Hybrid conferences allow distant and in-person attendees to both experience important association gatherings. This format is here to stay, especially in the near term. Let’s look at why, and at ways your staff can make the best of the hybrid form.
Four Reasons Hybrid Conferences are Here to Stay
The hybrid format provides protection to some, and great convenience to others:
● Covid remains a serious threat for those with certain health concerns.
● “Working from home” works for conference attendees, too.
● The money and time saved through virtual attendance would still be a compelling benefit sans Covid.
● Interacting, networking, and examining product offerings in person are each important, and some attendees will accept nothing less. This means fully online conferences are unlikely to be common in the near term, if ever.
How to Make Your Hybrid Conference a Great Event
If hybrid conferences are the likely norm, how do we make the most out of serving two segmented audiences?
Begin from a place of confidence
Two years into the pandemic, it’s likely you’ve held a hybrid conference, virtual conference, or an in-person conference with Covid restrictions. If not, a hybrid conference will simply require using your event planning skills in a slightly new way.
Make the hybrid form the central question of your advance planning
As you begin planning your next conference, decide how online programs will be conducted and what form in-person programs will take, including Covid procedures. It’s easier to modify plans if circumstances change than to create them under pressure.
Capitalize on reduced attendance
Reduced in-person attendance lets you use a smaller venue or use the space in a large one more freely. The former will reduce costs and may open up more options for a new or unique location. The latter can make Covid safety easier, change the look of a previously crowded exhibit hall, etc.
Consider simplifying your execution
Conference teams already have a seemingly endless list of responsibilities, and streaming adds to that. You may be able to simplify by dividing the online conference from the in-person conference. One or both of these options may work for you:
● Divide your team “on the day of” into an online team and IRL team. Each will only have to deal with one set of procedures and each type of attendee is served by a group focused on their needs.
● Have presenters to speak to in-person crowds, then leave the stage and transition to a studio space where they conduct a workshop for online attendees. Whether this works well will depend on the type of presentations, whether paid speakers from outside the association are common, etc. However, it takes advantage of the difference in formats and gives online attendees an interactive experience that amounts to more than watching a speech online.
Include online attendees
If you’re not putting online and in-person attendees on different tracks, be sure to include the virtual crowd in the IRL space and begin doing so before the conference.
● Mail online attendees the same swag bag you’re giving out at the conference, perhaps with fewer items (no mask or sanitizer needed), perhaps not. Consider adding in an item just for the virtual crowd.
● Have a facilitator speak with online attendees on a large screen between presentations.
● Another option is to use the chat feature of your conference software (or a dedicated email address or social media hashtag) to gather questions for presenters. A facilitator can then choose questions from this “mailbag” and pose them to speakers.
Rehearse, and use rehearsals as a promotion tool
Be sure to hold a dress rehearsal (complete with an audience of volunteers watching the stream) the day before launch as part of your setup. You won’t have to rehearse the whole day’s program, just enough to be sure all IRL and virtual technology is in order.
However, if you can hold your rehearsal well in advance, use it as a preview of what online attendees will get from the experience. Invite potential attendees to the stream, take questions, and use the resulting video as a marketing tool on social media.
Offer a PDF package for virtual attendees, and surveys for all attendees
Many of us come home from conferences with reams of handouts and informational giveaways. Give virtual attendees access to a PDF version of these resources. You might even include collateral from exhibitors in the package.
Ensure everyone is asked to fill out a post-conference survey and consider offering an incentive (such as a discount on registration for the next conference) if they fill one out. They’ll give you crucial information you can use to make your next hybrid conference even better!