializes in hybrid experiences. But relatively low-cost solutions are also available, such as in-room webcams to allow remote attendees to better see who’s speaking and large in-room monitors that give remote attendees a more visible presence. Many technology platforms allow event organizers to integrate remote and in-person attendees in breakout groups.

Interactions should be framed as combining audiences, not creating secondary opportunities for remote attendees.

Mixing and Experimenting

Such efforts are a work in progress, which the Casualty Actuarial Society knows well. CAS has been hosting hybrid and virtual events for about six years, and for its annual conference in November in San Diego, the CAS team has determined that hybrid elements will be essential.

“All of our major events are going to be hybrid, because there are still a high number of attendees, regardless of the COVID situation, who prefer to get their education virtually,” said David Core, director of professional education and research at CAS.

At the San Diego meeting, about a third of regular education sessions will be livestreamed, with an emphasis on interaction between in-person and virtual attendees. “We encourage the speakers for all the sessions that are going to be livestreamed to have interactive elements, either live polling or open-ended chats with attendees” from both audiences, he said.

The conference is something of an experiment in what works in a hybrid environment. In addition to the livestreamed sessions, another third of the conference lineup will be structured as typical in-person education sessions, and the remainder will be “highly interactive” in-person sessions, with additional time for presenters to engage with the audience. All sessions will be recorded and offered later for continuing education credits.

Some presenters for the regular in-person sessions may appear virtually, either in real time or via recordings presented onsite, flipping the usual virtual experience. But Core notes that it’s important to be flexible with formats at a time when not everybody is prepared to meet in person but most are striving to feel like they can.

“After 18 months of all virtual, we perceive that there’s a lot of virtual event burnout,” he said.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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