Key Trends in Virtual and Hybrid Events: Event Design

Chris Green
Event Technology Consultant

The last 6 months have seen many industries completely turned on their heads. One that we’ve been following closely is the corporate event sector. We’ve been to many events over the years, organised a few, including some big ones, and spent a good part of the last couple of years building and perfecting a powerful business-class guest management system with one of our corporate partners.

In this series of blog posts, Chris gives an overview of all the things we’ve seen happening in the corporate event space, and why we think you should be excited about them, along with some key takeaways from people doing this stuff really well.

Be sure to check out part 1 of this series for an introduction to the world of Virtual and Hybrid events.

Event Design for the ‘New Normal’

The best events are great because they get people connecting, belonging and discovering. People often forget specifics of their experiences, but they almost always remember how they FELT at the event.

Marketing must evolve from traditional one-to-many broadcast channels to more personalised one-to-one methods. Marketing is becoming a conversation between individuals. Therefore plan your event by thinking about the audience first, not the event. Don’t start by making a list of all the cool stuff you can do at your event!

Start with your brand; what is the mission of the event? What is the ‘journey’ for someone who doesn’t know your brand yet, versus someone who has known it for years? What are your delegates' unmet needs? The role of “Event Planner” is rapidly becoming “Experiential Marketer”. You need to segment your audience and plan accordingly.

Segment your audience, plan each segment’s “journey”. Think about the “bridges” between virtual attendees and on-site attendees (things like live chat, Q&A, polls, etc.) and make sure they are well designed and not after-thoughts. Live chat is probably the most useful bridge between virtual and on-site attendees.

Always allow attendees to choose what level they interact at; some people just want to consume content quickly and easily, and forcing them to interact will just make them leave.)

For most types of hybrid events, make sure that your virtual attendees also have a sense of “place”, which is their home for the event. Try to make it feel like a real venue. This might include:

  • An “arrival” video introducing the venue (could literally be filmed by someone walking into the venue and giving a brief tour)
  • Brand the virtual interface to match the venue branding, colour schemes, etc.
  • Multiple virtual ‘rooms’ for parallel tracks
  • An “exhibition floor” to showcase exhibitors
  • A helpdesk with live chat
  • Breakout areas with live chat on particular topics
  • On-site Ambassadors who live-stream the event
  • Event ‘gift boxes’ sent out to virtual attendees (e.g. local coffee, snacks, socks..)

Remember that there is not really any accepted ‘best practice’ on this yet - everybody is trying to find a way to combine best practice for delivering a great traditional event with best practice for a great digital experience. Innovation is happening very quickly. Perhaps the best advice is (as always) try to assemble a great core team and great partners who can work together well across the on-site and on-line elements - don’t let the two aspects evolve separately.

On-site Ambassadors

If your budget allows, On-site Ambassadors who live-stream the event, and communicate with virtual attendees, can be a very powerful bridge between the real and the virtual. To get maximum benefit from this, there should be 2-way communication between your virtual audience and your ambassador(s); allow your attendees to make suggestions for where the ambassador goes and who they speak to.

On-site Ambassadors can also help integrate virtual attendees into real-world breaks in the programme (coffee and lunch breaks). Depending on your audience, you could consider high-energy interludes, where (for example) your ambassador leads a short exercise routine that gets virtual attendees up out of their chairs and moving around.

Live Chat and Serendipity

Live chat benefits massively from having great moderators. A really great moderator will watch all the chat that is happening and add significant value by actively inviting people (who may not currently be online) into relevant discussions. Your event app should support push notifications for this (“Moderator X has invited you to join a chat on topic Y”). This helps to create more “serendipity”, which is one of the main reported shortcomings of virtual events compared to in-person events.

Virtual Audiences

Connecting your on-site event with a virtual audience via a big video wall is one of the few post-Covid paradigms that everyone settled on quickly as the ‘new normal’. The benefits are obvious - the video wall fills an otherwise empty space with life and colour, and provides immediate feedback for the people on-site. This is especially useful for speakers or presenters who are not used to speaking to a nearly-empty room; the virtual audience provides a big increase in “energy” that some speakers need to deliver a great performance.

Microsoft Team’s new “Together Mode” is already seeing widespread use for this, from reality TV contests through to top-tier sports like the NBA. A great tip to get the most from it is to place cameras next to or within the video wall itself, and make that feed available to the virtual audience; that way their view of the auditorium will be the same as if they were there, and the speaker will be looking directly at them.

Images © Microsoft.

Multi-hub Events

This is where you run multiple simultaneous small local events, with relatively small numbers of on-site attendees in each location. Talks and sessions from each location can be streamed to the other locations, and to virtual attendees. With the current international travel restrictions, this can be a good option for certain types of event where you really need local teams to be physically present, and the rapidly increasing capabilities of software platforms makes them more viable than ever before. However, special consideration needs to be given to the volume of content that will be created - each hub will be constantly producing content, so great moderators are needed to select the best and most relevant content to share with other hubs.

Ephemeral Content

Ephemeral content which must be viewed in real time, and is not recorded or made available for future consumption; therefore the attendee has to engage with it at the time it happens.

This concept is already gaining in popularity with virtual event planners and attendees. Of course it is only right for certain content, but already analysis shows noticeably higher levels of engagement with ephemeral content because attendees are forced to pay attention to it if they want to see it. It is especially popular for live chat, because it allows people to be more honest and spontaneous. Because more people are present “in the moment”, this approach can also create more serendipity for virtual attendees, where they find themselves meeting new contacts and having more useful conversations.

Apps like “Clubhouse” are already capitalising on this trend. Clubhouse is an audio-only live chat platform. Used in the event context, it can usefully replicate the atmosphere of the hallway and foyer of an event space. Video can be distracting with lots of potentially irrelevant information; audio-only interaction is less pressure, lower effort for the participants and again can lead to more serendipity.

Images © Clubhouse

Covid Safety

The safety of on-site attendees is firmly on the mind of every event planner around the world. The ability to provide a feeling of safety and confidence in your procedures for on-site attendees is now absolutely vital; and you need to be able to communicate what you are doing to ensure safety clearly throughout the whole event experience, from registration through to post-event feedback. Naturally you’ll be thinking about topics like mask policy, queue and movement management, minimising touch points (and/or making as many as possible touch-free), and additional sanitisation.

It may soon be possible to Covid test every attendee at your event; indeed some events are already starting to trial this. For this to work you need to consider:

  • Testing every attendee on arrival, before they get into the venue. Depending on the test type, they may be waiting for an hour or more for the results. They need to be held somewhere safe whilst waiting. How will you entertain them?
  • If anyone tests positive, the whole group needs to be blocked from entering, and their tickets refunded.
  • Every vendor and contractor should be tested every day
  • Current PCR tests cost between £100-£200 each; they could be heading to <£30 soon, but still require on-site lab facilities to get fast turn-around of results, so the cost implications are significant until PCR testing is truly ubiquitous. (Note that standard Antibody tests may not be that useful in this case when trying to identify currently-infectious people).
  • The new rapid ‘lateral flow’ antigen tests are cheaper (<£10 and falling) and much faster (with results in under 30 minutes as they do not require a lab), however, they are not as sensitive as PCR tests (depending on the ‘viral load’ of the person being tested, they may miss as many as 1 in 4 Covid-positive people and therefore return a false negative). But in essence, they can still be regarded as a good indicator of whether a person is likely to be highly infectious right now (if a person has a high ‘viral load’, they will almost certainly test positive).

Be Useful!

So you’ve got everything in place - you’ve nailed your event design, you’ve got a great selection of speakers and ambassadors, and you’ve checked and double-checked all your tech. You’re ready! But there are still some things that you can do to really help people - especially virtual attendees - engage with your event. Most of these things come down to acceptance of the fact that virtual attendees will dip in and out of your event, and even when they are ‘in’ your event, you are probably sharing their attention with a dozen other things. Take some time to really think through how people will fit your conference into their day(s). Our top tip to make sure people spend as much time with your event as possible is to make use of calendar invites:

  • Set up and send out calendar invites to all attendees for key features of your event. Ideally include the direct link to the live stream for that particular item within the event item description, or if that is not possible, at least a link to the relevant part of your virtual conference site where the stream will be hosted. Make it as easy as possible for virtual attendees to remember when the items they want are happening, and then go straight to them.
  • If you can include credentials in each invite to allow seamless login, then great! If you can’t, then make sure your log-in process is as easy as possible and redirects after log-in back to the correct stream.
  • If you have a lot of talks in multiple tracks, you probably need to think about how to do this. You might want to get attendees to pick a track before sending out calendar invites.
  • It goes without saying that for this to be useful, the timings MUST be accurate. If a session changes time, a member of your team must update the calendar event.

In Summary...

At least one thing is clear: this is a very exciting time in the event industry, despite the uncertainty. There is no shortage in demand for events in all their forms, provided they can be delivered safely and they can offer a great experience for the attendees. As we said earlier, there is no established best practice here - things are evolving literally week-by-week. The organisations who get it right now may well go on to set the benchmarks for the ‘new normal’. Assemble a great team who can discover, adapt and deliver together.

If you’d like to talk more about any of these topics, we’d love to hear from you. Do get in touch with us: [email protected]