“The future of events will be hybrid” is already becoming a tired phrase in the event industry, but what do we really mean when we talk about hybrid events?
My growing concern is that many hybrid meetings, despite the best of intentions, will be mediocre events that combine the worst of both worlds – the online participants will be forced into the role as passive onlookers, or the in-person participants will be limited in their involvement because all interaction will be mainly digital.
In this article I present a simple matrix model that hopefully can help nuance and inspire how we understand and talk about hybrid events.
At Workz, we help design and run different forms of leadership summits or strategy kick-offs, mostly for international companies. Because of this, the matrix model is mainly focused on corporate summits with an international audience but hopefully, the framework can also inspire other kinds of events.
The matrix is heavily inspired by two projects
We helped ISS design and execute their global top400 leadership summit. The format was a 3-day hybrid event that combined 8 hours of live broadcast from a main studio with more than 20 local in-person gatherings guided by intensive workshops and a physical business simulation.
The other project is currently underway. For their next top-management summit, one of our pharma clients is looking to create a highly engaging hybrid event with both in-person and virtual participants. The brief: involvement and presentations that will cater to both groups of participants at the same time. Not an easy task.
the hybrid summit matrix
The matrix is based on two simple questions – Are the main presentations primarily done in front of a virtual or in-person audience?And is the “epi-centre” of the summit centralised around a single location or it distributed across several sites?
Based on the combination of the answers, I describe four archetypes of hybrid events including pros and cons.
summit with hangarounds
A physical summit with a significant number of participants in the room and virtual access. Presentations and other activities from a centre stage are broadcast online. As close to a traditional in-person summit as we can get while still being “hybrid”. This set-up can add a lot of complexity to the planning and production – designing a studio with visual content that works great for broadcast is significantly different from creating a solution that accommodate a live audience.
- A large, live audience can increase the sense of authenticity and connection between speakers and participants.
- On-site participants can get a full, social experience with informal networking across different parts of the organisation.
- In-person participation enables multiple ways of running workshops and engaging people – from board games to walk-n-talks.
- The risk of virtual participants feeling disengaged as a ‘secondary’ audience.
- High cost and logistic challenges to accommodate the needs of both on-site and virtual participants.
- It can be difficult to design workshops and activities that are equally valuable for both in-person and virtual participants.
- Is connecting with people in the room more important than creating a strong link with the people watching online? A small practical example – should hosts and speakers address the camera, or should they look at the live audience while they deliver their messages?
- To which degree should the agenda be designed to accommodate for screen fatigue and different time zones?
- Should workshops and engagement activities include the audience as a whole, or is it okay that certain activities are “in-person only”?
studio show with large audience
A virtual event broadcast from a studio with a limited audience in the room. Most participants will watch online sitting by themselves. As close to a pure virtual summit as we can get while still being “hybrid”. This set-up comes very close to making a broadcast show for television with a small live audience.
- The set-up is ideal for creating a great show for the online participants. The in-studio audience can add an extra “live” feeling to the show.
- Virtual engagement can be tailormade to support cross-organisational collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- High savings on travel time, carbon-emissions, airfare, and accommodation as most participants join from home.
- Additional participants can easily join without driving additional costs.
- The in-person participants will get a different experience as both the show and engagement activities will be designed mainly for the virtual audience.
- Creating a great broadcast show from a studio takes a lot of planning and preparation.
- Virtual participation creates extra conditions and constrains such as the risk of screen fatigue and navigating across time zones.
- How can we ensure that the summit stands out to the online participants as something special?
- Who do we invite into the studio and how does this support our message?
- How can we utilise the limited in-studio participants? Can they be activated in ways that deliver extra value to their colleagues joining online?
All participants take part in local in-person sessions e.g. a country or regional leadership team. Here, there is no main location or studio, but all the local events are connected online. Major content and activities such as keynotes will be streamed from one of the local sites to the rest of the participants. Some presentations and activities will be done locally, which offers an opportunity to adjust content and messaging to local conditions and needs.
- A truly international event where all people participate on equal terms.
- At each location, the participants can socialise and engage in-person formally and informally.
- Savings on travel time, carbon-emissions, and airfare.
- Risk of losing the “grandeur” of a large in-person or studio show.
- It can be a logistic challenge to coordinate and execute activities across the different sites.
- Opportunities for cross-organisational collaboration and socialising are limited.
- How to operate between time zones – which activities need to be synchronised? Are there elements than can be pre-recorded or reused?
- Where and how should the CEO and top executives join? Should they be spread out across locations or join at the same site?
studio show with watch parties
A main show, broadcast from a studio, is combined with local in-person gatherings (‘watch parties’) in country leadership teams. This solution makes it possible to combine different virtual and in-person engagement activities – from online reflection teams, where colleagues are mixed across locations, to local workshops and team building.
- The studio broadcast can create a great show and a strong shared experience.
- Participants are not forced to watch by themselves – they can engage and socialise with colleagues at their local event.
- Savings on travel time, carbon-emissions and airfare.
- Missing out on meeting in-person with global colleagues. Executives will be presenting to cameras instead of colleagues in the same room.
- Designing and running a great broadcast show from a studio takes meticulous planning and preparation as well as a smooth production apparatus.
- It can be a logistic challenge to coordinate and execute virtual and in-person activities across the different locations.
- To which degree must the activities at the various local gatherings be coordinated and aligned? What may we gain and what may we lose?
- How can we ensure that the broadcast show is engaging and relevant to all participants?
raising the bar
It is difficult to predict how we will design and run summits in the year to come, but I am sure of one thing: Expectations from participants will be higher. Remote work during the pandemic has taught us that virtual work has many benefits, but we have also been reminded of the value of in-person engagement and socialising.
Therefore, future event designers will need to have good answers to one key question – Why couldn’t this have been a virtual session?
When we bring people together for in-person events, we need to prove that the experience and impact is well worth the effort. Participants’ tolerance for boring one-way presentations, superficial engagement or dry lunch sandwiches will be very low.