The second wave of the pandemic has hit, virtual events keep gaining traction. The environment is uncertain.
The signs of polarization we covered a while ago have worsened. On one side, there are those that want to go back to live at all costs. On the other, those that are thriving with virtual events.
The two extremes have very legitimate reasons. Virtual is marginalizing planners and suppliers who cannot transfer their skills, but it is also giving an incredible amount of work to those with experience producing virtual experiences—solid reasons at both ends of the spectrum.
The only apparent solution is hybrid events. Hybrid seems to be the magic word that makes tensions go away. Whenever there is an online argument, ‘the future is hybrid’ is the catchphrase that makes everybody happy.
Is it the case?
There is no need to shatter anybody’s hopes in the most challenging time the industry has ever faced. Yet hopes need to translate into action. If there is progress to be made, a catchphrase needs to become a plan.
Therefore, it is legitimate to ask ourselves if hybrid events are the future. And if so, how does that future look?
Why Will Hybrid Events Rise?
There is a very valid argument behind the rise of the hybrid trend. When the pandemic eases and vaccines and widespread testing become available, we can expect a gradual return to in-person events with a significant portion of the population attending live.
It is what happened in Europe before the new lockdown measures kicked off last week. Many countries began lifting their restrictions, and it seemed like in-person was poised to bounce back. But while limited capacity and company travel bans were still in effect, hybrid seemed to be the only solution.
The great antecedent to this first insight into the rise of hybrid is that it is a revolution nobody wants.
For the time being, many are stuck with it.
Planners are stuck with it because travel bans and limited capacity are threatening attendance and event viability.
Why not run on virtual then? Because the event industry is not built on virtual. Many of the revenue opportunities offered by live events do not translate. Virtual is struggling to offer a solid business model. The insistence on going back to in-person is understandable.
While few discuss the virtual component of hybrid events as an opportunity, most see it as a nuisance. Planners are asked to produce two events. Separate infrastructures that increase cost. Different narratives, different needs. A nightmare in the making.
‘But We’ve Been Doing Hybrid Forever!’
No, that’s not the case. Nobody has done hybrid with today’s requirements. Most events used to place a camera in a room to livestream content. Voilà, hybrid was done.
That’s not the environment today. We have attended more virtual events in the past seven months than in the past seven years. Expectations are at an all-time high. Virtual audiences demand more than a static camera.
In-person requirements in a pandemic are every event planner’s misery. With recent research further increasing the burden, planning both a live and virtual experience is an unprecedented challenge.
Do Attendees Want to Be Mixed?
In this very complicated scenario, most industry pundits advocate for more connection between online and offline audiences.
It is a very valid principle in theory, yet there is a lack of supporting evidence that says that this is what attendees want. For a virtual attendee, the very last criterion to attend hybrid experiences is a forced connection with those attending in person.
I do want a fantastic virtual experience. I want to be able to connect with others online; I want to hear speakers presenting live. That’s about it.
Connecting to in-person attendees is the least of my priorities. On the other hand, it would make me feel a sense of FOMO because I am sure those attending in person are having much more fun than I am.
We want an excellent virtual and in-person event instead of a phy-gital, blended, hybrid experience. Do we care about being beamed into the physical event? Do those attending in-person want to spend time on their phones?
It is by no means a problem that applies to content, technology, or infrastructure. All of the above should be shared and integrated as much as possible—one list of attendees, one app, one AV team, etc.
I am 100% behind hybrid to reach economies of scale; I am not sold on two events that have to talk to each other at all costs. There is a technology need that legitimizes hybrid, and there are levels of content needs. There is no actual engagement need to mix audiences.
What About In-Person and Virtual?
What if the future is made of in-person events and virtual events? Maybe virtual events are a separate entity we will need to deal with. With its own moderators, special sessions, networking.
That is the trajectory hybrid events were taking before the pandemic hit. At EventMB, we advocated for online audiences to have their own dedicated resources. Yes, they will interact in common areas, they will answer polls with in-person attendees, but two well-produced experiences are what audiences want.
What if the industry is over-complicating everything when the needs are clear?
Doubling down on that, some events simply need to be only in person, others only virtual. Do we need to force in-person and virtual at all costs?
Even after the industry recovers, virtual should be considered as a tool to reduce environmental impact and include those who cannot attend. But not all events require virtual infrastructures. A small, local event is fine without virtual. The potential return does not justify putting together a whole virtual infrastructure.
Conversely, small meetings with few attendees in disparate locations worldwide are better off with a purely virtual meeting.
A Working Model to Evaluate Hybrid
Some themes are arising from the above analysis:
- Larger meetings will require both in-person and virtual components for the foreseeable future. It is not necessarily a market trend, but rather an imposition of the pandemic.
- Content, technology, and infrastructure have to be hybrid. It needs to be shared across the board. Hybrid has to mean shared tools and economies of scale.
- Do not assume that online and offline audiences want to mix or require a shared experience. On the other hand, two well-produced separate events make most of the medium (venue or virtual platform).
- Some levels of mixed engagement are welcome if scalable. Shared social media interaction, polling, and Q&A are feasible.
- Content can be hybrid, but it can also be exclusive. Shared sessions online and offline are a great way to optimize, but virtual attendees may want sessions geared towards online-only that make the most of the virtual platform. Some in-person attendees may want to engage with sensory experiences that are produced specifically for the onsite experience, without necessarily having to be burdened with attending to an online audience.
- Pragmatism should trump theory. It’s great to have a blended experience in an ideal world where all attendees mix. Planners should deal with reality, not theory. Pushing the hybrid agenda at all costs is not required.