Could Hybrid Events Become the New Standard?

By Association Adviser staff • October 16, 2020

Many organizations have found it difficult to suddenly switch to online events. Besides the work that must go into reimagining an in-person event to fit on a screen, there’s the fear that online events fail to create the valuable human engagement that comes with interacting with others through traditions such as welcome receptions, toasts, 5K races and community service projects completed together.

At the same time, associations and their members are discovering that there are benefits to holding events online: Unencumbered by budget or travel restraints, more people have been able to attend virtual events. ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, for example, hosted a record 14,108 attendees (71% of whom were first-timers) at their annual conference in August. When all you need is an Internet connection and dedicated time, it’s easier to say yes to attending an online conference or expo. Online events also appeal to introverts: If you don’t like crowds, it’s much less intimidating to attend a popular event if you’re tuning in from your desk or couch.

Then there’s the cost. Virtual events can cost anywhere between nothing and tens of thousands of dollars to run depending on the sophistication and complexity of the event. However, when you factor in the meeting space, meals, transportation, speakers’ accommodations and venue staff your association is not paying for, virtual events cost significantly less than a typical in-person event.

Hybrid Events Can Inspire FOMO

This is where hybrid events have their chance to shine. Hybrid events, with their in-person and concurrent online component, have the potential to bring together all the benefits of physical and virtual events to provide a tailored attendee experience that reinforces the value of the event and the host association.

“I believe there will be some significant and lasting changes in the way we produce events,” says Barry Schieferstein, CMP, DES. “Hybrid events are going to become the norm because the audience will come to expect it. We were already seeing this with the younger generations. Face to face events are going to have to be much more experiential to not only fill the wants and desires of Millennials and Gen Zs, but also to provide enough value (or FOMO) to those who could just as easily stay home and watch it on their device.”

Valerie Bihet, a Miami-based corporate planner, estimates the ratio of virtual to in-person events will be 4:1 going forward. In addition to being easier to attend, if an organization frames their online event as an experience and not just a webinar, attendees will be just as eager to participate from home as in-person. Event planners will need to start designing their events “phygitally,” as in online, but with the physical, at-home experience in mind to keep virtual events worth attending.

Benefits of Hybrid Events

Increased Inclusivity

Hybrid events are more inclusive. People with compromised health, very young children, disabilities, or traveling restrictions can more easily attend the online portion of an event. Plus, it’s possible attendees will sometimes prefer to attend an event virtually, and sometimes physically. Even when associations put on in-person events again, the Florida Society of Association Executives found that 73% plan to have a virtual component to those meetings. Uncertainty surrounding the safety of meeting in person plus school-age children learning from home means many members aren’t yet able or willing to travel to in-person meetings.

Improved Attendee Engagement Information

The online portion of a hybrid event can help your association better track attendee engagement, which can lead to more relevant events. Associations have learned to use app- and email-based surveys, phone calls and focus groups to reliably evaluate the success of an event’s components and overall experience. But when an event is run through an online platform, every attendee interaction can be recorded. When your association merges this data with its member database or member management platform, you have an extremely rich set of information about what topics and issues are important to which members, and thus what to bring back or abandon next time.

The fact that many online event platforms offer real-time analytics is extremely appealing to associations staffs interested in knowing which sessions are attracting the most interest, or which exhibitors are enjoying the most attention at their booth – and how they created that buzz.

But just because people are attending, they’re not automatically engaging. Associations still need to monitor the trove of real-time data an online event generates and react to it (also in real time) to keep high-interest sessions on track, to boost low-engagement activities, and to ensure expo hall engagement activities are working as they should. With practice, association staffs can learn how to quickly decipher online event data and merge it with in-person data to produce a robust, data-based picture of event success.

Improved sponsorship offerings

Some associations are concerned about costs inflating out of control when there’s both a physical and a digital portion of an event. Associations Now reports that 17% of organizations are hesitant to host a hybrid event because of the cost. However, hybrid events offer the potential for associations to improve their sponsorship packages in ways that could increase revenue retention and growth. This year’s required switch to virtual events has forced associations to re-evaluate their sponsorship packages and offer only what is truly valued to potential advertisers. Traditionally coveted sponsorship opportunities such as dedicated speaking slots and branded appointment-based networking can still exist. During a hybrid event, however, these offerings can be expanded to a menu of in-person, online, or a combination of both at multiple price points that accommodate a wider range of advertiser budgets. Ancillary benefits such as branded, memorable visuals in front of attendees as they decide who they want to visit with during the event extend an advertiser’s presence, and enhance the host association’s ability to earn more event revenue even further.

If associations take this essential-benefits approach to hybrid events and offer what sponsors want in a creative way, the value of sponsoring their event will be obvious. Advertisers may experience their own sense of FOMO when a hybrid event offers numerous opportunities to connect with attendees at several price levels. And once your association covers your costs, your will have more freedom to experiment with new hybrid formats that further excite members and sponsors alike.

Hybrid events could become the new normal

With the current pandemic stretching into 2021, virtual events are likely to be a mainstay for a while longer. As public health restrictions ease and association professionals become more comfortable traveling and meeting in larger groups, however, the opportunities to continue engaging attendees in an online format as well as in person are numerous. From the ability to be more inclusive to the potential to earn more sponsorship revenue, hybrid events could become a staple of association meetings.