With the impact of COVID-19 on in-person meetings and events, planners everywhere have been rescheduling events or pivoting to virtual events for the better part of a year now. With the vaccine rolling out and cases decreasing across the country, many of us are planning small (and often regional) events and pairing these with a larger virtual component. Industry experts expect these new hybrid events to be the norm through 2021 and even into 2022, depending on the vaccine rollout and herd immunity. Resuming any aspect of in-person events is a big step, but it presents a whole new set of challenges…
How do we make the virtual event as engaging as the in-person aspect? How do we bring value to the attendees, whether virtual or on-site?
Below we’ll be diving into several tips, tricks, and best practices to create engaging and memorable hybrid events.
A Hybrid Event Should Be One Event With Two Experiences
By now, we all realize the key to a great event is creating a memorable experience for your attendees. But how can we do this for two very different audiences, virtual and in-person? A great place to start is to think about creating two different experiences.
Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you have to plan two completely different events. All you have to do is be mindful of all of your attendee’s perspectives and think of both your in-person and virtual audience’s experience when planning all aspects of the event.
Keep Registration Flexible
With health and safety being at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it is imperative to make sure your registration and refund policies reflect that. Show your attendees that you value their health, and the safety of the event is a top priority by allowing them flexible registration options and refunds or credits to future events. If someone is experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the last thing you want is for them to come to your event because they are concerned about losing out on the registration fees they have paid. Offer them the option to switch their registration from on-site to virtual or to transfer it to a future event. The more flexible you and your policies are, the more comfortable people will feel registering to attend.
In addition to flexible refund or cancellation policies, consider offering various registration options for both virtual and on-site attendees. With most of us working from home, sharing an office space with loved ones or the dining room and children home from school, committing to a full day or days of an event (even virtually) can be difficult. Allow attendees to pick and choose their sessions a la carte or offer half-day, or partial attendance passes at a reduced cost. Having flexible options will allow more people to fit participation in your event into their schedule.
Setting proper expectations for your attendees has long been a focus for meeting planners everywhere, and its importance has only increased in our mid and post-pandemic world.
For your hybrid event, focus your communication around setting their expectations of both your onsite and virtual attendees on the categories below:
- Health and Safety Procedures or Protocols
- Registration or Refund Policies
- Technology - What will be used and how?
- Interaction - How will in-person or virtual attendees interact?
- Engagement - How can they expect to participate?
Provide a schedule
This might seem simple since all meetings have a schedule but take it one step further. Provide a similar (but not identical) schedule to virtual attendees as to the on-site group. Make sure to schedule in:
- Structured Networking
- Breakout Sessions
- Engaging or Immersive Activities
Just because they're at home doesn't mean they don't need a break. Provide your online attendees with ample time to break, network, and breakout into smaller groups. Consider when in-person attendees will be networking in-person and arrange that time for virtual attendees to intermingle too. Choose a technology that allows in-person and virtual attendees to network with each other. Consider providing extra screens, an iPad, or an app that facilitates this.
Just as groups would break up at the direction of a speaker or workshop leader, create breakout sessions and groups for your online attendees as well so they get the same experience. Structure and administration are your friends here. They will maintain a sense of familiarity and normalcy for your online guests.
- Find the Right Technology
- Provide a Central Location for All Attendees to Meet Online
- Provide a Matchmaking Experience
- Involve Both Audiences in the Q&A for the Speakers
- Keep Content Evergreen
Find the Right Technology
When setting up a hybrid event, do test runs to ensure the audio/visual quality is ideal for both the in-person and online attendees. Having good sound and picture on both ends will make for a better, more successful event.
If you have additional funds due to the smaller in-person event, this is an excellent opportunity to spend a little more on high-end audio/visual equipment. Invest in a good quality camera and microphone, have skilled tech-support on standby in case of an emergency, and pick a hosting site that will not glitch. Putting in the extra time and effort in these areas creates a more seamless and streamlined event.
By now, we are all used to streaming movies, being on Zoom calls, and using our cellphones to shoot 4k or professional-looking portrait mode photos, so people will notice if your picture and sound is not up to par. Your attendees may or may not comment if you have an excellent presentation, but you can be sure that people will talk about poor audio and visual quality.
Choose technology that enables you to engage with your virtual attendees as well as in-person. Add screens to the on-site event that pull in and feature the virtual audience. Feature virtual speakers as well as in-person to ensure the participants at home are equally involved and valued.
Presenting an event that runs smoothly and is free from technical difficulties (such as your online attendees having a difficult time hearing or vice-versa) is vital to creating a successful event. The best events are those that the front-end believes go off without a hitch.
If you want to create an event that feels more natural, normal, and enjoyable, be sure to choose the right tools and test the video calling technology several times beforehand.
When doing test-runs and fine-tuning the details, make sure you are not only focusing on one side or another. Even more than typical pre-COVID events, hybrid events must be especially engaging and valuable.
Provide a Central Location for All Attendees to Meet Online
Ensure your event platform offers an area where both groups of attendees (virtual and onsite) can meet and gather with speakers, organizers, and each other. Additionally, consider creating a group specific to the event on a social platform like LinkedIn or Facebook ahead of time to encourage group interaction and engagement. Bear in mind the demographic of your attendees and the vibe you’re going for to determine what social network or app will work best.
We all want to create events worth attending, but getting people there is the first step. Hype up your attendees, get them excited and push the folks who are on the fence onto the RSVP side. Show them that they can’t even consider missing your event. This is your time to shine! Use your marketing prowess: graphics, video clips, gifs, memes, hashtags, tweets, and utilize your website as the home base and info central.
This way, your attendees will be encouraged to interact with one another and get excited for the event weeks before. Interacting via social media before the event will help break the ice that hybrid events can create. Stop that before it starts. Enable all attendees to connect by encouraging networking in advance.
Post encouraging quotes, updates, and news relevant to your upcoming event to the group and your various social media accounts. Invite attendees to share their interests and create posts themselves with your custom event hashtag that will enhance conversations and help to facilitate connections before the event. This will further along conversations and get people excited to attend. This is another place you can keep the event evergreen by keeping the chats open and content accessible long after the event has ended.
Provide a Matchmaking Experience
Just as you would with an onsite event, match attendees 1-on-1 or in small groups from similar industries and interests. In-person attendees will be socially-distanced, while virtual attendees can have virtual meeting rooms or even a hybrid where technology brings them into the physical space. Utilize iPads, laptops, and cameras connected to screens to facilitate this interaction.
Create an exciting atmosphere for creative thinking. Meeting face to face in person or virtually can facilitate a plethora of fresh ideas. Breakthroughs take place, and change happens. With hybrid meetings, it is crucial to keep attendees engaged. Outside of what new knowledge your attendees take away from the sessions, networking is the biggest draw to event attendance. Even though they are virtual or the event is hybrid, networking can be facilitated to add value to your event. It may take some extra planning time, but the results will be well worth it.
Involve Both Audiences in the Q&A for the Speakers
Make sure the technology you choose can accommodate both the virtual and in-person audience for Q & A with the speakers. Prep your speakers or host to alternate between calling on someone in the audience and using a question from the chat or virtual audience. If you have screens set up, stream the virtual attendee asking the question “in-person” into the meeting room.
Your virtual audience won’t feel like they are playing 2nd fiddle to the onsite guests, and this will maintain a sense of unity for your event while adding value to all attendees' experiences. They will get to learn from each other and connect in a very real and live way as one group.
Keep Content Evergreen
Aside from the ability to continue hosting meetings and events during a global pandemic, the biggest value to having virtual or hybrid events is the ability to keep the content evergreen. Choose a hosting platform or technology stack that allows you to keep chats open and the content accessible long after the event has ended. This will enable your attendees to access the content again and continue to learn from the sessions as well as network and create new connections long after the doors have closed.
If you’re struggling to find the event platform that is right for you (or just curious about what else is out there), check out our blog Best Apps for Virtual Events and Trade Shows 2021! We dive into 17 of the best options on the market.
Have a Dedicated Host or Hosts
Having a moderator is always a good idea, but it is a necessity when it comes to hybrid events. Consider a dedicated moderator and live stream everything, including the breaks, to bring the ambiance of the event to the at-home audience.
A moderator, specifically one who is technologically savvy, will make a world of difference to your hybrid event. When you are looking for a moderator, certain criteria are ideal. Make sure that they are familiar with the technology used at your event (both in-person and online).
This will help prevent any snags that could slow down the process and make your in-person or online guests uncomfortable. Choosing at least one moderator for your hybrid event will help to carry things along, facilitate conversations seamlessly, and make your event go off without a hitch.
Engage and Acknowledge Your Online Attendees
As we discussed above, hosting hybrid events means creating two experiences. Remember, you aren’t simply live streaming your event to an at-home audience. To make a good impression on your online attendees, you must acknowledge, involve, and engage your online attendees.
One of the most difficult things about online events and social distancing can be the lack of connection. Holding conversations over video calls may seem normal for most of us by now, but that does not take away our memories of everyday life before COVID.
Instead of thinking of it as if you are only hosting one event, recall that you are hosting two experiences. That way, your team will not forget the folks participating from home. Maintaining communication, interaction, and engagement with all your hybrid event attendees, both in-person and online, is critical for a successful hybrid event.
Create Engaging Content
The phrase “Go big or go home” applies well to hybrid events. In this case, if event planners do not "go big," their guests may be more inclined to "stay home" or not even attend in the future. Obviously, we don’t want that. So, keep your event engaging even before it starts.
To do this, event planners need to create engaging content. This means videos, talks, music, and atmosphere. Having the proper signage and graphics for your onsite guests is vital. Your in-person and online guests will have one thing in common: their sensory experiences will be more or less the same. That means that everything they see and hear will be twice as important as usual.
Focusing on the content and making it engaging will help avoid the glaringly less crowded rooms and spaces, so in-person attendees do not feel awkward. Moreover, attention-grabbing content will keep your virtual attendees engaged in the event and less likely to get distracted or chalk it up to another case of Zoom fatigue.
Make sure your pre-event promotion hype matches the level of engagement your event will create. Sneak peeks of speakers, and other engaging content will do just enough to entice and draw in attendees. Leave them wanting more!
Depending on your event type, choose the best speakers your budget can afford. In most cases, they ought to be entertaining, popular, and charismatic speakers who can drive audience engagement and create experiences. Since you’re most likely saving money on the physical venue, food, and other expenses related to hosting larger events, you can spend more on your events’ most important content – the speakers. Often when an event ends, even though everything makes an impression, it is the speaker that people are still talking about.
Offer the Same Experience to the At-Home Attendee as the In-Person Attendee
One of the parts of in-person events that attendees miss the most is sharing experiences that often happens outside of the sessions. Think of starting the day off with beach yoga, coffee, and snack breaks between sessions and end of the day happy hours that all create a bond and facilitate additional networking.
Many of these activities can occur socially distanced and safe for your onsite participants, but how can you include or engage your at-home audience? The simple answer is just include them!
Some ideas for activities that both audiences can participate in are:
- Food and Drink Experiences
- Coffee or Snack Breaks
- Food or Drink Tastings
- Featured Menus
- Happy Hours
- Fitness or Wellness Experiences
- Meditation or Relaxation
- Yoga or Mindfulness
- Dance or Zumba
- General Workout or Bootcamp
Have attendees, both in-person and virtual, share photos and videos of their experiences with the event’s unique hashtags on social media.
If there is a cocktail hour or group lunch, send the virtual attendees what they need to participate ahead of time. Yoga on the beach for in-person attendees? Why not stream the session and provide virtual attendees with branded mats, headbands, or reusable water bottles?
On that note, don’t underestimate the power of swag bags. Providing free “swag” to your attendees will make them feel instantly more engaged and connected to each other and your event. Giveaways might include practical things like sticky notes, branded face masks, or even miniature hand sanitizer. In the age of COVID-19, practical swag like these will stick around a lot longer than a beach ball or drink koozie.
If you are interested in other ideas on how to engage the at-home audience head on over to our Engaging Attendees Through Virtual Events blog!
In the age of COVID-19, the meeting and events industry is used to the word pivot, and this challenging but worthy task is no longer a rarity. We have pivoted from entirely in-person events to virtual, and as parts of the country and world allow gatherings to happen are now pivoting to hybrid events. By experimenting with and adopting some of the new practices we discussed, you can curate successful hybrid events that recreate the experience and efficacy of in-person tradeshows, conventions, and so much more.