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A Successful Hybrid Event May Be All About Timing

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A virtual event illustration
Image: Feodora Chiosea - Alamy Stock Vector
As we emerge from our pandemic isolation into the new normal, the challenge of hybrid meetings has dominated the business communications market. As some workers return to the office and meeting rooms, how do we take the virtual meetings and productivity gains and integrate it together with rooms and facilities. In meetings, the hybrid goal is to get a group of people together at the same time in both individual and shared spaces to integrate with one another around a specific meeting topic.
 
With this goal in mind, let’s focus on how individuals in the virtual meeting environment will be perceived and interact with the physical participants in a meeting room and vice-versa. All of this complexity is driven by a simple fact: The hybrid meeting is a synchronous point in time for the entire group.
 
As the industry has begun to think about hybrid events, the thinking has generally followed the same path. How do we take a physical event and create a virtual component? Or how do we create an event where participants can be either physical or virtual attendees and feel as if they attended the same event at the same time. Unfortunately, this line of thinking ignores several issues and realities.
 
The first issue is complexity. Combining a physical and virtual event at the same time requires effective integration of not only technologies but also staff, schedules, spaces, etc. While just adding a “Zoom” component to an event sounds easy, the reality is the complexity to do both together will result in complexity that is an order of magnitude greater than setting up either a virtual event or an in-person event.
 
There appear to be few effective ways to drive personal interaction between participants that are physical with virtual attendees. The reality is that most simultaneous hybrid events have an in-room view for physical attendees and a virtual view for the remote ones, and the participants are totally isolated into their community. Physical attendees can talk to each other, and virtual attendees can chat, but there is little common interaction ground. They may be able to chat between physical and virtual, but that is about all, and many physical attendees may find the effort exceeds the value. And generally, physical participants will not open and use an app during the meeting to stay engaged with virtual participants. The result is that there appears to be little value in having physical and virtual attendees at the event at the same time as they are not really interacting in a meaningful way.
 
Another issue is whether inserting a virtual overlay onto a physical event changes the experience for the physical participant. And if the virtual overlay does change the physical event, how is that event changed for the better or the worse for the physical participant?
 
For example, if the live video and interactions make it harder for the in-room participant to see, the experience is degraded. Similarly, if the presenter is whisked off to a virtual Q&A for the online participants, he or she is not available to the physical audience.
 
Finally, organizations hosting events that are intended to be revenue generators are concerned about having a virtual event that cannibalizes participants from the physical event. With the costs of meeting space and hotel room guarantees, organizers are very concerned about having a virtual version of an event that gives a significant value of the physical event. Even charging for a virtual event may not mitigate potential cannibalization. Even if the virtual event is the same price as the physical one, attending virtual avoids travel, lodging, and meal expense.
 
A potential new way is to separate the value and participation in the virtual event from the physical. If there is no need/capability for interaction between physical and virtual attendees, the events do not need to be at the same time (synchronous) but can be done at separate times (asynchronous). While there may be some advantages to doing a virtual event as a precursor to a physical event, doing a virtual version of the event sometime after the actual physical event presents some intriguing possibilities.
 
A virtual event scheduled for some time (two to four weeks) after the physical event can be positioned as a virtual replay for attendees that could not make the physical event. The virtual event is not positioned as a replacement event but rather as a virtual extension of the past physical event. In this way, a virtual event can be a marketing for the physical event the next time around. It is also a great way to maintain contact when physical events move around locations and attendance is driven by travel distance.
 
If the virtual event has 50-60% of the content, the physical event still holds precedence and value. The replay virtual event can use recorded and edited videos from the physical event. This enables the selection of content optimized for the virtual presentation and maintains a level of differentiated value for the physical event by having some content and experiences exclusive to the physical event. At the virtual replay, the presentation from the physical event can be played, immediately followed by an extended breakout Q&A session between the actual presenter and the virtual audience. For a virtual attendee, this gives them great access to curated content. For physical attendees that decide to also attend the virtual replay, the virtual event offers an opportunity to return to the presenter after the in-person event and ask the questions that arose after the event or a trial usage of a product or service. The virtual version of the event now has proven separate benefits to both physical and virtual participants. And in the virtual toolset, all participants can interact on a level playing field during the replay virtual meetings.
 
This concept of asynchronous hybrid events can transform the event discussion by enabling each “version” of the event to be optimized for each audience, while enabling organizers to clearly differentiate the relative value between a physical and virtual attendance. I have been helping a number of large non-profit and hobby groups consider this challenge and the asynchronous hybrid event appears to have great benefit in preserving the value of physical events while enabling virtual events for those that cannot travel or afford each physical event and also as an on-ramp for new attendees as a step to committing the travel and time resources to attend the physical version. I would strongly encourage event organizers and sponsors to discuss how an asynchronous hybrid version of their event could optimize attendance, experience, and revenue.

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