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Hybrid Hits Its Stride

Hybrid meetings aren’t a new idea, but during the pandemic, they have become a way for some to attend an event in person as others opt to attend virtually.

Hybrid events are important because they make it possible to go forward with events that bring in revenue or allow businesses to inspire and train staff.

More organizations are signing on for hybrid meetings as the pandemic stretches on. Three-fourths of the 800 planners who attended a summer conference about hybrid events said they’d be planning a hybrid event before the end of the year, according to Business Travel News.

Here are some tips and trends to keep in mind as you plan your own hybrid meetings.

Look for the silver linings

There are obvious upsides to a hybrid meeting. Even in the best of times, people who want to attend a conference won’t always make it. Kids get sick, people break legs, travel budgets get slashed. A virtual option opens doors for those folks, and as it does, attendance grows and an event’s impact spreads. Perhaps your organization has never promoted international attendance; now it can. Some groups have used virtual attendance as a way to grow membership. For example, an international tech conference offered college students the chance to attend virtually for free if they referred a fellow student. It could be easier to attract and afford a big-name speaker, who will be able to speak at your event without traveling to it, saving the speaker time and your organization money. In some meeting destinations, in-person conference size will be limited because of local or state caps on the size of gatherings. A hybrid allows the show to go on, as organizers offer the benefits of an in-person meeting to a limited number and invite others to attend online.

Bend time to suit needs

A hybrid meeting breaks free of the typical two-to-three-day, 9-to-5 conference agenda. The conference time frame can expand for virtual attendees by making content available before the official start of the meeting or extending it afterward through links to recordings of presentations. Thanks to the recordings, they can attend sessions when it suits their schedules, even as the in-person crowd adheres to the traditional conference format. Time is also a factor in designing educational sessions and seminars. In consideration of virtual attendees who might not want to spend hours on end at their computer screens, conference organizers are varying the lengths of educational sessions, often tightening them to 20-to-30 minutes instead of the typical 45-to-60 minutes.

Build a solid tech framework

Whether it is an in-house IT team or an outside contractor, the success of any virtual event, including a hybrid one, hinges on the abilities and expertise of those who create or choose the technological framework to support the conference. As with any emerging trend, there will be a lot of companies stepping up as tech experts for hybrid meetings. It’s probably a good time to get some references before signing on with a supplier. Some venues are creating their own production studios to help their meeting clients. Convention centers like the Javits Center in New York and the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston have their studios up and running, and centers in smaller markets are likely to follow suit. This fall, for example, the Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, opened its new production facility.

Make being a virtual attendee special

A hybrid meeting involves more than streaming your live meeting’s content. Many elements of a live conference can’t be duplicated online, so it’s essential to create some unique experiences for virtual attendees. For example, Grip, an event software, matches attendees with similar interests or backgrounds and schedules brief online chats between them. Grip can also look at an attendee’s interests and experience and make suggestions about which sessions to attend, a big plus for a virtual conference attendee who is trying to sort through dozens of educational seminars. Software can create online vendor spaces so the organizer doesn’t lose the valuable revenue a trade show provides, suppliers still make connections with possible customers, and attendees learn about new products and services. Virtual attendees might get special links to Zoom yoga classes, cooking demos or a dance party. Games, polls and quizzes can be created for the online audience.

Absorb all you can

Hybrid is here to stay, and while its popularity might wane postpandemic, this meeting configuration will come in handy in the future. Think about your attendees. As they age, their ability to attend an in-person meeting may decline. There’s also geography to consider. Perhaps your organization has been limited to a state or region — does a hybrid format expand its reach? The problem, though, for many planners is concern about how to plan a hybrid event. In a survey, one in five planners said lack of experience was a major barrier. Other concerns were cost, risk of failure, attendance and confusion about technology. So, a first step is to learn as much as you can from mentors and peers and tap into all the resources available. Get in touch with planners that have done virtual conferences and hybrids, and ask for insights. Read as much as you can, and duplicate the best ideas and innovations; attend seminars and online tutorials. Associations like Meeting Professionals International (MPI) are always quick to provide needed resources, and MPI has delivered again with its downloadable PDF “How-To Guide for Hybrid Meetings.”