By Vanessa Lovatt, Chief Evangelist at Glisser
It feels like an awfully long time ago, but pre-pandemic, the events industry was riding the crest of a wave. It was valued at 1.3 billion dollars, with double-digit growth anticipated and company events and seminars leading the way for overall spend.
Events planners were busy predicting their 2020 company event trends. They were expecting greater personalisation, more bespoke or unique venues and more emphasis on sustainability (Greta had already coined ‘flight shaming’ by this stage) baked into the event design.
Everyone knows the story of what happens next.
While the use of technology to deliver events was already on the rise at the start of 2020, no one predicted that, within a few short months, technology would have to step into the breach and rescue many thousands of company events programmes.
The difficulties of remaining virtual-only
Among the many lessons of the pandemic, business leaders have seen just how challenging it is to keep customers, partners, employees and investors engaged when the physical domain is entirely off-limits. For companies with an international presence – and a need to unite its international audiences – the challenges become even more acute.
Zoom, Teams, Skype and the other video conferencing platforms have plugged the gap in day-to-day interactions as well as anyone might have expected, but they weren’t created with full-scale international events in mind. So a new breed of event technology providers has also emerged to support companies in their moment of need. These virtual event tech providers have attracted staggering levels of investment, and there can be little doubt that the technology has played an essential role throughout the pandemic in keeping company audiences in the loop and informed.
And yet, there’s a sense across the corporate world that relying on virtual-only events won’t cut it for all events. Networking has been all but impossible to replicate. Production values have suffered as companies have been forced to build their events around the technology, rather than according to their specific goals. Audience engagement has been a huge challenge. Too many of the current crop of event tech platforms were developed by software engineers rather than events planners. They have given companies the functionality to facilitate but not to engage or inspire.
As the pandemic has stretched on, the shortcomings of relying on a virtual-only events programme have become painfully obvious. Companies want to see a return to in-person events, but many are nervous about attempting to make this a reality during such uncertain times.
The answer? It is time to make the shift towards a hybrid event future.
What does hybrid mean?
A hybrid event is open to both in-person and online attendees. For example, a company hosts a physical event for a certain proportion of its audience, while for those unwilling or unable to travel, it offers the possibility of online attendance.
These are not wholly separate events; the look, feel, content, and, crucially, the attendee experience should be the same high standard for everyone, irrespective of how they’ve chosen to attend. Some people will choose to experience the entire event virtually, while others may go for one day in-person and spend the rest of the duration attending virtually. It’s an approach that puts flexibility centre-stage, something that business leaders are starting to recognise as an essential feature of the post-Covid business world.
While there’s plenty of pent-up excitement about getting back to in-person events, the truth is that attendees now want choice and control over how and where they spend their time. Gone are the days when people would be willing to travel out to every relevant international event in-person (and gone are the days when their employers would be willing to fund this!). People will be much more selective, and they will want to know that there’s a virtual attendance option available to them, or they may simply opt to skip the event altogether.
Not only that, but most countries still have Covid travel regulations in place, or restrictions on how many people can attend physical events. It is entirely unclear how much appetite there will be for in-person attendance once the pandemic finally recedes, especially when longer distances or overseas trips are involved.
In this context, the rationale for hybrid events is obvious. It’s why, at the start of the year, almost all event marketers were predicting a rise in hybrid events, with more than half predicting that all live events would possess a virtual dimension in the future.
What does a great hybrid event look like?
Earlier in the summer, we worked with leading events delivery partners including etc.venues, Encore, NMR, EventCloud and Noonah to put on a hybrid event showcase, Hybrid Events Ignited.
Co-hosted in London, New York City and online, the event was designed to explore precisely what a best-practice hybrid event ought to involve. All speakers were completely live and interacting with one another in real-time, and also with the audience via a series of created engagement tools deployed simultaneously to online and in-person attendees via our hybrid event platform.
Perhaps the main event outtake was the need to create a first-class live experience for every attendee – regardless of location – making everyone feel actively involved in proceedings, rather than treating those dialling in digitally as second class citizens. “It was clear from our event just how pivotal the role of the moderator is to involve all audiences,” explained Alice Murrie, event director at Bray Leino Events.
The event also examined the different tech tools necessary to level the playing field and ensure a fantastic holistic hybrid event experience. As Matt Franks, CEO of Noonah noted, “We had physical photo booths running alongside virtual photo booths to bring the community together on a single platform.”
Finally, we looked at where differentiation between event experiences might actually be a good thing, such as companies offering different incentives to those attending virtually versus those showing up in-person. This might include access to future webinars or exclusive content streams for online viewers, compared with more networking opportunities for those attending in-person.
How much does hybrid cost?
We’ve heard much enthusiasm for hybrid events during our conversations with business leaders over the past 12 months. But we’ve also listened to a few concerns about the costs involved in adding a virtual component to every single event.
To start with, perhaps not every event should be hybrid. This approach could be reserved for major international company events, with smaller-scale local events and seminars delivered virtually, or in-person where appropriate.
Further, switching over to hybrid really doesn’t have to involve a vast increase in expenditure. On the contrary, the in-person component of events will likely be much smaller than pre-pandemic. After all, there will be lower venue, transportation, food and beverage costs, fewer onsite staff and minimal conference materials, as these will all be digital.
Combine this with a bespoke event tech platform which can be ‘reskinned’ for every event on the company calendar and paid for on a subscription basis rather than per event, and the tech costs go down considerably.
Hybrid events could look slightly different from company to company, depending on the core objectives behind their event programmes, so experimentation will be needed in the next 12 months to determine how and where budgets should be spent. However, it’s worth remembering that while spend per event will increase over virtual-only events, so too will ROI, as hybrid events will deliver better engagement, more networking and sales opportunities and, ultimately, a better experience for every attendee.
Why is the move to hybrid a smart decision?
The underlying rationale for hosting events has not changed – they still represent a unique way to engage an audience. But the world has changed and events need to become accessible and engaging in different ways. Quite aside from the impact of the pandemic, remember that large-scale in-person events programmes carry a hefty carbon footprint, and there is growing pressure from customers, investors and employees for business leaders to get this problem under control.
Hybrid events represent the best of both worlds for re-engaging audiences in the post-Covid world – for bringing people together again in a way that recognises and reflects the changed nature of the business world, and business travel in particular.
Advanced technology is needed to deliver these events and create memorable audience experiences, irrespective of how they choose to attend. But that technology is available today and represents a step-change from the basic video conferencing and screen-sharing tools too many companies have been relying on to date.
By combining thoughtful planning with the right technology, hybrid events have the potential to deliver better returns than ever before, which is why we predict that they will soon be the go-to option for companies of all sizes. At which point, we can stop referring to them as ‘hybrid’ and start calling them ‘events’ again.
About the Author
Vanessa Lovatt is Chief Evangelist at Glisser, an award-winning tech platform powering unique company event experiences, anywhere.