As a chamber professional or event organizer, do you feel like you’re on a roller coaster? Here’s why hybrid events will be your challenge and opportunity in the future.
The global pandemic brought massive lockdowns and panic. Then the vaccination comes out. Numbers go down. People relax and feel they can attend events in person. Then positive numbers skyrocket in some areas and we’re back to virtual events or with declining attendance because of people who don’t feel comfortable attending in person.
This up and down and back and forth may become our reality for the foreseeable future. Every time the numbers rise, there will be people in your community who don’t believe networking in-person is worth their safety.
Hybrid events may be the safest – and most sustainable – course of action these days.
But hybrid events can lack the focus that in-person or virtual events have.
With in-person events, everyone has the same access to content and people. With hybrid events, it’s possible that one group can feel left out or neglected.
And that doesn’t do anyone any good.
How can you ensure that doesn’t happen and how can help in-person and online attendees make the most out of hybrid events? Let’s start by discussing the actual format and details of a hybrid event, then we’ll share tips for helping your attendees connect and network regardless of how they are participating.
What Are Hybrid Events?
Hybrid events have both in-person and virtual attendees attending live or synchronously (i.e. at the same time). An in-person event with recorded video that people at home can view at a later time is not technically a hybrid event for our purposes.
The challenge with hybrid events is that all attendees are not in the same room. In-person networkers have access to the organizing entity and its staff–in this example, the chamber. Virtual attendees are screen bound.
If you do nothing to incorporate virtual attendees, they will get the benefit of the content you may be presenting but will feel left out of the conversation and networking, not to mention the “hallway conversations” that organically happen while waiting in line for food or at a table before a presentation starts.
Adding a chat window is a start to help incorporate virtual attendees into the conversation, but it takes more that that.
Ideas for Inclusive Networking at Hybrid Events
Some communities have embraced hybrid event spaces that are designed to incorporate both types of attendees. But if your community doesn’t offer these types of venues, or they are cost prohibitive for your event, then you can help bridge the gap between your attendees with these ideas and tips:
Technology and Planning
For a successful hybrid networking event, you want to plan how you will engage attendees as well as put the technology in place to help. Using an app/platform designed for networking is a good idea. Streamyard may be an option as well as Zoom.
Depending on what activities you have planned for attendees, you want to look for something that will address your needs. For instance, at the minimum, you want a live stream but you could also look for something with polls/surveys, hashtag search that would allow tweets or other social media interactions with your content and speakers to be displayed for everyone at the event, virtual whiteboards that everyone could add to, or even interactive games.
Plan for ways that you will bring virtual people “in.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking it will happen organically. That’s one of the reasons you need a facilitator.
A facilitator/host/emcee not only keeps the event moving but they also help everyone stay engaged and feel like they are a part of things. Think about how sports commentators keep people focused on the action. You want someone with a dynamic personality, who will set expectations, and also draw some attention to your virtual attendees.
The host may highlight what virtual attendees are talking about or may ask them questions and share their responses with the in-person crowd.
You may think a simple networking event doesn’t require a host but if you have virtual attendees, it’s a good idea to have one. This person should probably be someone different from who’s handling the chat feature. However, the two roles could be combined, if necessary.
Icebreakers and Games
Most networking events include icebreakers or get-to-know-you games. Hybrid events should too. Make sure you plan a way for virtual attendees to interact with in-person attendees.
While it’s easy to keep the sides segregated with in-person interacting with in-person and virtual with virtual, missed opportunities and connections will occur. It will also feel like two different events. Instead, design around how you will encourage both groups to interact.
Breakout sessions are important because large groups can become very “loud.” When many people are talking in-person and virtually, information can get lost. For instance, if you have many virtual attendees and they’re all actively talking in one chat box, their conversation can resemble the scrolling ticker tape of the stock market. It can be overwhelming with too much to read and interact with.
If you intentionally create smaller groups or breakout sessions, conversations will be easier and information will be more actionable, digestible, and memorable.
Create an opportunity to network face-to-screen by encouraging in-person attendees to use their phones, laptops, or tablets to interact, which would’ve previously been a no-no in a solely in-person event. Actually seeing one another is a lot more effective for networking than simply offering a chat feature.
The first networking conversation is only the beginning of the relationship so one of the most important ways you can connect attendees is to help them stay in touch after the event. Your virtual attendees don’t have the option of exchanging business cards though.
- Publish a list of attendees with contact info (allow them to opt-in or out of this offering for those who don’t want their information listed).
- Create a Facebook group or some chat platform to encourage all attendees to continue the conversations begun at your event.
- Post networking tips and ask questions on the platform to keep the engagement going beyond the event.
For the time being, it looks like hybrid events will become our new new normal. Don’t assume your virtual attendees will organically network with one another. Deliberate engagement is key to ensure your next networking event doesn’t turn into another uninspiring reason to stare at a screen.