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Are Hybrid Events an Option?

I subscribe to a variety of “association resource” mailing lists, and occasionally I see something worth forwarding.  This article is about the HIMSS conference scheduled to meet in August 2021 in Las Vegas.  I attended this conference as Manager of Technical Services at University Medical Center in Tucson “way back in the 90’s” – HIMSS is the Health Information and Management Systems Society.  Attendance has grown dramatically from 30K in 2009 to over 40K in 2018/19.  It has always been BIG.

The gist of the article is that they’re going to require all attendees to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination… but they don’t yet know how they’re going to do it.  This approach will be interesting.

There’s no mention of a possible “hybrid” conference, though this FAQ on the conference information page says “HIMSS plans to deliver HIMSS21 in-person events in Las Vegas, complemented by extraordinary digital experiences.”

Most organizations I work with don’t have anything close to forty thousand attendees, and as we move into the next phase of pandemic recovery, many of you are still considering whether to go virtual, in-person, or hybrid.  Everyone I’ve worked with has seen an increase in participation with virtual events – and in some cases, a dramatic increase.  But I know the feeling of camaraderie at in-person events is strong, and many of you have expressed your eagerness to get back to in-person events.  Some people are asking about “hybrid” events – where there is an in-person meeting with those that wish to attend, and a simultaneous virtual meeting for those that want to participate but won’t or can’t meet in person, whether due to constraints of time, money, or health concerns.

How To Decide

What do you do?  My best advice to you is this: consider your organization’s mission, and the goal of your conference.  The HIMSS conference, which does also have a strong educational component, is (in my opinion) primarily a marketing event.  Huge expanses of vendor booths (the number of facilities with the appropriate capacity capable of hosting the in-person events is small!), many private suites with special invitations to potential and existing customers, lots of dinners outside the venue at fine, expensive restaurants.

For most organizations – especially those of you I work with – your events, and even your organization, is all about education.  Your educational efforts want to reach as many people as possible… to make the information available to a broad audience.  If your goal is to reach out to a dozen or so people in a small conference room or you have a multi-million dollar event budget, then yes, it’s time for you to return to in-person meetings!  But if you could get your information out to many multiples more people… why would you settle for enlightening a smaller audience?

I personally don’t travel outside the Phoenix metro area voluntarily these days unless there’s a strong need and no alternative, but there are many people on either side of the event coin: those who say “I want to be there with my friends and associates” have strong feelings and express their wishes with much emotion, and the “I’d love to go, but I can’t afford to take the time off for travel, and it’s really expensive” group will now feel left out and ignored by the return to in-person-only meetings at the state and national level – now that the Zoom phenomenon has shown that it is possible to include them.

The Options

Alternative approaches abound – and many are worth considering.  Here’s my quick run-down of the most popular ideas I’ve heard.

Global Virtual, Local In-Person

My favorite is the “global virtual, local in-person” approach.  Here, the “parent” organization hosts a virtual event, perhaps over a few days or evenings during the week, and then the local components – chapters or other small, regionally-focused groups – have smaller in-person meetings that don’t require as much travel for participants, and allow a more focused discussion on the local level… as well as that “group hug” many people are yearning to return to.  Many non-profit and service-oriented groups should see an increase in participation at the local level with this approach, since the larger reach of the parent organization’s virtual event will likely help funnel attendance at the local meetups.

Hybrid Can Be Done, But It’s Expensive

Then there’s a lot of discussion about hybrid events, with live-streaming or Zoom Meeting/Webinar of an in-person event.  I’ve seen this done successfully… but never inexpensively.  Conferences I’ve attended virtually from Adobe and Zoom are well done, but these organizations have deep pockets and a built-in infrastructure to support such an event.  Most non-profit groups will need to hire a company to handle the logistics of a hybrid event… and these companies are expensive, because the staffing and equipment required to support a hybrid event are also expensive: cameras, wireless networking, microphones, computers, software, access to a reliable and speed Internet connection – plus the staff to transport, set up, operate and monitor, take down, and transport again to the next event.  YOU will be paying for all of that, directly or indirectly.  If your potential attendance by the virtual audience is large, then you may be able to recoup the costs through registration fees, but if your in-person attendance has been 100 participants and your virtual registration has been in the 300-400 range, I’m guessing you’ll have to raise the registration costs significantly in order to break even.  I’ll continue to seek out “success stories” of smaller organizations using hybrid, but so far I haven’t heard any.  Any.

Alternate In-Person and Virtual

Next, there’s alternating in-person and virtual events.  If your organization has a big event once a year, then consider having a full in-person event one year and a virtual-only event the next, then alternate in future years.  If this doesn’t work out, you can always change your mind later!  You’ll have the benefit of everyone getting to see each other in person one year, and then larger participation in the virtual event the next.  This approach works a little better if your organization has two or more events each year, since you can plan an event to be in-person or virtual depending on the education vs. marketing nature of the event.  (Come on… they’re not ALL marketing events, are they?)

Short, More Frequent Virtual Events

Lastly, there’s the smaller, more-frequent virtual-mostly event approach.  Long large events exist because travel is expensive, both financially and otherwise.  But if you’re accustomed to an annual event over 3-4 days, why not spread out your sessions and have really focused 1-day virtual events several times a year?  Then have a 1 or 2 day mostly-social/marketing event each year, and those that really want to (and can afford to) meet in person can!

An Emerging Approach: Asynchronous Events

I had previously labeled this section “Missed Opportunity: Upload Edited Event Recordings”, but now I’ve seen real traction on this mode of event production. For some additional background and information, see this article from Associations Now.

There’s one more opportunity I think many organizations miss, and that’s recording your event, editing the recordings, and then making edited event recordings available online – free or through a pay-wall, or a combination of the two.  If your educational offering is more professional-oriented, then you’ll probably want to generate some revenue to recoup costs or to generate expanded event production.  But if your mission is more general education and information, uploading your videos to a free-view service like YouTube or Vimeo is a great option.  Some organizations are uploading raw unedited session videos with some success, but usually some light editing should be done to make the viewing more enjoyable: removing the pre-meeting chat and “can everybody see my slides?”, taking out personal information discussed, and the occasional long pauses.  Sometimes things go wrong in the recording of a live presentation, but the material is so wonderful that it’s worth re-recording as a private session, just to get the sound right and a more refined presentation; this approach often reduced the amount of editing involved too.

More Free Advice

Contact me if you have any questions or want my opinion on how to organize your upcoming events.  I can assist you with facilitating your event, typically much less expensively than you’ll get with a larger company with staff to match. 

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