Why hybrid events won’t just be a feature of the pandemic

Born out of pandemic necessity, fully virtual events are steadily giving way to hybrid models. Tim Kridel explores why and how to overcome drawbacks that undermine experiences for attendees and presenters alike.

With the pandemic finally, hopefully in the rear-view mirror, will trade shows, product launches, all-hands company meetings and other live events now revert to in-person gatherings? The definitive answer is, yes and no.

One factor is the type of event. Some are more conducive than others when it comes to exchanging information virtually.

“Feedback from the industry would suggest the hybrid model was very much a necessity rather than the preferred method for conferences, lectures, product launches, trade shows and so on,” says Lauren Jones, Harman Professional Solutions EMEA marketing manager for installed AV. “The last year has taught us product launches do not need to wait until an appropriate trade show. Products can be successfully launched to a target audience when the products become ready.

“Education will return to face-to-face as this is necessary to convey subjects in the physical domain, which cannot be achieved via video, whereas enterprise all-hands or similar events will become a combination of online and in-person type meetings. The new norm of virtual attendance at lectures and trade shows will not take the place of in-person events as most people thrive on human contact and there’s so much more involved than simply a one-way presentation with two-way feedback.”

Cost is another business driver. By providing the option of attending remotely, events can attract people who otherwise don’t have the time or budget to attend. In the case of paid events, that can mean significant additional revenue.

“As many events and organisations have witnessed a sizable uptick in the number of attendees for fully virtual and hybrid events, we can expect to see this trend continue into 2022 and onward,” says Bryce Button, AJA Video Systems director of product marketing. “Hybrid events offer increased flexibility and accessibility for international audiences, enabling a greater number of attendees to view show content from the comfort of their homes.”

Be sure to make hybrid events easy to attend with up-front planning to keep both in-person and remote audiences fully engaged with an agenda designed to be interactive for all audiences. - Rainer Stiehl, Extron

How much greater? About 18 months ago, an awards event was one of the first to use NewTek’s TriCaster product.

“They went from an in-room event of 250 attendees to reaching around 2,500 remotely online,” says Liam Hayter, NewTek senior solutions architect. “They're realising that there is that ability to reach audiences you haven't before. That's not going to go away anytime soon.”

Besides eliminating travel, another potential draw is that hybrid and fully virtual events can enable more efficient use of attendee time.

“Virtual attendees are also able to view more event programming than previously possible, as attending shows in-person required navigating crowds and massive convention centre halls to visit exhibitor booths, talks, and sessions under strict scheduling confines,” Button says. “Streaming content at home or on demand offers a more personalised approach, allowing attendees to partake in events and view what they want, when they want it.”

Back to school
Long before the pandemic, many colleges and universities were offering extensive online coursework. One reason was to cast a wider net; hybrid learning means that a school’s pool of potential students was no longer limited to people who lived within commuting distance or those willing to move to that city.

“Colleges and universities plan to continue in a hybrid model,” says Phil Waterhouse, Crestron education business development manager. “Faculty and instructors have started to enjoy the benefits of new teaching methodologies like hyflex and blended learning. They see it as a good model to continue as it allows students to be in the classroom, attend virtually and be part of the lesson/lecture as it happens.”


As with trade shows, hybrid also helps schools attract speakers who otherwise don’t have the time or budget to travel.

“It opens up opportunities for the establishment to cater for those who are not in the country to attend lessons and brings a different dynamic to teaching,” Waterhouse says. “It also allows the lecturer to be someone who may not be able to travel or is a specialist in a certain topic located in a different region or country. They can drive the lesson from where they are based instead of needing to travel to attend a specific university for what might only be a one-day course.”

Even so, hybrid has its limits. One example is demonstrating products, especially those with a physical component.

“The two bodies that I work with that represent UK universities are reverting back to in-person trade events,” Waterhouse says. “They see the benefit of networking together and physical showing of products and services from manufacturers. It's not as effective virtually to demonstrate products. People want to actually feel and interact with the devices, see how the different applications work, and that can only come in a live environment.

“That is also why Crestron is touring Europe with a mobile experience centre between March and June. It is meant as an alternative for those who can’t wait to get out again but don’t feel comfortable to travel or prefer small, scaled events.”

From pivot to permanent
For organisations that want to continue to offer a hybrid option, one lesson is that the technologies and practices used early on in the pandemic often don’t make sense long term.  

“What did people do at the beginning of the pandemic? They switched to solutions that are originally used for meeting one to one or maybe a few people, but not a larger audience,” says Jan van Houtte, a Barco vice president who’s responsible for the weConnect platform. “You're using those traditional webinar solutions or unified communications (UC) solutions. On your screen, if you're lucky, you will see a few participants, but hardly any in detail and not many.”

Over the past year, many vendors have tweaked their portfolios and strategies to meet demand for better hybrid experiences, especially at scale. For example, Barco initially designed weConnect for teaching and training use cases but subsequently expanded the platform into the meetings and events markets.

Two more examples are Zoom Events, a turnkey platform for building, hosting and managing virtual events, and Zoom Event Services, which includes production, moderation, audio mixing and video switching. At the end of 2021, Zoom also acquired Liminal, a provider of event production systems.

Wei Li, head of Zoom Events, says that two key success factors are content quality and audience engagement.

“When we say quality of content, this is referring to a professional-looking production, access to event material and perhaps a mix of live content versus some pre-recorded content,” she says. “Anyone who has to host events knows that there [are] so many things that could go wrong. So a mix of both [content types] is a very common practice.

“And when it comes to the audience engagement, don't assume that every single audience wants 400% engagement. Everyone is looking for something different. Some people like to lean in and get very engaged, and some people may want to lean back and [just] come to learn.”

Room with a view
For some events, such as trade show breakout sessions and college classes, presenters will want to be able to see as many of the remote participants as possible, to get visual feedback. Providing that gets tricky. For example, the July 2020 Inavate explored how a college classroom could have displays ringing the room so the professor and students can see their remote peers. Barco suggests using a formula to calculate the size and number of displays.

“If you take a 55-in display and divide it in six so each remote person has 1/6 of the screen, we feel that this is approximately life size,” van Houtte says. “That means if you have 12 people, you need two displays. If you have 24 people, you need four displays, et cetera. So you need a solution that can scale such that independent of the amount of participants, the remote people are always represented in the same way.”

In the classroom or meeting room, “representation” also means steering cameras and mics to focus on the person who’s speaking at a particular moment.

“Make sure that the camera is supported by an intelligent video solution with features such as framing and tracking to ensure that all participants have an ‘equal seat’ at the table, whether they are attending remotely or in person,” says Creston’s Waterhouse.

Colleges and universities plan to continue in a hybrid model. Faculty and instructors have started to enjoy the benefits of new teaching methodologies like hyflex and blended learning. - Phil Waterhouse, Crestron

But some events have hundreds or thousands of remote participants. Displaying them all in life size would require so many screens that it would make the conference room or ballroom look like a command-and-control room. Accommodating these types requires nuanced decisions about different audience types.  

“Who needs to be interactive, or what I call like an ‘active audience,’ versus who needs to just be watching?” says NewTek’s Hayter. “A lot of people seem to get the two confused. They think that you need to have 1,000 people on Zoom. 

“Do those thousand people need to be contributing [and] talking live? Those decisions around viewing audience needs, and what level of interactivity you want to give them, there are signs we're starting to see people get their heads around that sort of stuff.” 

The attendee registration process is one way to ferret out these needs and wants.

“Obtain detailed information on participants, their interests and plan how to engage interactively throughout the event using polling, breakout sessions, chat comments, lighting and variety of backgrounds to fully engage the audience,” says Rainer Stiehl, Extron EMEA vice president of marketing.


Quick cuts and customisation
Visual variety is also key for engaging remote participants, including those who aren’t attending in real time because, for instance, the event is held during the middle of their night. For example, TV newscasts and talk shows switch between camera feeds every seven to ten seconds to help keep viewers’ attention. This can be done live or in post-production, depending on factors such as staff levels. It’s also another example of how relying on traditional conferencing platforms and practices can lead to the same “videoconferencing fatigue” for events.

“If you have a lot of static imagery and the traditional grid of faces, that's not very engaging for your audience over, say, a half-hour seminar or a 45-minute panel discussion,” says NewTek’s Hayter. “So again, production techniques really, really help with that visual variety.” 

For integrators and vendors with integrator-style services, the burgeoning hybrid market means plenty of work beyond box sales.

“Be sure to make hybrid events easy to attend with up-front planning to keep both in-person and remote audiences fully engaged with an agenda designed to be interactive for all audiences,” Stiehl says. “Just as you would with an in-person event, having AV technology that meets your needs is critical.

“Also, have live assistance staff available to help resolve issues in real-time for sponsors, speakers, exhibitors and participants. Don’t forget to determine the detailed metrics and processes you’d like to capture beyond just the number of participants such as the most popular speakers, booths and sessions, engagement and drop rate of attendees, leads generated at virtual booths, downloads of digital collateral, views of demonstrations and analytics from breakout chats and meeting rooms.”

Top image credit:  Arnold O. A. Pinto/Shutterstock.com

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