Everyone is talking “hybrid” and “all-virtual” conferences
As COVID continues to erode business and confidence around the world, many are looking at their future conference arrangements and being confronted by the choice of planning for either a hybrid or an all-virtual event.
Firstly, for the purposes of this article lets define these two types of meeting:
A Hybrid conference is one that offers physical and digital participation pathways. It allows those who can travel to attend the event in-person and experience the conference live on-site. The live event of course is organised to comply with all prevailing COVID Safe requirements. The Hybrid event also provides virtual registration options for those who for whatever reason cannot travel to the event itself. The Hybrid model uses the live conference sessions and activities to produce content which is then broadcast (either live or delayed or both) to the virtual delegates. Virtual delegates attending live broadcast sessions are provided with resources to enable them to ask questions and participate in discussions. This provides digital delegates with some of the networking benefits experienced by physical delegates. Presenters at a Hybrid conference, just like delegates, have the choice of attending physically or digitally. Exhibitors can also attend physically or be provided with a Virtual Exhibition, or both. The advantages of the hybrid conference is that it provides a physical experience for those who can attend and digital delegates get some of the “live” experience as well because they are participating in an actual event where people are gathered for a common purpose. Another advantage of the hybrid event – and this is a big one during the pandemic – is that should circumstances require, it can be quickly converted to an all-digital event.
The All-virtual conference is being touted by some as the future for all conferences and gatherings. Several providers of virtual conference technologies are even going so far as to advertise that any form of physical conference is dangerous and that all-virtual is the only safe option. As expected, we don’t share that view at all. The virtual conference offers no live participation option, everyone – speakers, delegates, exhibitors all engage with the event through video links. There is no central point of content creation as contributors can be anywhere with a connection though there is a central control point. It’s a good option when no one can or wants to attend a live physical event. There is nothing new about this approach to presenting meetings or conferences – we were actually doing these back in the 1980’s when they were called “satellite conferences”. The internet and technological development has increased the quality and flexibility of virtual conferences immensely, to the point where interaction between presenters and delegates is now possible as are virtual networking events. Advocates of digital conferences point to cost and time savings and risk minimisation as major advantages.
So which is the best choice? Well, that depends on the size, scope and nature of your meeting or conference but consider these points when deciding how to proceed:
Most people yearn human contact. In a business context, it’s called networking and privately it’s described as socialising. It is generally accepted that everyone needs to experience regular human contact. Conferences have traditionally served an important role in facilitating this human contact across industries and professions. It has been proven again and again that the most valuable content delegates take away from conferences results from casual discussions with other participants at the conference. Typically these discussions happen in the most surprising places – at the coffee station, waiting for a lift at the venue, bumping into an old colleague in the exhibition or poster area. Research tells us that the common denominator across these discussions is that they occur between people who already know and trust each other, and happen just after they have both attended the same session. The delegates hear content in a session that interests them and they then discuss it with someone they already know who they meet at the conference. They remember the content because they discussed it with someone who they know and trust. This sort of interaction is synergistic and perfectly natural at a live conference gathering and the results can be spectacular. By way of example, we once organised an international scientific congress where two old colleagues from university days bumped into each other at morning tea. To cut a long story short, at the time of the congress one of these delegates worked for a major research funding organisation in the USA and the other just happened to be needing a substantial amount of funding for a major research project in Latin America. A few months after the congress, a multi-million dollar funding arrangement was announced. How could this interaction be replicated at an all-virtual event? Take this example and apply it to all of the contacts made at conferences that result in sales, knowledge transfer, research cooperation and trade opportunities – to many delegates, these outcomes are the true benefits of physically participating in a conference and it is very hard to see how such opportunities could be fully exploited at an all-digital event. The hybrid conference, because it has at its base a real live and physical event, preserves some if not many of these benefits because digital delegates can interact with live events happening at a conference where physical delegates are engaging in their usual networking practices.
Attending a conference is not just about the sessions and the content or even the networking – it’s a comprehensive experience that is very appealing to most people. By physically having to travel to an event delegates distance themselves from their usual day to day routine, even though they are always linked by digital communications. They are thus able to concentrate on the subject matter and opportunities presented by the conference to a far greater degree than if they were in their own office participating in a digital conference. Then there is the reward mechanism – often delegates have their conference attendance costs paid for by their employer and this often makes them feel rewarded and valued. Ask yourself this: whoever got excited by an invitation to a webinar? Compare your response to that to the excitement you would feel if you were invited to a conference in a desirable location where you get to share the room with leaders and valued colleagues. Digital does not excite people, meaning they don’t commence their engagement with the event with the same degree of receptiveness they do for a live event. It's like the choice between attending the grand final or watching it on TV. Yes, TV is acceptable and you probably get a better view of the game but you miss out on so much that really matters. The live experience is always superior and the main reason for that is that there are other people there who share the experience – this dynamic is just as applicable to conferences and professional gatherings as it is to sports events. The hybrid conference gives the opportunity for physical attendance and the comfort to virtual delegates that just because they had to attend digitally this year, there is the prospect of attending the physical event next time.
As you can probably tell, we think that Hybrid is the way to go for the foreseeable future. Already people are telling us that they have “digital fatigue” from dozens of video meetings and conferences over the past few months and we have witnessed just how excited people get when we confirm a live conference is going to be held for their sector. Hybrid preserves most of the advantages of traditional conferences whilst providing digital participation options and an ability to quickly convert to all-virtual should circumstances require. We think it’s the win-win solution.
If you are interested in hearing more about hybrid conferences and the future outlook for conferences generally you may be interested in this (all digital!) discussion panel in which Ashley from CCM presented along with others to members of the Indian conference industry. It can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXspMITPnfo.