By May Martin, Director of Events at Intellum
2020 disrupted business across the globe, but few industries felt that change stronger than meetings & events. As businesses shifted to virtual processes and employees were required to work remotely, in-person meetings & events followed suit in shifting to virtual events.
Even with virtual events’ creativity and ingenuity, the live events industry still lost over $30 billion in revenue last year. While they were a necessary stopgap, virtual events couldn’t completely mirror the energy, excitement, and engagement of in-person events. So, it’s no surprise that people are getting excited about in-person meetings and events being back on the table as the corporate economy reopens.
Meanwhile, hybrid events, which combine in-person programming and virtual programming into a single seamless event, are becoming the new normal. With many organizations still producing virtual events, in-person elements surfaced as early as Summer of 2021. Despite a welcomed celebration of in-person events’ return, details about hybrid events planning are being glossed over, and there is little “real talk” of how hybrid conference models are working (or not).
Full Disclosure: As I write this piece in August of 2021, a surge in coronavirus cases, due largely to the Delta variant, threatens the economic and social progress we have made over the summer. It reminds us that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and that the state of event planning can change overnight. The full scope of the disruption to planned in-person events in 2021 is still unknown. But the need to plan for hybrid and virtual events, if for no other reason than as a contingency, remains very real.
So, how do event planners make hybrid events awesome?
If we’re going to successfully adapt to the new normal of hybrid events, event producers need to share resources, including best practices and lessons learned for planning and executing hybrid events.
I believe there are three areas that are of specific importance:
- Food & beverage
- Logistics & format
- Security & cleanliness
Food & Beverage: Minimizing Contact While Maximizing Efficiency
Introducing a hybrid element to a live event presents a number of questions that event planners need to consider for food and beverage:
- How much to order (for in-person and virtual attendees)
- How to serve it to in-person attendees
- The overall carbon footprint of the packaging
When ordering food and beverage for a hybrid event, event hosts generally pay for every guaranteed meal, whether consumed or not. It’s always been my biggest fear to run out of food, so a rule of thumb that existed even before the pandemic, still applies when creating your F&B order: know your audience, order less food-based, understand the venue’s overset policy and timing, order more food when needed and consider the carbon footprint of the packaging.
As far as serving food to attendees, event producers can have virtual attendees opt-in for virtual event boxes, which are meal kits based on pre-selected menus that can be custom branded and include other collateral. Attendees receive the boxes a day prior to the event, giving them flexibility on when to dig in. Event producers can also send virtual attendees drink recipes to let guests participate in happy hours.
Meal kits like this present a solution for serving food to in-person attendees, too. The biggest challenge here lies in handling food in a way that minimizes crowding and long lines while letting attendees get their food safely and efficiently while also considering the carbon footprint of the packaging. So, meal kits, grab-and-go boxes, or individually packaged items in plastic, preferably recyclable or biodegradable containers would be ideal. Food packaging pre-pandemic used to cost more than non-recyclable items, so the hope is that vendors will work more closely with Event producers and venues to find a happy financial medium where the end result is positive for everyone.
Many other options exist for serving F&B to in-person attendees. Buffets can be adapted into “serviced” buffets with plexiglass separating servers, food, and patrons. A “quick service restaurant” model can be adopted in which patrons use contactless technology to place orders and then pick the order up in a designated location without coming into contact with staff. Splitting attendees up into smaller meal groups can also reduce long lines.
Deciding how to serve attendees food is always at the top of every event producer’s mind. However, shifting to a hybrid format carries a lot of new concerns that must be more publicly discussed and addressed.
Logistics & Format: Ensuring a Safe, Inclusive Experience For All
Like food & beverage, the logistics and format of hybrid events also present a two-part issue.
- Virtual attendees must feel like they are as much a part of the event as their in-person counterparts.
- Cleanliness and spaciousness must be maximized for in-person attendees.
67% of planners in a survey reported that they expected significant support from venues for ensuring the online experience component of a hybrid event. But event producers must ensure that their technology is up-to-speed for connecting virtual attendees to the in-person experience.
There are two components to successfully delivering the virtual side of a hybrid event. The first is a flexible, scalable virtual event platform. The solution must deliver an exceptional user experience (think user journey, agenda building, gamification, sponsor and exhibit pages, virtual and networking opportunities) to help bridge the gap for attendees that are not at your event in person. It should be able to scale up or down at a moment’s notice, as the mix of in-person and virtual attendees can shift constantly as you get closer to your hybrid event launch. It also needs to empower you to track and report on your virtual attendee’s activity and engagement, so you can balance those insights against what you capture for your in-person attendees. This will be critical for your sponsors, as well.
The second is an experienced streaming partner. Strong audio/video support is key in streaming the event to virtual attendees. Support from the in-house AV or 3rd party AV provider can advise on how much bandwidth you’ll need to stream, but a dedicated, stable internet line devoted entirely to streaming is key to ensuring the best AV quality for viewers. Other virtual technology such as a virtual photo booth can help all attendees feel like they’re a part of the in-person experience, too. Technology within the virtual space is ever-growing, and it is exciting to see what works and doesn’t work at different events right now.
Certain existing tools can be leveraged to maintain spaciousness and minimize overcrowding. For instance, mobile apps can foster attendee-staff interaction, and they can also enable remote check-in for hotels. Meanwhile, event planners already use interactive floor plans and room diagramming in mapping out logistics and format. However, these tools can also be used in a way that ensures the flexibility to update plans based on CDC guidelines and local mandates.
Maintaining spaciousness is a way of ensuring cleanliness, which itself is a major part of logistics. With the pandemic still prevalent, cleanliness must be emphasized in the in-person component of hybrid events.
Security & Cleaning: Meeting High Expectations
Health and safety issues remain top-of-mind for people in general, but especially so for event attendees. So, while it’s important to ensure guest safety, it’s also important to be mindful of guests’ safety expectations.
Related to logistics and format, offering different seating options that accommodate varying comfort levels will allow event producers to meet most guests’ expectations. In addition to more common event seating, these options can include tables with plexiglass partitions and tables that allow for solo seating.
Working with venues that are committed to helping you host hybrid events will help you a lot in meeting guests’ safety expectations. But instituting certain rules and requirements, such as being fully vaccinated, requiring all staff to wear personal protection equipment (PPE), and encouraging in-person attendees to wear face masks or face shields will also help ensure safety while presenting a comfortable atmosphere to guests who are concerned about safety.
Event producers should use technology as a means to ensure biosecurity, too. Industrial UV-C air purifiers, thermal scanners to detect symptoms, geofencing apps to notify those who violate social distancing, some sort of secure online vaccine confirmation tool and sanitation stations are all technologies that can promote safety while putting minds at ease.
While we’re all excited to return to in-person events, it’s important to make sure that everyone understands that the rules and requirements are ultimately for their safety and security which will, in turn, help hybrid events be both enjoyable and more meaningful for attendees.
Hybrid Events Can Be Meaningful Events
Conferences and events have always been a way to connect people and strengthen relationships. 2020 then introduced new possibilities of virtual experiences and the flexibility to engage in events no matter where you are in the world.
2021, however, represents an intriguing new frontier for hybrid events. We’re excited to be headed back to in-person events, but at the same time, virtual events will (and should) remain a component of these new events moving forward. That means that virtual attendees will need to be as engaged as in-person attendees.
We must figure out a way to connect people and strengthen relationships through this new hybrid events model in the same way that we did through the traditional events model. Figuring that out will take more than a few people, though.
That’s why the meetings & events community needs to come together to share ideas, have thoughtful and meaningful conversations, and share resources for navigating this new hybrid frontier together.
May Martin is the Director of Events at Intellum and serves as the resident expert on virtual/hybrid events and how they fit into the broader customer education strategy. Prior to joining Intellum, May was the director of corporate events at Gainsight, and she has held senior-level, full-cycle event planning and project management roles at Freeman, UBM/Informa Tech, and O’Reilly.