Graphic: While live-streamed meetings might be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid events,” big brands like Absolut are getting in on the trend too. At the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, for example, the beverage brand created Absolute Land, which comprised both an in-person activation and a metaverse-based edition. Both types of guests could interact with each other in a bar area that was central to both gatherings. See more: Coachella 2022: Peek Inside the Festival’s Buzziest Parties & Brand Activations

This article was published in BizBash on 4/28/22 by Claire Hoffman.

We asked 11 top event professionals for a widespread view of what works now in hybrid event production—and what needs to happen to make this an effective, long-term event format.

What a difference a year (or two) makes. Last spring, BizBash caught up with event producers across North America to learn how their approach to virtual event production had evolved since the start of the pandemic. Now, as the world continues reopening, “hybrid”—aka, an event with both a virtual and in-person audience—has been the hot topic on everyone’s lips.

But just like with virtual events, producers have learned quite a bit in the last year. Client and attendee expectations have changed as technology evolves and speakers and planners get more comfortable playing to both audiences; so, what worked in 2021 might come up short in 2022.

We caught up with 11 top event professionals around the country to get a widespread view of what they believe is currently working in hybrid event production—and what needs to happen to make it an effective, long-term event format. Here are their tips.

1. Focus on the experience first and foremost.
Scott Kellner, senior vice president of sales and marketing for global experience marketing agency GPJ, thinks many people are actually approaching hybrid events backwards. “They begin with the technology and craft their plans based on what that technology allows them to do,” he points out. “Instead, clients need to have a firm grasp of what success looks like—in terms of metrics, brand affinity, brand awareness, etc.—and then design the experience, including the technology, to achieve the goals. In other words, the platform is not the experience. The platform is one tool for delivering the desired experience.”

2. You may need to continue reworking the budgets and staff roles you’re used to.
Many event technology budgets have increased in the last year to accommodate for hybrid events, notes Lisabeth Kane, senior event and logistics manager for talent booking agency All American Entertainment, in a recent blog post. “People’s experience with tech in 2021 has made them more comfortable investing in better audiovisual production equipment to create outstanding experiences for both in-person and virtual attendees,” she says, adding that money is smartly being invested in producing creative content for before, during and after an event.

“Releasing this content online is a very economical way to increase an event’s ROI and makes an investment in technology worthwhile,” she adds. “Event producers are also being hired at a higher rate to take on this huge responsibility of handling the new tech. Their expertise is being used to take in-person content and transform it into virtual content.”

But Katie McIntyre, associate strategy director for event and marketing firm Opus Agency, cautions that with great vision sometimes comes the need for great budgets. “As the COVID-19 pandemic surged across the globe, there seemed to be a mass consensus that virtual was a vital component of any successful long-term event strategy,” she remembers. “With the world reopening, however, budgetary realities are reasserting themselves. In many cases, there are not enough funds to produce a hybrid event that equally prioritizes both in-person and virtual attendees.”

3. Free virtual attendance isn’t always the best strategy anymore.
To help combat those budgetary concerns, McIntyre cautions that “free is not a strategy.” She continues: “In our initial experiments with the digital format, it felt natural to offer free registration—after all, we were still learning how to deliver in this new medium. But with virtual components now part of a larger, blended strategy, it is hard to justify continuing the practice. As Thomas Paine said, ‘What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.’ If the content has value, then that value persists regardless of delivery method. Charge accordingly.”

4. Remember that audiences and clients expect higher production values in 2022.
In 2021, audiences and clients might have been more forgiving of awkward transitions or tech problems at hybrid events. But in 2022, they’ve come to expect a bit more. 

“The biggest shift from 2021 to 2022 is our event audience—their appetite, their expectations and their interest level,” says Elizabeth Sherry, director of development and strategic partnerships for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Sherry recalls a recent high-end virtual event that felt, in her words, slightly “amateur” in 2022. “Shaky video that you can tell was pre-recorded. Technical errors, which I always give grace to—but how a team reacts to it is something we should know by now,” she points out. “In this instance, you could overhear the team whisper to each other that audio from a video was not working.”

In addition to smoother tech support, audiences are expecting higher-quality production values, too. “Pre-pandemic, most virtual events had one camera. Now we are seeing a desire for two or three cameras in a room,” points out Scott Williford, founder and CEO of video production company vLink Solutions. “Low-quality web cameras are also no longer acceptable. Hybrid audiences now expect virtual events to be streamed at full 1080DP up to 4K video.”

And give virtual audiences some level of interaction, Williford adds. “Hybrid event attendees want to choose the content they consume to aid in their decision making. Instead of offering content that feels like a webinar, where every virtual attendee sees the same content, offer multiple simultaneous sessions that happen both live and virtually.”

For his part, GPJ’s Kellner does see brands and event hosts really investing in this area. “Despite markets opening up in many regions of the world, major brands are investing in professionally designed studios so they can stream to both internal and external audiences as part of their overall marketing communications,” he observes. “Because this investment is being made, the trailblazing brands are taking a much more strategic approach to their streaming—including not only the technology integrations necessary to generate tangible ROI, but also the aesthetics of their studios. Now, we’re seeing executive briefing centers, centers of excellence and even corporate HQ lobbies designed to create a meaningful experience for both the in-studio and remote audiences.”

5. Give virtual attendees their own unique experience.
“We’ve grown used to thinking of our hybrid audiences as a monolith (not surprising, as they largely have been for the past two years),” points out Opus Agency’s McIntyre. “Now it’s time to start collecting and analyzing the data that will tell us how they differ, and tailor our experiences to most effectively deliver on their needs. One size may fit all, but it is seldom flattering.”

 vLink Solutions’ Williford agrees. “One of the biggest changes we are seeing in hybrid events is exclusive content for remote audiences. We are increasing the engagement of remote audiences by producing high-quality, behind-the-scenes videos, live interviews and exclusive sessions that are only available to virtual attendees,” he says.

6. But remember that in-person and virtual attendees expect to interact with each other.
Although virtual and in-person attendees can’t bump into each other at the coffee stand, it’s still a best practice to offer interaction options for the two groups–so neither group feels like an afterthought. Valerie Bihet, owner of the event production company VIBE Agency, thinks evolving technology is starting to effectively bridge that gap.

“With the emergence of more apps for the virtual platforms, those who are in-person can stay in connection with the conversations happening online [via] the chat in a way they could not before,” she says. “Because of this, it’s even more important now for planners to ask their production companies and virtual platform hosts if they have a mobile component so the attendees can have this interaction, which I am seeing more start to expect.”

If the budget allows, one popular pandemic-era trend can still be a great way to link the two types of attendees: at-home deliveries. It’s a practice the team at the event management company Zinc Agency leaned into for a recent hybrid event with celebrity chef Amanda Freitag, which had 30 in-person guests and 30 guests watching via a stream. “We had cameras set up throughout the entire venue, so guests not physically in the space still felt connected to the event. Then to really connect in-person and hybrid, we had curated meal kits sent to the virtual guests,” explains Zinc Agency co-president Will Steinberg. “So in the end, all the guests were able to network, interact, build relationships and enjoy an amazing meal.”

Zinc Agency’s other co-president, Zachary Yabroff, adds that Zinc Agency has actually “launched an entirely new division of our business that is dedicated to sending these [curated kits themed around the experience] right to your front door.” He adds, “We also have launched our Zincstream Platform, which enables guests at home to enjoy the performance and mingle with others just like they would at a live event. Our next venture is taking our events to the metaverse, to create an even more real-life experience without having to necessarily travel to an event.”

7. Consider an experienced emcee—and other ways to engage both audiences.
To help bridge the gap between the two groups, All American Entertainment’s Kane suggests hiring an emcee. “My clients are finding that an effective emcee is not just a department manager, vice president or president—it takes a different skill set,” she points out. “You want a talent that is really adept at providing an emcee experience.”

An effective emcee will know how to engage both audiences, she adds. “In-person, a great emcee can keep the energy high and provide a seamless transition between in-person and virtual speakers. For the online attendees, an emcee can also provide much smoother transitions between content and help everyone stay on the same page. Emcees can also facilitate interactions between in-person and virtual attendees using the more sophisticated chat and polling functions we have in 2022.”

Melissa Park, owner of Melissa Park Events, likes having a dedicated virtual emcee to guide the show. Her other suggestions to engage both audiences? “Being selective about the content that’s actually shared, and then providing access to a library of presentations to be viewed at one’s leisure. [Also,] including entertainment to keep the energy high, and ensuring speakers are trained and confident presenting to a virtual audience,” she says. “Finally, adding engaging elements that make sense and help achieve the event’s mission and goals—for example, polls to drive key messaging home, live speaker Q&A, and the opportunity to network and conduct 1:1 meetings with other attendees with the click of a button.”

8. Remember that virtual experiences should evolve over time.
If a hybrid event is recurring, remember that just like a fully in-person gathering, experiences should evolve over time. “When you do an in-person event, you want to change the venue each time rather than go back to the exact same space year over year,” notes VIBE Agency’s Bihet. “The same can now be said for the hybrid event. The virtual platform needs to continually evolve each time. … That includes the introduction of the new APIs into the platforms and continual design updates so that our clients feel they have a new experience each time, and the attendee engagement and satisfaction goes up each event.”

9. Lean into the benefits of hybrid, and remember that it can open your event up to an entirely new audience.
“The last two years have taught us that the world is a lot smaller than we once thought,” points out Park. “Incorporating a virtual option enables you to reach a much wider audience and from the audience’s perspective, it enables them to experience or get a taste of the program without having to risk/spend the money it costs to travel to an event.”

It goes far beyond geographic diversity, too. “Clients that have been embracing hybrid are seeing the benefits immediately and are starting to invest more in the ability to reach wider audiences,” says Matthew Byrne, president of Byrne Production Services. “One of the key factors in adopting a hybrid strategy with our clients has been the realization of the critical need for inclusion in their events. While some clients are moving back to live only, they are risking alienating a large portion of their employees and audience.”

And while attendees are eager to return in-person, virtual and hybrid options will likely be considerations for the foreseeable future. Larry Abel, CEO of experiential agency Abel McCallister Abel, sees virtual as a more supportive—but crucial—component.

“Consumers are excited about merging high-touch with high-tech, which pushes us to present new, immersive digital experiences through sensorial elements like light, sound, hologramming, scents and interactive screens and AR,” says Abel. “As we look forward, we’ll continue to see the rise of digital activations playing a big role in real-life immersive experiences—and moving far beyond, in both capability and variety, the deluge of Zoom meetings in spring of 2020.”