How to Host a Hybrid Event in 2021
Hybrid events can seem like an overwhelming topic. So we've taken this big idea and distilled it into meaningful insights and actionable takeaways.
By now you’ve probably heard the term hybrid, it’s all the event industry has been talking about lately. And there’s a good reason for that. According to expert predictions on hybrid, hybrid events truly are the future and a critical strategy for organizers to adopt in 2021.
But hybrid events are still a relatively new topic and there’s a lot of uncertainty around what it actually means to host one. This hybrid event guide will dive into the different aspects of hybrid and provide real examples and advice from industry leaders, so you can feel confident in your hybrid strategy.
Table of Contents
- What is Hybrid?
- The Difference Between a Hybrid Program and a Hybrid Event
- Why Should You Host a Hybrid Event?
- Hybrid Event Examples
- Hybrid Event Models
- Hybrid Event Teams
- Hybrid Event Budgeting
- Hybrid Event Sponsorship
- Hybrid Event Engagement
What is Hybrid?
Let’s start with the foundation. A hybrid event meaningfully integrates the on-site and virtual audiences to create one holistic experience. Both live and digital events have their own respective benefits that if done correctly, hybrid events can capitalize on. While the technology is still evolving, we’ve settled on this working definition following conversations with our customers and partners:
An event that leverages technology to meaningfully integrate in-person and virtual attendee experiences at scale.
Live events create opportunities for unique, personalized experiences. In-person events have an undeniable energy that can be created not only through the presence of peers and other people, but through on-site activations, food, decorations, and music. In a live setting, networking and engagement come very naturally, and there are many ways to drive engagement even more through intentionally designed room sets to branding throughout the venue.
Virtual events also have newfound benefits. The digital space opens up a world of possibilities. One of the main benefits organizers report is increased audience reach. In addition to having limitless access to your audience across time and space, virtual events provide more in-depth data and real-time insights. Plus, planners can leverage more technology tools to increase engagement and curate the attendee experience, from Q&A and polling to virtual breakouts or on-demand functionality.
"We've got a physical opportunity to craft an experience that leads them to this particular outcome or these particular objectives or this particular value. We've got the opportunity to also capture the people who can't come, and provide them perhaps a similar experience or a different experience. It also creates a secondary revenue stream for a lot of people, wherein the corporate space, that's not really been thought of in the past as an opportunity"
The Difference Between a Hybrid Event Program and a Hybrid Event
One important difference to recognize is that it’s unlikely that all events will be hybrid moving forward. We anticipate that events that are strictly in-person and strictly virtual will still provide unique value to event planners.
Whereas the in-person events were the go-to channel for engaging audiences before 2020 and virtual events were the go-to channel throughout 2020 and going into 2021, event teams will leverage a combination of these channels moving forward as part of a hybrid event program.
That said, especially in 2021 when in-person audience sizes are still likely to be limited, hybrid events that amplify in-person experiences for virtual attendees will be a key tactic in the playbooks of event planners.
To dive even further into the inner workings of hybrid events, download the Going Hybrid Ebook.
Why Should You Host a Hybrid Event?
Aside from the ‘everyone else is doing it’ mentality, it’s important to know your why. That is, why are you hosting this event? And why a hybrid event rather than an in-person or virtual event? Here are a few reasons that can help you get to that answer:
- You might have attendees that can’t travel due to health and safety concerns or international restrictions
- You could also have people who simply aren’t comfortable traveling or attending events in-person yet
- With corporate and personal budgets taking a big hit this past year, it’s possible your guests can’t afford to travel to your event
- Your venue might have new max capacity limits that don’t align with your anticipated or goal attendee count
If you’re unsure which, if any, of these might apply to your event, you can always send a pre-event survey (anonymous might be helpful so people feel they can be honest) to gauge interest and get a sense of how you can best serve your audience.
Hybrid Event Examples
Over ¾ of event planners have not yet hosted a hybrid event. However, there are a handful of organizers who have already produced successful hybrid experiences. We’ve pulled together a few of the best hybrid event examples that other event professionals can learn from.
Previously, hybrid events relied on a patchwork of in-person and virtual solutions. But Empower 21 shifted to a dedicated hybrid platform, creating one unified audience. Physical and virtual attendees registered in the exact same way and gained access to the same 49 sessions, ranging from luncheons and panels to keynotes and workshops. Even better, the enhanced integration allowed in-person attendees to network with their virtual counterparts.
Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the organization behind the event, described WEC Grapevine as “two events, planned and executed simultaneously with one remarkable takeaway—to move our profession into recovery.”
In practice, that meant a five-day in-person conference in Texas with a digital experience layered on top. They ran 23 concurrent sessions and five general assembly sessions for 1,739 attendees. In total, 608 people visited in person. The results were phenomenal, with a 93% attendee satisfaction rate.
Junction started out as a single hackathon in Helsinki, Finland. Finns would descend on the capital to experiment with tech and show off their latest inventions. Over the years, Junction spawned regional hubs all around the world and its flagship event ballooned in popularity.
In late-2020, Junction empowered 30 local hubs to host their own local hackathons, which competed across 14 global challenges. Even though attendees were hundreds or thousands of miles apart, they still enjoyed the familiar sense of community and belonging.
These are some great examples of companies who are already diving into the waters of hybrid and paving the way for the industry. And if you’re looking for more inspiration, here are 18 hybrid event ideas.
Hybrid Event Models
When it comes to hybrid events, the possibilities are truly endless. This new era of events provides an opportunity to push the boundaries and test new ideas that we’ve never thought possible until now. But this freedom can be overwhelming and you might not know where to start, which is why it can be helpful to have a benchmark of how other event professionals are approaching hybrid.
Having hosted thousands of events over the past year, we’ve seen various models and patterns emerge. These are a few hybrid event models that can help kickstart your brainstorming and give you an idea of what is possible.
Single Site/Single Venue
This model consists of a single venue for an on-site audience which can then be accessed virtually by a much larger audience.
With a hybrid event platform, you can easily support the on-site planning and production while providing a great online experience to your virtual attendees. This model allows you to plan a live event however you envision it and then seamlessly integrate the online audience. This model does pose certain challenges, like making sure the virtual audience feels engaged and present or creating connections between the on-site and online attendees. But in general, this is one of the most straightforward approaches to planning an imaginative on-site event and amplifying it to virtual attendees.
Empower 21 is a great example of a single site hybrid event.
A network model features multiple concurrent in-person meetings that are connected virtually.
The key to this model is technology that can support multiple sessions that may very well be going on around the world. A network model allows attendees to have a unique and intimate on-site experience and still have access virtually to other sessions and attendees.
Hub and Spoke
This model is a combination of the first two, consisting of one central in-person event that is broadcasted to many smaller in-person events in other locations (with the option of also amplifying to virtual attendees tuning in from elsewhere). Essentially it’s a set of micro-events that are connected virtually around a single main-stage experience.
The hub and spoke model provides the excitement of a large in-person gathering and opportunities for local get-togethers and networking. While the budget for this type of event is likely the highest, it provides a truly connected - and potentially global - experience while allowing you to curate the ‘spoke’ events to their respective local regions.
Hybrid Event Teams
Until last year, events teams had a pretty good idea of what their role was and how they fit into the larger team structure in order to execute events to perfection. But hybrid events will necessitate a new set of skills and experience in order to successfully produce both the in-person and virtual aspects.
There are two main teams that will handle the live and online event respectively, but it’s important that these teams also work together in harmony to create a connected experience.
"Make sure you're building a strong team and that you have a really good ecosystem outside of your core team of vendors and partners you can call upon, rely on, and trust."
Here’s a glimpse at what the hybrid events team will look like in 2021.
- Event Technologist: In the hybrid space, an event technologist is the person who stitches everything together. They stay up to date on tech trends, seek solutions to help you better connect with your audience, and help attendees connect with each other.
- Executive Producer: Once the technical foundation is laid, you’ll need someone to keep the virtual aspect of your event running smoothly: that’s your executive producer. They’re focused on producing something entertaining and engaging. They’ll map out attendee tracks or customer journeys, take inspiration from the worlds of television, film, and theatre, and shape the look and feel of your event.
- Camera and Sound Operators: As we get deeper into hybrid V2, the bar for acceptable audio quality is continually raised. While good editors can work wonders, the raw video and audio feeds must be high-quality. You should be considering four or five designated camera stations, a couple of handheld roving operators, and high-quality audio solutions (microphones, sound technicians) for all of your events.
- Event Manager: Event managers are the lynchpin to any event. They coordinate resourcing, liaise with stakeholders, troubleshoot problems, and harness new opportunities. Give them all the tools they need to make executive decisions when it counts, and you’ll be thankful for the foresight.
- Moderator: It’s orders of magnitude harder to hold the attention of a room online than in-person. If attendees grow bored, they can pull up their emails or check on the status of their various projects; if they check out, they take their energy and enthusiasm with them. Your moderator is there to make sure that doesn’t happen. They drive the conversation and keep your audience engaged.
- Local Organizers: Depending on your operational model, you could have smaller hubs of in-person events scattered around the country or even the planet. Consider whether you need in-person employees in each location and what you need them to do.
- On-Site Technician or Technology Specialist: This role is something many on-site venues already provide for day-of-event services. That’s because there are still many technical aspects that you need to pay attention to in the physical setting. For example, Wi-Fi, streaming, microphones, and slides are all technical pieces of an on-site experience that you’ll want to make sure go off without a hitch. Whether your in-person experience is part of a hybrid event model or stands on its own, it’s important to have a specialist who can make sure the venue operations go smoothly. Plus, they can liaise with your virtual specialists to add even more coordination to your hybrid event.
Download our Virtual Event Production Kit to access templates, content, and guides to working with your virtual event team.
Hybrid Event Budgeting
One of the biggest unknowns around hybrid events is budgeting. And while 66% of organizers anticipate budget cuts this year, a hybrid event will actually demand a larger budget than events have in the past. So, this leaves many questions around how to approach budgeting and how to maximize the money you do have.
The first thing to understand is that you’re really producing two events in one, so your budget will likely increase to accommodate both the in-person and virtual aspects.
"Plan on having a third of the people you had last year and plan on spending up to twice as much on hybrid events because you have to plan for the venue audience and the virtual audience. You're planning two shows at the same time."
Here are some aspects to keep in mind and how they’ll impact your hybrid event budget:
Whether you’re planning one central event or multiple regional events, every venue, country, and place will have its own regulations. Be sure to check with your venue as well as your state/country to understand the taxes and financial implications on your event.
Many venues have a minimum spend. While it’s possible (and hopeful) that they are offering concessions or lowered spends than in past years, there is probably still some sort of minimum set in place. Check with your venue to see what that is and what can be included to reach that price. And be sure you take a look at any cancellation or force majeure clauses so you understand your financial obligations should anything happen.
This will likely be the bulk of your budget. That’s because you’re producing two event formats simultaneously. You will need to budget for your on-site technology and your virtual technology.
The largest chunk of your tech budget will likely be your event management software. A good rule of thumb is to look for a hybrid event platform. That way, you can cut costs and seamlessly support both the live and online aspects of your event.
That still leaves a few different tools you’ll need to invest in for both the on-site experience as well as the virtual event production of your hybrid event.
In-Person Event Technology
- Microphones: From handheld to lavalier, there are many different types of microphones you might need at your event. Unless you’re planning to wipe down equipment between uses, it might be a safer bet to order more microphones.
- Lighting: Uplighting and colored lights are commonly used to brand the space and set the mood and tone of an event.
- Wi-Fi: You’ll want to make sure your venue has stable connectivity. And with the virtual element included, it’s even more important for your hybrid event that the network is reliable.
- Touchless Experiences: The latest trend in on-site safety is to create a contactless experience for your attendees. But that usually means using technology to help with aspects like registration and check-in.
- Technology Specialists: Once you have your equipment and tools, don’t overlook the importance of on-site support. These specialists will make sure that everything goes smoothly during the event. And if something does happen, they’re the experts who can fix it.
Virtual Event Technology
- Virtual Event Platform: If you do choose to look for a virtual event solution, this will still take up a large part of your budget, but it’s a quintessential investment to ensure a seamless virtual experience.
- Virtual Production Team: Just like you need on-site experts, you’ll want to secure a virtual team who can support the online experience so you can focus on the event itself.
- Added Engagement Tools: Some virtual platforms have built-in audience interaction tools, but you might also want to integrate other networking and engagement vendors to curate your virtual experience.
Health and Safety
This is a new budget line item that really didn’t exist before COVID-19. But people are trusting you with their safety and that’s a big responsibility. While it’s hopefully not too expensive, you will likely have to invest in sanitizers or sanitization stations and perhaps a designated point of contact to clean high-touch areas and equipment.
In the past, you could fit 8 people at a table. But with social distancing, you likely won’t be putting even half of that. This might mean you’ll need more furniture and rentals and those can be expensive. Think about the size of your audience and how you will accommodate them physically. When it comes to in-person event safety, this must continue to be your top priority and that should be reflected in your budget accordingly.
Hybrid Event Sponsorship
Hybrid events present even more opportunities to drive value for your event sponsors. This is one of the benefits of having both a virtual and live experience.
One of the main reasons it’s going to be easier to create value for sponsors is because of the reach that hybrid events allow. Virtual gives us access to exponentially more attendees which means your sponsors can get in front of exponentially more people. Plus, they have access to your on-site audience as well.
Sponsors are laser-focused on ROI, they want to know exactly how their investment impacted their business. The good news is that hybrid events also offer more robust data to help prove ROI for your sponsors because you have access to both the live and virtual data. And virtual events are known to provide much deeper analytics which is a huge value-driver for your sponsors.
You can offer 3 different types of sponsorship opportunities within a hybrid event: virtual sponsorship, live sponsorship, and hybrid. For your sponsors with the biggest budgets, you can charge a premium for hybrid sponsorship, which allows them to get in front of all your attendees by participating in both a virtual and on-site opportunity.
You can approach hybrid sponsorship the same way you do engagement, by offering a live and online element for them to participate in. For example, you can offer the same branded swag you have on-site and ship boxes ahead of time to your virtual audience. For a sponsored cocktail hour, companies like talk tales will ship cocktail kits to your virtual attendees so they can participate in the same festivities - and have a sponsor to thank!
Adele shares another example of something that can be done in both the on-site and the virtual space that provides sponsor value:
"We have had food trucks at our award events so that when you're exiting Cipriani, you can get a grilled cheese and some tater tots on your way out. A huge hit. And obviously, it's a really great partnership for sponsors to partner with us on. Okay, you're not going to be able to do that for virtual. So we looked at giving away Grubhub vouchers and gave all attendees a $15 Grubhub voucher to get their late-night snack."
Here are a few examples of how sponsors can get in front of your audiences:
- Mobile app advertisements
- Sponsored sessions
- Sponsor pages/virtual booths
- Sponsored pre-roll videos
- Sponsored cocktail hour (shipped to attendees)
- Swag Bags (shipped to attendees)
- On-site branding
- Branded lanyards, t-shirts, or other event swag
- Display screens
- Sponsored cocktail hour
- Branded sanitizer stations
Hybrid Event Engagement
Once you’ve mastered the production of a hybrid event and all that goes into creating one, the next thing on every organizer’s mind is engagement. You want to create an equally engaging experience for both your on-site and online attendees. And ideally, you can help them engage with each other as well.
“Instead of treating the virtual audience completely differently than the venue audience, we’re going to put more emphasis on the virtual audience and spend more time and effort engaging them.”
According to the experts, the key is to focus more heavily on the virtual audience so they feel just as present at your event as the in-person attendees. So, here are a few ways you can drive engagement for your virtual audience to help create a more integrated hybrid experience.
A virtual MC is a great way to engage the virtual audience and connect them with the venue attendees. This person would facilitate the flow of the event and the content directly to your virtual audience.
“I think one of the things that help with attendee experience, and something we've done in the past is, have some sort of virtual concierge. Because you have this on-site audience that really feels engaged. And then you have this virtual audience who are watching from a camera. So having somebody that can bridge that gap, and that might mean you have a space set up in the middle of the lobby, where there could be some interviews or discussion, or there's some sort of, ‘Hey, what's going on here?’ to get the attendees that are live interested in what's happening with the virtual, and tying that together.”
The online audience is going to interact with your content differently than your live audience, so it’s important to recognize that and do everything you can to deliver the content to your attendees in the most effective way. You need to meet them where they are and a virtual moderator is a great tool to help you do that.
Exclusivity is another tool you can use to create a sense of belonging for your online audience. You can offer sessions that only the virtual attendees have access to and you can strategically schedule them during the time that the on-site audience is networking.
Your virtual audience is likely to need more breaks throughout the day than your in-person attendees. Build these breaks into the schedule so they feel that you understand their needs.
A touchstone for in-person events is swag—but swag shouldn’t be limited to strictly in-person engagement. To help online attendees feel more included and to bring your event to life in a tangible way, you can ship swag bags as part of your hybrid event. Let’s say you’re hosting a cocktail hour on-site. If you send a kit ahead of time to your virtual attendees, they can join in on the fun and create their very own cocktails at home while networking with the other virtual attendees.
"Our team created a virtual coffee happy hour and they will ship them this Audubon approved coffee, so people can actually brew themselves a pot of this coffee and have a meeting with eight or so other people that really believe in our mission and talk to the state director.”
Hybrid events are new territory for event planners, but an exciting opportunity to push the limits and get creative with events. The most important thing to keep in mind as you think about your hybrid strategy is that you’re really planning two events - a virtual event and an in-person event - and creating one unified yet personalized experience. The key to success is being adaptable and agile, as event planners have always been.
“Be Flexible. Not everything you come up with in a vacuum is going to work. Not everything that the audience says they want they’ll want. Continue to iterate.”
To access even more hybrid event content, advice, and inspiration, download the Going Hybrid Ebook.