After spending the past year and a half attending virtual versions of our favorite conferences, we’ve come to terms with a very important dichotomy around events:
While in-person events offer important personal connections that are nearly impossible to replicate in a virtual environment, the virtual event format allowed many organizations to reach a wider audience of attendees than ever.
To harness the best of both worlds, some organizations are looking to hybrid events as a solution—not just for the now, but as a more permanent event strategy.
Hybrid Event: Two words, multiple definitions
At its core, a hybrid event is simply one where session content is being delivered to both an in-person audience and an audience who consumes the content online. Exactly how this is done can vary greatly, from a very simple format to one that is extremely complex. This means there is no one, universal definition of what “going hybrid” means.
Some organizations view the hybrid event model as one where both virtual and in-person attendees share the same live conference experience. The conference itself is held in a centralized location, with both on-site and remote participants joining sessions simultaneously.
While this does provide your virtual attendees access to the complete event experience (or, as much as practically possible), it’s also the most complex and potentially most expensive way to conduct a hybrid event.
Typically, these events require a high production value and additional resources—from an event emcee to dedicated virtual participant facilitators—to really make them work well. These events may also include special programming just for virtual attendees to compensate for on-site activities they can’t easily join, like networking breaks and social events.
One of the sessions at this year’s ASAE Annual Meeting profiled an organization that created a very successful global hybrid event that followed this shared-experience model. And while the details of the event are truly amazing, the session presenters even admitted that to get it done, it was an all-hands-on-deck scenario for all association staff, with other strategic priorities being put on temporary hold.
While it definitely paid off for them, not every organization can afford to go to these extremes for their annual conference.
The idea of live now, virtual later is gaining traction
Meeting planners recognize the benefits of offering both an on-site and virtual conference experience but acknowledge they may not have the time, resources, or budget to achieve this more conventionally. In a recent article, MPI—an association for event industry professionals—calls this practice of producing content for two audiences simultaneously “expensive and sometimes impractical.”
Instead, MPI recommends a “live now, virtual later” approach, where the on-site sessions are recorded and made available to a virtual audience after the event.
While this is a more practical approach, it still requires a high-caliber A/V setup to ensure both the speaker and their presentation slides, video, etc., are all captured appropriately and that the sound is sufficient. It may also require some post-production work to make it easier for the virtual audience to follow along with the content.
Hybrid-Lite: A hybrid event approach that is smaller in scale, but delivers big benefits
“Hybrid-Lite” events provide a way to deliver an exceptional on-site experience while at the same time opening up your conference content to a wider audience after the fact, in a way that is practical and affordable. We’re calling it “hybrid-lite.”
Instead of trying to record an on-site conference session as it’s happening, have your selected speakers pre-record their presentation before the conference, and post those videos to a virtual event platform for on-demand viewing by your remote attendees. Your speakers can use their recording tool of choice. Or, to make it even easier, you can use an abstract management system with a built-in video capture and recording tool, like CATALYST, to give your speakers a centralized place to both record and submit their video presentations.
Some of the benefits of this hybrid-light conference format include:
- You don’t need to worry about the expense and logistics of on-site A/V to capture sound and video for a presentation that is being delivered in front of a live audience.
- You need fewer resources, as the virtual audience will be engaging with the session content on their own time (which also helps if you’re working with a global audience in multiple time zones).
- It can be easier for virtual attendees to view conference sessions in an on-demand format. At an in-person conference, we are physically removed from most day-to-day distractions, and we are less accessible to clients and co-workers. As a virtual attendee, it’s much harder to create that separation, and we often end up missing sessions or portions of sessions when they are delivered live. Plus, it removes any potential bandwidth issues that may occur while live streaming content for an entire day.
- You can still incorporate special content and engagement opportunities for your virtual participants that increase the value of the event, such as a series of scheduled online discussion groups around a specific conference topic or presentation. Think of it as a virtual book group.
- You end up increasing the value of the conference for your on-site attendees as well. Most of us can’t physically attend all the sessions we’re interested in on-site. By having an on-demand version of each session that is more robust than simply posting the presenter’s PowerPoint presentation, your in-person attendees actually get more conference for their money.
- This on-demand offering of event content can serve as a way to start building a year-over-year library of event content that becomes a valuable member resource.
- It increases value for your sponsors, who gain exposure in the virtual event platform with a wider audience, and for a longer period of time.
Things to consider with a hybrid-lite format:
- Make sure your speakers are on board with the concept. As you’re sourcing your speakers, you’ll want to be sure to gather their preferences and set expectations early on. As part of the submission process be sure to ask whether they’re willing to present in-person, virtually, or both. Also, make sure they know upfront that if selected they’ll be asked to also record and submit their presentation ahead of the conference, with a clear deadline.
- Make sure your selected speakers can provide a recording. This additional step of pre-recording their presentation should be accounted for in your speaker agreement, as should any distribution terms. For instance, can the recording be made available only to attendees, or will you be allowed to sell access to a wider audience? As such, understand that you may not be able to record every session, like a noteworthy keynote speaker. This can work to your benefit, as a high-profile speaker that is only accessible to in-person attendees may help boost on-site attendance.
- Think about to whom you want to grant access to the on-demand content, and how. Will all attendees (virtual and in-person) have access to all content? Will some sessions be viewable for virtual attendees only? Do you want to open an additional level of paid access to organization members or the general public? Having this structure mapped out ahead of time will make it easier to source and set up your virtual event platform as the content hub, while ensuring the appropriate access controls are in place.
Over the past year, we’ve learned how important it is to include virtual access to nearly everything—from simple team meetings to global conferences—if we want to increase participation. Gathering in-person isn’t possible or practical for everyone at all times, so providing flexibility to join at their convenience is going to become a standard practice moving forward. For the annual conference, this means allowing both virtual and in-person attendees the same opportunity to learn. But it doesn’t have to mean delivering the same event experience to both audiences. It can be just as beneficial and valuable to craft a simpler and more achievable version of the hybrid event.