A January 2021 survey by Northstar Meetings Group found that while only 21% of planners are currently planning a hybrid event, over 50% believe we should meet in person if we can do so safely. Moreover, regardless of global strides in virtual event production, planners’ overall confidence in the success of their fully online programs is steadily shrinking (Shameless Plug: maybe they need to rethink their production partners!). So what are we to do now that the interest in fully virtual events is on the decline? There’s still so much apprehension about hosting live events, and planners who take the plunge are frequently subject to criticism. By now, we’ve all seen incriminating photos accompanied by a slew of social media detectives arguing about the distance between conference attendees.

As vaccine distribution encounters more logistical challenges than many officials predicted, the timeline to return to our former golden age of live events becomes murkier. It may be another year or more before we produce a carefree 500 attendee live gala where we crowd twelve people around a six-foot table (seriously, though, it’s never been comfortable.. let’s leave that trend in 2019!) But the industry is fairly certain that smaller, regional live experiences will have a comeback this year. Cue hybrid events, a term still shrouded by mystery for many.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about a hybrid event is that we are really creating two experiences – one online & one live – and finding a solution to bond those two events together.

There is a high likelihood that Hybrid will be a long-term strategy, which will continue to be shaped by our new collective mindset as virtual event-goers and virtual event organizers. We still want every attendee to come away from your hybrid program with the same new knowledge and the same emotional reaction, but the truth is, the context in which these two demographics are experiencing your event is quite different. We should be thinking about how we can leverage all that we have learned over the past eleven months to build an environment in which two independent yet connected groups of attendees interact together and with the central program content to create more value for everyone. How can we reap the benefits of both virtual and live events?

Here are some bold ideas to think about as we move into the age of Hybrid exploration.

  1. Smart Hybrid Networking: Some groups are using match-making AI to encourage 1:1 meetings between virtual and IRL attendees. We like the potential for optimizing networking and helping structure authentic conversations, much like icebreakers and themed breakout rooms have done for virtual events. iPad stations and spread out seating in a live lounge during breaks allow space and time for your broader audience to mix & mingle. There are also avatar based options to create a balanced space for hybrid happy hours and the like. We were inspired by this article by Socio that showcases ways to blur the lines between virtual and live. Consider, also, how your virtual audience is pulled into the physical program. Are they seeing only the stage or can we give them a virtual seat at a table in the ballroom for a more immersive experience? Some have suggested inviting virtual attendees on stage via screens to ask questions and communicate with speakers. Live polling and scrolling Chat feed broadcast during the live program are also great ways to engage a virtual audience.

  2. Customized Programming Should be Here to Stay. One major shift we’ve seen in 2020 is that attendees are given more autonomy over their event experience. Instead of packing a day full of sessions, many organizers are asking their audience what they want to hear/ see/ learn about prior to an event and using that feedback to guide their program design. A virtual attendees attention span is just different, so shorter, more focused sessions with short breaks in between help boost engagement. Others are setting up simultaneous breakout sessions where attendees build their own agenda based on their unique interests. This level of content customization adds value to the attendee experience and takes advantage of the expanded range virtual events offer. How useful this approach will be when we return to live event venues but want to give guests space to social distance while letting them structure their own experience?

  3. Consider the Virtual Presentation: Online attendees crave a dynamic experience that rivals a live event. For this reason, the way we showcase your program must evolve. Sure, some organizations may continue with a single-cam live stream approach – and maybe they always have, even in Pre-Covid times – but we need to be thinking of how to create more value, and this just won’t cut it in the latter half of 2021. Video production in 2021 and beyond must compensate for the 2D environment that an online platform provides, in its essence. By integrating different camera angles, closeups, natural moments where a presenter locks eyes with attendees sitting at home on their couches, we can create a fresh and polished experience for online attendees. Branded pop-up graphic overlays displaying speaker names, exclusive bits of information, live poll results or Twitter feed on the lower 1/3 of the screen are minor but effective details to amplify the message within the means of delivery. Some parts of the event may best translate pre-recorded entirely for your online audience.

  4. The 2020 Swag Effect. With virtual events, we’ve had to think outside of the box to create value for attendees to compensate for the fact that they’re not able to attend in person. Specifically, these have been packages that serve as pre-event engagement tools to incentivize people to come. Swag is no longer organizations’ after-thought, but rather part of the marketing strategy, part of the social media strategy to ship something shareable that actually gets people involved. With virtual events, whatever we send has to create value or it’s simply not worth the printed envelop its mailed in. We’ve seen a lot of gourmet boxes, activity kits, cocktail kits, props, and less and less of pens, water bottles etc. Will we continue to provide meaningful material that enhances an event and ties into a program, or we will go right back to branded throwaways? I hope this is a trend that we continue to see long after the pandemic ends.

Do you have anything to add? We would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. MOONSHOT Event Production is here to help you create and implement a strategy for your first revolutionary step back into the live event space. It’s a bold new world!!!!!!!

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