Everybody loves to talk about welcoming change. Then change happens, and whew, it’s tough. After the past few years, meetings and events professionals certainly appreciate that feeling, but they’re also feeling energized by so many new ways for attendees to gather.
“The industry was due for a reinvention,” says Ryan Murphy, director of sales and marketing at technology-focused event production company Projection. “Something beautiful and meaningful has stemmed from the pandemic. We can now do things more than one way, increasing our potential to add creativity and engagement. In the case of our company, we morphed from working like Broadway producers to suddenly becoming television producers overnight. Now what we’re seeing is more production value on live events,” Murphy continues. “It’s similar to producing televised awards shows that are educationally blended, glitzy, and immersive.”
“It goes without saying that 2020 was excruciating for our industry,” says Linda McNairy, vice president of American Express Meetings & Events. “But it did prompt us to engage in more meaningful conversations that dug into the why and how of what was happening. We worked to understand more deeply the importance of bringing people together in challenging environments. For our part, it has been an opportunity we have embraced.”
“The very concept of in-person events is evolving, and we will need to cater to the needs of a new generation,” says Julius Solaris, an expert on event trends and founder of consulting firm Boldpush. “It’s almost like learning a new language,” says Maggie Pearson, senior conference director at Conference Managers. “This is definitely the year of the hybrid meeting.”
Learning the Language of Hybrid
If, as Pearson says, we have all been learning a new language, then what can we discover from those who have become most fluent in this new way of planning and conducting meetings? Across the country, industry professionals are seeing growing registration numbers when meetings include a virtual option, and those attendees are frequently first-timers who had never been able to attend before for any number of reasons, including cost, travel complications, and disabilities. They are using technology like holograms to bring remote speakers closer to audiences, wherever they are. And many are finding that even in-person attendees are often deciding they will virtually attend
sessions, choosing to spend their on-site time reconnecting with colleagues they have not seen in years.
“When we first began talking about hybrid meetings, we were thinking about synchronous events where viewers at home would see every single part of the meeting on their screens,” explains Sarah Michel, vice president of professional connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting Inc. “We learned very quickly that it’s too expensive to pull off a synchronous meeting, so what we’re witnessing now is a reimagining of how hybrid can work.”
You Want Me to Plan Two Meetings?
Oftentimes, “hybrid” means that two different meetings need to be planned—one live experience and a second recast of content a few weeks after with speakers invited back for live questions and answers. And some hybrid meetings have speakers presenting online and in person in real time. Those who have already done it know that the labor required to create both in-person and virtual meetings is intense. “It’s super taxing on a team that has probably grown leaner in the past couple years,” Michel says.
Not only are two meetings required, but the in-person experience also can’t be the same old thing you were doing in 2019, either. “If you had your attendees on the treadmill of ‘general session/ break/concurrent/lunch,’ it’s not going to work anymore,” Michel says. “Programming with talking head speakers at the front of the room is also a thing of the past. Attendees literally won’t go into those rooms now. People want interactive, peer-to-peer learning sessions. The speaker is looked at as a guide/facilitator of the experience and is no longer seen as the smartest person in the room.”
“No one wants to spend hours consuming content, so we’re finding that very short, ‘packed’ sessions, about 20 to 40 minutes, are working well,” says Andrew Roby, creative director at Andrew Roby Events. “People can consume it, then take a break. The era of the two-hour keynote or panel session is over.”
How to Blend It All Up Without Losing Your Mind
“This is the time to be flexible and try new things,” suggests Karen Hartline, director of corporate events for tech company GitLab. “In-person events now shouldn’t look and feel like they did pre-pandemic. Sensory overload is a real thing, as we’re around hundreds and thousands of people at a meeting. And remember how you feel being on video calls all day long? We need to consider more breaks to allow people to recharge and refocus both in person and online.”
Many of the experts we spoke with are including some in-person-only content, and some that has been repackaged and repurposed with online-only elements. Hartline shares GitLab examples: “We’re working on an event that will have a simultaneous in-person/online component for the opening and closing keynotes. We’re considering things like having the speakers come on camera for the online audience immediately following to answer live questions, with the thought that that will give a special experience to those not there in person,” Hartline continues. “We’re also working on an event that has in-person and remote aspects, but on different dates, which essentially is two separate events with similar content. This allows our small team to focus on the right experience for each event.”
What Happens Now?
Get out your crystal ball. Then toss it out the window (assuming you’re on a low floor), because that thing hasn’t done you any good the past few years. Even if it feels like we’re stumbling in the dark, we must keep planning and moving forward. When we asked experts what’s ahead, they shared thoughts about the general direction meetings and events might be taking, at least for the short term. “While these hybrid events are not always easy to pull off, I think a lot of organizations realize the power of tapping into a larger audience, having less travel time, and being more inclusive,” says Liz King Caruso, event planner, strategist, and CEO at Techsytalk. “As in-person comes slowly back, organizations will want to hold onto the benefits of virtual meetings.”
“Now that everyone has been forced to meet online for an extended period of time and sees that it can work, I think it will now be a consideration to be included in every event-planning process moving forward,” Hartline says. “Attendees will expect it, even if it’s not a full mirror of the in-person event, and event planners will embrace it, since it gets you started on a plan that’s a bit easier to change to if in person isn’t able to happen.”
“We need to balance what we learned the past few years,” McNairy says. “It’s important to treat each individual as a whole person. In the past, an ‘invitation’ to a company event was really a command performance. But people have family issues, health issues, and other challenges that keep them from wanting to—or being able to—travel to events. Now is the right time to focus on effectively utilizing hybrid elements to curate access to key components of meetings, so that if you can’t make it in person for the entire event, you can still participate in key moments.”
And, along the way, McNairy urges all of us to be forgiving of ourselves. “This work is going to stretch our brains, so it’s important to know you will make mistakes. Lean into them and be honest, but don’t stop pushing forward.”