There are promising signs that in-person meetings will return soon as Europe subdues the coronavirus pandemic through mass vaccination. But there will be one crucial difference from how events were staged pre-pandemic. In future, many are expected to be hybrid: some participants will attend face to face, others virtually.
Hybrid events were emerging as a trend even before coronavirus, thanks to improving technology, but now they are set to accelerate rapidly. One survey published earlier this year by etc.venues found that 73 per cent of event planners tip the hybrid model to become more common.
“The reality is that post-pandemic we are going to have a split audience,” said Mike Piddock, CEO of virtual event technology provider Glisser, at the Institute of Travel Management’s (virtual) annual conference last month. “Some people are going to want to be there in person and some will want to remain virtual. Maybe they are continuing to shield or feel vulnerable. Maybe they don’t want to travel for environmental reasons.
“If you choose not to run events in some sort of hybrid fashion, you are effectively excluding part of that audience. We may even get to the point where it is seen as discrimination to exclude people because they are unwilling to enter a building,” Piddock said.
A hybrid approach also provides a safety net while the world takes its first steps towards resuming meeting in person. The ability to switch some participants to virtual attendance avoids having to book additional venue space if social distancing rules persist. And the virtual option also means participants in countries with travel restrictions can still attend.
More positively, meeting planners can also think about extending the geographical reach of their original events. An event that was previously exclusively European in scope, for example, because it was too expensive to fly in attendees from elsewhere, can now be opened up to other regions.
“There will be as many live events as before Covid,” says Franco de la Croix-Vaubois, the founder and CEO of Event Organisers Network, a community for event professionals, and virtual event consultant for the online meetings platform Hopin. “Fewer people will attend live but they will have a wider reach overall because they will mostly be hybrid and attract an additional virtual audience.”
For buyers whose remit includes meetings, the hybrid model triggers some major changes to their strategies. Most fundamentally, says de la Croix-Vaubois, “buyers have to plan hybrid meetings as two separate events. The common area is the content.” Both the face-to-face and virtual elements, he adds, will need separate technical planning and budgeting.
Neither task is easy. On the budgeting side, “no one is quite sure yet about the new cost of meetings,” says Betsy Bondurant, president of strategic meetings management consultancy Bondurant Consulting.
De la Croix-Vaubois agrees. “If you have 300 live delegates instead of 1,000, you’re saving 700 beds, 700 F&Bs and so on,” he says. Weighed against that, he warns, is the cost of virtual production, which is not to be skimped if there is to be more than a token attempt to engage the remote audience. A single webcam on a wobbly tripod focused on the stage and beaming a live feed via Zoom will definitely not cut it any longer.
Speakers at the ITM conference repeatedly counselled that the virtual element of larger hybrid meetings must be produced like a television show if it is going to be successful. Chris Parnham, owner and director of event producer Absolute Corporate Events, compared the TV-like experience of virtual with the theatrical experience of live attendance. “TV moves much, much faster than theatre does,” he said.
That means deploying several camera operators plus their expensive kit, and a director to cut between images. Add in the graphics required before, during and after, plus other technical equipment such as high-quality microphones and a video switcher for live streaming, and the costs soon mount.
On the technology front, buyers need to add a new category of supplier to their remit: hybrid meeting platforms. The choices they make can make or break an event.
“Look at all the hybrid options out there,” says de la Croix-Vaubois. “They are not all the same. I would lean towards having a preferred platform. If it doesn’t fit a particular event, you can use another one on an ad hoc basis. It’s just like having a relationship with a preferred hotel chain to handle most but not all of your events.”
Bondurant agrees that formal relationships need to be established, but buyers need to get their own houses in order first. “More governance is needed,” she says. “Someone needs to take ownership of the meeting platforms. Who should own that relationship? IT? Marketing? People are spending more than they need to because they are not collaborating internally.”
Relationships with existing tech suppliers also need to be reconsidered, starting with ensuring that online meeting registration tools can guide participants whether to attend physically or virtually and then book accordingly. “That needs to be very flexible,” says Meetingsbooker.com CEO and founder Ciaran Delaney. “You need a system where you can book one way and then transfer to the other.”
Audio-visual providers will come under review too. The AV team for an event has more responsibility than ever if it is in charge of delivering sound and vision not only live but virtually. “You may need to broaden your agreement with the AV company to cover additional virtual expertise,” says de la Croix-Vaubois.
Alternatively, some production support may be provided by the venue. That is just one reason why venue agreements also need reassessment. Parnham told the ITM conference that what clients prioritise in their selection criteria has changed radically. “It might not be as important that the venue has a spa or great surroundings. It’s much more important that it’s well soundproofed,” he said.
Most critically, Parnham added, “the venue needs to offer securely partitioned wifi or hardwired connection. You can’t risk it dropping out.”
With every event now effectively two rolled into one, the workload suddenly looks much more daunting, not just for event producers, but also for the buyers who underpin meetings programmes with supportive procurement strategies. But Piddock told ITM members he is confident they will take this new world in their stride. “It seems challenging now but this will become business as normal in a few years,” Piddock said.