While on Labor Day holiday, I started to reflect on the summer I had “planned” and what summer ended up “being.” Much of what had been scheduled was canceled, postponed, or changed to consider the Coronavirus circumstances. I also pondered what a dizzying array of unforeseen circumstances the last six months have been that have forever changed how we work, live and play. From the concerns and riots over systematic racism to the profound impacts of the pandemic, nothing has been absolute in 2020.
The parallels to my summer and the events industry were suddenly evident to me. We are all searching for some certainty in this uncertain time. Anything. Something. But much like my summer, I realized I had to cherish the opportunities and new experiences this moment in time has created. As a family, these include many day trips to explore the fantastic states immediately around us. We “glamped” for the first time, tubed down the Potomac River and took advantage of the beach being only a few hours away. Each experience was different than what had been planned but was also new, unique and satisfying.
Early Virtual Event Mistakes
When virtual events were the only option, many organizers simply attempted to turn their in-person meetings to online events without modifying the experience to adequately accommodate the virtual experience’s differences. The “plop and drop” method, as I like to call it, was frustrating to attendees as well as exhibitors and sponsors.
To be fair, most event planners had little time to make the necessary changes and little information on how to host a successful virtual event. As the pandemic has continued, savvy organizations have worked to fully understand the limitations and opportunities to provide much more valuable experiences. But just as quickly as the technology and planning of virtual events evolved, the world has evolved around us.
With the announcement of IAEE’s Expo! Expo! and a few other events moving forward with a face-to-face meeting and a virtual component, it is clear the demand for both will remain the “certainty” for the near term. Some constituents (and organizers) are anxious to meet again in-person, while others prefer a desire to join virtually, the case to cater to both only gets more substantial for hybrid events.
Hybrid Event = Many Definitions
Using the word hybrid to reflect a meeting or event is not as inclusive as one might think. Is the event in one location or many? Will it include audio-only or one and two-way video? Will it be synchronous or asynchronous (meaning audiences may be participating at the same of different times)? Will participants be able to interact with speakers and other audience members? Will that participation be before, during and after the event? Will it all be live, simulive (simulated live), or all recorded or some mix? Will sessions be offered on-demand? With an in-person event following a more typical timeline, how will that impact the virtual audience? The list of questions to consider and logistics is long and suddenly virtual-only seems more straightforward than we imagined.
Hybrid Events in Our Daily Lives
Since many event professionals (once again) have never planned or executed a hybrid event, it is helpful to think of something in our daily lives that effectively replicates a mixed experience. While I noted above, there are many definitions of hybrid. For simplicity’s sake (and ignoring COVID for the moment), I will stick to an event occurring simultaneously with two audiences.
Since my primary DC area football team no longer has a name, let’s go with a Baltimore Ravens game. With any televised sporting event, there are two distinct audiences “attending” the same event at the same time. Some could argue that you cannot compare being in a stadium to watching it on television, but each has its associated costs and benefits. Companies covet both interaction and awareness of their brand’s participation and both audiences. And technology and social media have furthered increased interaction from the online audience.
Where it gets interesting is that the production of a sporting event is high. There are sportscasters, personalities and interactive tools to bring the live event to your home and online. You are not merely listening to the announcer in the stadium. They help translate the in-person experience, mixing in the audio from the stadium and connecting the audiences. Because of the nature of sports, most likely, you won’t watch a game a week later on-demand, unlike an event. While that is true, we don’t have enough data yet to say the same for virtual events. One game and two different experiences shared by millions of viewers, many, if not most who will never attend a game in-person.
New Audiences for Hybrid Events
Hybrid events will offer a more significant opportunity to reach more extensive and diverse audiences. We also need to move past the concept that these attendees will cannibalize our in-person events. In the short-term, many either cannot travel (due to restrictions) or don’t feel comfortable for health and safety, so the virtual element is their only choice. Longer-term, the online audience most likely will have never or never intended to attend in-person (for a multitude of reasons). This broader audience will create more value for your exhibitors and sponsors and attendees as your community grows.
Hybrid and Virtual Events ROI
Another upside of virtual events has been the additional data, some of which would have been either cost-prohibitive or impossible to capture. As companies recover from shutdowns, a sluggish economy and potentially poor virtual events experiences, it is even more imperative to provide a return on investment.
Data will be critical to highlight the exposure of those exhibitors and sponsors in both the in-person and virtual world. Historical participation and “gut instinct” will no longer provide the typical number of exhibitors and sponsors in a pre-COVID world. Virtual only exhibitors may also be a new revenue stream for some events.
Lemons into Lemonade
So much like my summer, I was forced to take the bad and make good (and sometimes even better). For event professionals, this is now that moment. Your hybrid events should create an experience that every audience (attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors) seamlessly interact within both the physical and virtual spaces. They will challenge the way we think or attend events moving forward. And more importantly, they can be the intersection of the best from the physical and virtual worlds. As Deepak Chopra once said, “All great changes are preceded by chaos.”
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