Successfully marrying the impact of in-person gatherings with the reach of virtual technology takes effort and thought
By Ralf Walters
Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” That pretty much describes the dilemma facing meeting managers today: Meet in person or rely on technology? Eager to embrace a post-COVID future, meeting organizers and attendees are demanding both. The result is Hybrid. And, meeting planners need to understand the benefits – and the pitfalls – of each.
“Hybrid meetings are vastly more complex than meeting in-person or virtually,” says Bob Frisch, author and founding partner of Strategic Offsites Group of Boston. “They are easy to do poorly and hard to do well.”
Doing business on Zoom, WebEx, Teams, and the like presents many challenges, Frisch said. “What’s been overlooked is that these virtual platforms also give managers an extraordinary set of ‘superpowers’ – the ability to do things in meetings that were either unthinkable or enormously challenging in the old days of conference tables and flip charts."
As companies decide whether to stage F2F vs. Hybrid meetings, the questions that arise revolve around attendee engagement vs. expense. Practically speaking, two meetings are being held using two separate teams. For some companies, virtual is their only choice. But for those who plan both in-person and remote, will using tech to capture offsite participants actually result in larger attendance? In other words, how many participants would attend in-person if remote were not available, and if remote were made available, what would the expected ROI be by comparison? Is cost the sole determinant or are there intangible benefits as well?
In 2021, Marriott announced the addition of new hybrid meetings options to its “Connect with Confidence” program. The company curated a list of tech providers, including Cvent who offers technology solutions for hosting hybrid meetings. The new options were implemented to “streamline the planning process for in-person/online events.”
Patrick Smith, CMO of Cvent, says ROI using tech-solutions for hosting in-person and virtual meetings together is both measurable and profitable. Traditionally, meeting planners have been huge fans of in-person events because there's a depth of engagement to in-person meetings such as “shaking a hand, having lunch together, things which really accelerate business,” Smith explains. But virtual adds another component to the engagement process – "breadth,” he says.
“What people saw when the pandemic hit was their event exploded in size. Instead of getting in front of 1000 people on-site, it might have been 5000 people virtually." Suddenly, he says, people were pleasantly “stunned” to see that both were rich engagements. “People are interacting and you're getting in front of a wider audience. Hybrid is the best of both worlds.”
Unlike pre-COVID, in-person conferences of the past which were “suddenly over in three days,” hybrid conferences have more lasting power, Smith says. “If you're getting five times the number of attendees into a hybrid event at twice the cost compared to in-person only, as a CMO I’ll take that all day long. The leads that we’ll get out of that will pay for itself, assuming of course, the cost is reasonable.”
Cvent is preparing for its annual user conference and like last year’s, Smith explains it will be hybrid to engage more people. The hybrid event will require “hard work” from the entire team, he says, which promises to reap greater benefits due to the presence of the virtual audience. Technology that digitizes the in-person and virtual experience is “key to maximizing event ROI,” Smith stresses. “It’s engagement that can be captured, compiled and scored. That way, I know how my attendees are interacting in my in-person event and my virtual event.”
Other tech tools that can digitize meeting experiences are a boon to planners and attendees alike. Smith cites examples like session check-in using a mobile app and having RFID names tags which show which areas of the conference or break-out sessions were of interest to attendees. “So, you have all this technology at a hybrid event that gives you deep engagement, broad engagement, trackable engagement, and that makes everyone really happy.”
Plusses & Minuses As standalones, in-person and virtual meetings each have their plusses and minuses. Taylor Smith, executive creative director at BCD Meetings and Events, says in-person engagement and experiences are “King” at BCD. As travel emerges from the constraints of COVID, she says breaking into “hyper-regional” may be the answer moving forward for larger audiences. “After the last two years of 90 percent virtual meetings, audiences are hungry to get back to live. And this means a great opportunity to share experience ideas we’ve always wanted to pitch, but perhaps never had the chance.” Smith says the strengths of meeting in-person are “memorability, networking and making connections.”
Conversely, its weaknesses are “planning challenges in an uncertain world.”
When it comes to virtual meetings, Smith believes there are “great content opportunities, great for travel restrictions, great for convenience.” She explains, “Everyone is burnt-out and eager to get back to face to face. What we are seeing is that a segment of meetings that used to be live, such as global town halls with huge audiences or smaller regional meetings, might stay virtual since brands are seeing value and efficiency there.” But she notes, “The most important events, where a brand needs an unforgettable experience – we’re doubling down on live.” She identifies the strengths of virtual as “efficiency, value and broader audience reach.” Its weaknesses are found in lack of “networking and unstructured connections and much harder to deliver memorable experiences.”
“If hybrid meetings are truly here to stay, they must be done right,” she stresses. “Taking an in-person event and bolting on a livestream for remote attendees is not the answer.” Both kinds of attendees need equal consideration, she says, and that requires “planning in pre-production, as well as additional content and technology considerations on-site.”
Hybrid, she maintains, will continue to be an important element of truly global events, “as rules and regulations around travel from other countries continue to be in flux.”
“Today, we are seeing most of the brands we work with using all three: live, hybrid and virtual. That’s a trend we think is here to stay,” Smith says.
At Strategic Offsites Group, Bob Frisch’s team has decades of experience designing and facilitating meetings for executive leadership and boards. The following are eight Best Practices he recommends to help ensure your hybrid meeting is a resounding success:
1 Up your audio game While remote participants need to see who is talking and what’s taking place in the meeting room, Frisch says great audio is actually more critical. To avoid a last-minute scramble caused by poor audio, make sure the room is equipped with enough high-quality microphones so remote participants can hear.
“If you’re in a hotel or other temporary meeting space and multiple microphones aren’t a viable option, consider supplementing your audio input by having in-person attendees pass around a hand-held microphone before speaking,” he advises.
2 Explore a technology boost The pandemic accelerated the use and evolution of videoconference technology to enable virtual meetings from PCs, tablets, and phones. Frisch notes that new features are available to improve face-to-face communication among in-person and remote attendees.
He cites, for example, Zoom’s Smart Gallery which detects individual faces in a shared room and pulls them into panes so remote participants can see them in the now-familiar gallery view. “You should investigate what technology upgrades might be accessible to help make your team’s experience more immersive and authentic,” he says.
3 Consider how remote participants see the video When designing a meeting, Frisch says to continually ask yourself: What do remote participants need to see in order to fully engage? “They should be able to see the faces of in-room attendees, shared presentations, physical documents handed out, and content created during the meeting on whiteboards or flipcharts (or other media).”
It is tempting, he adds, to just ask the in-person attendees to open their laptops and join a Zoom meeting on mute so remote participants can see everyone’s faces and documents can be easily shared. But he cautions, “The people meeting in person are – at least for the moment – so thrilled to finally be together again the last thing you want is for them to crouch over their individual laptops all day.” Otherwise, he says, “they might as well have stayed in their homes or offices.”
4 Make remote participants full sized Another way to give remote participants equal stature is to give them greater presence in the room. In addition to the main screen being in the center, Frisch advises setting up two additional large monitors – one on each side of the room – showing “life-size” panes of the remote participants. “Large images help in-person attendees accept remote colleagues as full participants and provide a constant reminder to include them in the conversation,” he says. Similarly, he recommends the voices of remote participants should emanate from the same monitors as their faces. “Ceiling speakers tend to reinforce the artificiality of the situation.”
5 Test the technology in advance “Nothing kills a meeting’s momentum like waiting to fix a glitch in the audio or video,” Frisch notes. Prior to an important meeting, test the audio-visual set up, both in-room and for the remote attendees. He recommends a “10 to 15-minute, one-on-one dry run” to get remote participants comfortable with what they will experience and to review any software tools they will use.
6 Design meetings for all attendees Reviewing each activity or exercise by focusing specifically on how remote participants will engage is critical, Frisch says. Further, he says it is important to consider what tools and techniques, digital or otherwise, can be used to maximize their interaction with in-room attendees.
“For example, if you need to poll the group, use a phone-based survey tool like ‘Poll Everywhere’ to collect everyone’s input in real time. This puts remote participants on an equal footing, versus a show-of-hands or relying on verbal feedback. To capture meeting notes, use an online whiteboard (or focus a remote camera on a flip chart) so everyone can see what’s being written as it happens,” he advises.
If the meeting design calls for breakout groups, he cautions not to put all the remote participants in a single group. While simpler, he says, “It’s likely worth the extra logistical and technical effort to integrate remote participants across several breakout groups to accentuate their equal status.”
7 Provide strong facilitation Frisch says that managing a hybrid meeting is harder than when the whole group is in person or on Zoom together. “One person – a staff member, an outsider or a meeting participant – should be assigned to guide the conversation and keep it on track,” he urges, adding that it’s far too easy for in-person attendees to dominate the discussion. “A facilitator should draw remote participants in, keep them engaged, and ensure their voices aren’t interrupted,” he says.
8 Give each remote participant an in-room “avatar” Frisch notes that there may be times when remote participants need a physical presence in the room. For situations like a microphone not working, or reminding an attendee to speak up, or placing a Post-It on a wall chart, Frisch says each remote participant should have an “in-room avatar,” a staffer or in-person attendee who can represent them in the meeting room.
Whether via text, chat or phone, they have a private line of communication constantly available throughout the meeting. Remote participants say having confidential access to a single point-of-contact goes a long way to removing a sense of isolation or distance from those in the room itself.
Looking ahead to the future of meetings enhanced by new technologies, Frisch says he couldn’t be more excited. “Planners must recognize that remote participants have higher expectations today. They want to be more than outside observers. They want to be an equal voice with those who are in-person."