Your complete guide to planning hybrid events in 2021
We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way business events are organised in the current era and possibly for years to come. While 2020 was marked by a collective shift to virtual events, the event industry landscape is being redefined by hybrid events in 2021 and beyond.
Amid easing social restrictions around the globe and in-person events slowly opening up for business again, organisers are re-inventing their event strategy by creating a hybrid model that blends physical and virtual experiences. These hybrid events can accommodate both in-person attendees and a virtual audience comprising those who cannot travel to the venue or are still on tenterhooks on attending face-to-face meetups.
A big advantage of hybrid events is it helps organisers insulate their events from any potential physical disruptions, while allowing them to build and expand audience relationships without the limitations of time and geography. With hybrid events, organisers also have options to offer new avenues for content sharing, exhibiting and sponsorship, creating new revenue streams and lead generation opportunities.
So how do we leverage the physical and digital channels to organise a hybrid event and deliver meaningful, engaging attendee experiences at scale?
In this article, we will explore:
- The rise of hybrid events
- Different hybrid event models
- 4 Golden rules to create a successful hybrid event
- A step-by-step guide to planning a hybrid event
The rise of hybrid events
In 2020, virtual events became popular ‘quick fixes’ for cancelled and postponed in-person events, allowing the event industry to stay connected and keep their business operations afloat.
Fast forward to the current year and the euphoria around purely virtual events seems to be fading. While virtual events are certainly here to stay due to the flexibility, convenience and cost-effective benefits, they are being viewed more as a complementary feature or an insurance strategy for physical events.
There are various reasons for this, such as reduced engagement due to ‘screen fatigue’ and distractions for the remote audience, persistent doubts over the real value offered by the virtual medium and a lack of human touch.
According to B2B growth marketing blog Markletic, audience engagement and interactions are the biggest challenges event marketers face during virtual events, which nearly 67 percent of businesses consider as “complementary to in-person events”.
This is further solidified by a 2020 report by Australian firm Redback, which analyses attendee growth at online events, that nearly 86 percent of event attendees said they abandoned a virtual event early, citing various reasons like irrelevant content or disengaged presenters.
The inevitable go-to market strategy is through hybrid events that combine both offline and online touch points and provide multiple options to share content, engage attendees, schedule meetings, and offer sponsorship and data analysis opportunities.
According to Jason Megson, Managing Director of George P. Johnson, hybrid events will pick up in 2021, but are expected to be “the norm going forward into 2022 and beyond”.
“This [demand for live] is expected to increase mid-summer 2021 as clients accelerate into the exploration of hybrid opportunities to meet their customer’s needs and engage with their own teams.”
According to a survey by Global DMC Partners, the largest global network of independent destination management companies, around 42 percent of event organisers around the world stated they would host a hybrid event in 2021, compared to 30 percent who said they would adopt a virtual-only approach.
Hybrid event models
Depending on the type of the event you want to organise, the needs of your audience and the overall event goals (educational, networking, promotion), there are different hybrid event formats you can consider:
For exhibitions and trade shows, a community-based model could provide the answer; a year-round marketplace where buyers and sellers can connect with each other and conduct business activities any time.
A hybrid event model based on a community-driven approach would have:
- A large annual live event as the main engagement forum for participants
- A series of virtual events that cover niche topics in great detail, modeled after the primary event, such as a webinar series
- Digital networking sessions like Happy Hour meetups, one-to-one sessions and group meetings
- 365-day membership subscription to a community-based marketplace. A platform like this would bring together buyers and sellers, allow them to share new content and announce product launches on a regular basis.
Global digital model
This model uses digital channels and allows you to pitch domestic events with a potential international following, to audiences worldwide. This is a cost-effective way to reach a new audience and maximise your business and networking opportunities.
A global digital hybrid event model can be set up as follows:
- Set up a local physical event with hosts and moderators in person to facilitate smooth transitions from live audiences to virtual audiences.
- Build parallel digital events linked to the main event but with a regional flavor. Bring onboard language translators and industry professionals from these regions.
- Stream live sessions online to increase the event presence effect.
Networking events are popular with attendees and exhibitors as they allow people to focus on building new business relationships, cementing existing ones, and exploring new opportunities. These events include industry conferences, roundtables, trade shows and exhibitions.
A networking-focused hybrid event model mixes three main elements:
- A main physical event where a limited number of participants are allowed according to local safety regulations.
- Digital networking events held before and after the main event, where attendees can connect and interact with each other, aligning their goals and business interests.
- On-demand training and workshops for attendees in different time zones.
VIP experience model
Many event participants are willing to pay a premium to get an exclusive experience at business events. For these participants, the extra fee is worth the curated VIP experience that provides them greater value and opportunities.
A hybrid VIP-experience model would include:
- A main live event accessible to all participants, but with paid access to exclusive content, training and workshops for continuing education credits.
- Personal VIP access to session speakers and industry experts through one-on-one virtual meetings.
- Additional opportunities to sponsor and exhibit, access to hosted buyer programmes and advanced analytics to gauge virtual engagement success.
Before adopting one of these models, it is important to lay out your goals and objectives to build a feasible hybrid event solution. This will help you decide exactly what features and functionalities serve your event.
4 Golden rules to create a successful hybrid event
#1 Quality matters! Ensure the production values are top-notch
A hybrid event with high production values immerses your audience into the experience and boosts engagement significantly. Since a large chunk of your attendees are likely to sign up virtually, it’s important to provide them a premium, cinematic feel right at their homes, just like watching a big-budget Netflix movie.
To ensure a top class experience for both in-person and virtual attendees, it’s important to hire a skilled production team to attend to the technical aspects as well as select a venue with great audio/video assistance and WiFi. Once that’s done, here’s a list of things you need to do:
- Make sure there is proper lighting for the physical event and live streaming
- Check all the computers, AV equipment, mics and HD cameras days before the event
- A technical support team should be available at all times. These can include a video recording crew, photographers, sound engineers, video engineers, event tech platform staff etc
- Test the live stream several times before the event goes live. Smoothen out any potential issues around video, audio and conduct integrity tests and dry runs beforehand. This is extremely important to create a positive impression on the audience, because if there are any lags, faulty sound and frozen screens, you won’t be getting any word-of-mouth recommendations!
#2 Keep your remote audience engaged
Live events provide a tangible experience in the form of venue displays, exhibitor booths and face-to-face meetups to engage physical attendees during the entire event duration. In comparison, your virtual attendees have a world of distractions to deal with and just one notification is enough to drift them away from an online session.
It’s crucial to employ different strategies to keep your remote audience engaged, such as:
- Crafting highly personalised event journeys taking into account their preferences
- Offering language translation support for participants in different countries
- Having virtual emcees to navigate through sessions and encourage participation
- Online event moderators to handle queries and comments in live chats
- Gamifying activities on mobile event app such as quizzes, contests, leaderboards using social media hashtags
#3 Select a reliable event technology platform that meets your needs
A reliable event technology platform that fulfills your goals and seamlessly integrates both in-person and virtual experiences is key to executing successful hybrid events.
Because of the complex set-up of hybrid events and the need to sync both experiences perfectly, the event platform should offer a broad array of tools and functionalities for both offline and online audience engagement, management and marketing.
This includes built-in features for registration, meeting and messaging, speaker management, online networking, lead capture, webinars and more. The best way to find out what works for your event is to test out different demos, get into consultation calls with event tech providers and create your criteria before committing to an event tech tool.
#4 Spread your entire event over several weeks, even months!
With the evolving nature of events, it’s recommended to remould your strategy to accommodate the changing aspirations and needs of your audience. An effective way to do this is to spread your hybrid event over three or four months (akin to a marketing campaign) instead of sticking with the conventional 3-day model.
How would this work?
- The first step is to bring together your target audience on a single platform, preferably an online community or marketplace.
- You can start building buzz around your event by conducting webinars, virtual get-togethers, educational sessions, training and workshops. The level of engagement in these online sessions can be gauged to shortlist your potential attendees for the main hybrid event, which would typically span two days to one week or even more, depending on the event goals.
- Once this event concludes, you can again conduct follow-up webinars and sessions on your community platform, providing teasers of future events and adding new audience numbers.
- This new pool of new and existing members can be nurtured for business opportunities and promote your future events, creating a cyclical process that provides more value, leads and business growth, year after year.
Now that we have laid out the rules to create fabulous hybrid events it’s time to do a deep-dive into actually planning a hybrid conference or exhibition.
A step-by-step guide to planning a hybrid event
To create a meaningful hybrid event experience for both your physical and virtual attendees, it’s essential to pay attention to all aspects involved and deliver a seamless attendee journey before, during and after the event.
Here is a detailed guide to help you plan a successful hybrid event.
Before the event
Step 1. Build your audience
With hybrid events, you can significantly increase audience participation by reaching out to the right people across the globe. The greater accessibility offered by virtual events means there are endless opportunities to get more people signing up. To reduce the noise, you need to build a carefully curated list of your target audience by segregating them on the basis of age, gender, location, occupation, job role, job seniority, hobbies, interests, social media groups they are active and more. For an exhaustive list, refer to this checklist.
Set up a year-round event community: With digital factoring heavily in the planning and execution of hybrid events, building your event audience should not be a one-off activity but happen all-year-round. An increasingly popular way to do this is by creating an online marketplace that brings your potential audience together and primes them for collaborative business opportunities and negotiations by providing a safe, trusted and comfortable environment.
On this marketplace, your audience – the buyers and sellers can interact with each other, read and share content, discover new products, sign up for newsletters, attend webinars and receive communication for your events. As an organiser, you can create targeted communication for members showing greater engagement with your event promotion posts, eventually creating an ‘ever-available’ pool of attendees for your next hybrid event.
Step 2. Set up your event marketing tools
Create event website
A responsive, SEO-friendly event website allows you to communicate the value of your event to visitors and provide necessary information like the event agenda, speakers, sessions, exhibitors list and special offerings. Your event website is a powerful marketing tool and usually serves as the first touchpoint for both physical and virtual attendees.
It is essential to create one that has an eye-pleasing UI, like an interactive lobby on the home page, to attract visitors and have the necessary functionalities like messaging, branding and sponsorship options to encourage interest from leading industry players.
Build mobile event app
An intuitive, user-friendly mobile event app serves as a powerful tool of engagement for in-person attendees at the hybrid event.
Attendees can download the official event app from the Google PlayStore and App Store and use it to navigate around the event venue, network with other participants, set up meetings, send messages, participate in polls, surveys, social media activities and do a lot more.
With a mobile event app, you can keep attendees engaged throughout the event by sending reminders, alerts, news, event updates via push notifications.
Step 3. Event registration
For online registration, attendees can fill out the form on the event website or through integrated third-party apps and social media profiles. During registration, an attendee can pre-fill the different fields if they are an existing member of the community or by following a personalised invite link.
The registration process can be supported by the following features:
- Payment processing. PayPal and Stripe are currently the most popular options among event tech providers. Event participants can purchase premium access and get exclusive benefits including individual sessions with speakers and industry experts, training and workshops, access to early product demos and more.
- Abandoned forms. If an attendee filled out part of the form but got distracted or was unable to complete it, the abandoned form features enables them to start right from where they left off, with their details saved.
Step 4. Connecting your audience
Once the registration process is complete, the information provided by attendees and exhibitors, as well as their past behavioural patterns, is used to enable AI-powered matchmaking in the event platform and match them with relevant people, content and products.
The matchmaking algorithm is dynamic in nature and keeps improving based on the decisions made by the attendees. Whether the suggestions made are to their liking or not, one can indicate through a thumbs up and down and get more options until they find the perfect match.
Messaging and meeting scheduling
Once the attendees and exhibitors have made their meeting selections based on AI-matchmaking suggestions, they can use the event website or the mobile event app to connect with their preferred matches, send them personal messages and schedule meetings.
Depending on whether the event participation is virtual or in-person, the meetings can be arranged online through virtual meeting rooms or at physical locations. The meeting scheduler displays the availability of participants and their respective time zone to help online attendees around different parts of the world connect with ease. Once confirmed, the meeting is added to the event agenda of those participants.
Step 5. Hosted Buyer Programme
You can create high-level networking opportunities at hybrid trade shows by connecting exhibitors to pre-qualified buyers (usually a senior executive with strong decision-making powers) through a hosted buyer programme.
By using an AI-powered hosted buyer management platform, you can craft a seamless, personalised hosted buyer experience, increasing the sales potential and ROI of your event. Here is what the attendee journey looks like:
- Visitors register on the platform and are onboarded to the dashboard after they are qualified by the organiser.
- The buyer/visitor can browse and request their own meetings through recommendations made by the AI-matchmaking software and also receive meetings suggested by the organiser.
- The buyer can accept or reject the meetings, which happen both online and at the event venue. Once the meetings are over, they can provide feedback, which is recorded on the data-driven dashboard.
During the event
Step 6. Accessing the event
Virtual attendees who are part of your online community can gain seamless online access to the hybrid event as part of their existing membership. Their profile is pre-populated onto their dashboards and they can edit fields like contact details, professional information, and matchmaking settings.
For new registrants, visitor profiles include information and preferences filled during the event registration. These can be edited any time.
The dashboard for virtual attendees also provides an overview of meeting statistics, profile completeness, profile activities and other analytics.
Physical attendees have different options to log in to the event. They can:
✔ Download the official branded event app from the Apple or Android app store and sign in using their usernames and passwords from registration.
✔ Use the visitors’ Digital Badge page on the app to gain contactless access to the event (beneficial in case of stringent safety regulations). Alternatively, they can download and print a badge in advance from the event platform.
Step 7. Navigating the event venue
The event app provides in-person attendees with a seamless navigation experience to move around the show and explore different meeting rooms, breakout rooms and exhibitor booths. Attendees can navigate through the event with indoor mapping and wayfinding. The routing functionality is based on users entering where they are, and where they are heading to.
An interactive 3D floor plan can be used to build a customised layout of the event venue with clearly defined conference rooms, exhibition stands and stage areas. This floor plan is easily accessed from the mobile event app, allowing attendees to smoothly navigate from one location to another.
Step 8. Hybrid event content delivery
The effectiveness of content delivery is a key factor to the success of your hybrid event. Based on your event goals (educational, promotion, networking), you can deliver your content in different formats (check hybrid event models section) depending on which is the most engaging for your live and virtual audiences.
For instance, speaker sessions, keynotes and breakouts could be live-streamed, while other content like videos and presentations can be pre-recorded. Since attendees would be located in different timezones and unable to attend all the sessions, it’s recommended the content at hybrid events should be available on-demand, during and after the event.
It’s also important to plan a sponsored content strategy that allows event sponsors to customise their brand content at the event venue, on the virtual platform and within the mobile event app.
Important points to keep in mind:
- Use live Q&A sessions, social media feeds and live chats to encourage both physical and online attendees to post their comments, share content and ask questions
- If you live stream your in-person sessions, keep them concise and to the point, as the virtual audience tends to have a shorter attention span
- Host multiple live sessions for Q&As and breakout topics so your geographically diverse virtual audience can easily participate
- Certain sessions and presentations can be shared with those who couldn’t attend the event, whetting their interest for the next event
Step 9. Connecting with Exhibitors
Interacting with virtual stands
While in-person attendees can simply walk up to different exhibitor stands at the venue, the virtual audience can visit the exhibitor’s online profiles and explore digital exhibitor stands on the event platform.
Event participants can chat with service representatives, browse and favourite products, request information and explore content such as company brochures at the online stands to indicate their interest for potential business opportunities.
Exhibitors can scan the digital or physical badges of attendees through the badge-scanning features in the exhibitor section of the event app. The attendee information can be saved in the exhibitor’s repository of contacts and used to qualify potential leads, among other things.
Using lead capture technology, one can:
- Scan barcodes and QR codes on the mobile event app and capture real-time attendee data
- Segregate scanned contacts as per ratings and add notes to contextualise interactions
- Get data-driven reporting for contacts list using analytics dashboard
Both the above steps allow exhibitors to rate and categorise leads, helping them streamline the lead management process.
Step 10. Attending Meetings
After the initial conversations and discussions, meetings are scheduled and added to the hybrid events agenda. Notifications in the event platform and mobile apps are triggered in advance to alert the attendees about their upcoming meeting (s).
The meetings are held at a predetermined location like a booth or a breakout area for physical attendees where exhibitors can scan and check you in, while virtual attendees simply need to select the online option and sign in virtually.
There can also be dedicated online meeting points at the event venue where physical and virtual attendees can connect with each other at a mutually convenient time.
After the event
Step 11. Measuring the hybrid event’s success
The hybrid event’s success can be measured by analysing the post-event analytics, which captures all virtual event metrics such as profile views, attendee engagement, likes and favourites, clicks on sponsored ads and banners, directory searches, number of meeting minutes and more. Similarly, the physical event scans and in-person meeting data is stored for analysis and reporting purposes.
Exhibitors and organisers can view all these analytics and numbers through their respective dashboards and easily export data into CRMs to generate insight for post-event follow up activities, and improve the attendee journey for future events.
Final step – Post-event activities
Keep your audience engaged and nurture them into potential leads through these activities:
A well-crafted email highlighting the major talking points of different sessions at the event and soliciting attendee feedback is the easiest way to maintain the connection with your audience after the event. These emails can include:
- Links to downloadable content such as eBook, white papers, presentations
- Access to replayable, on-demand content like different event sessions and webinars
- Incentives to attend the next event
Lead nurturing activities based on attendee engagement score
Attendee interactions and actions at both online and offline touchpoints during the hybrid events can be evaluated and assigned an ‘engagement score’ to nurture leads. Following are some lead generating activities you can consider:
- Schedule meetings and consultation calls to understand the attendee needs in detail
- Share relevant content to help them make an informed decision
- Offer a live demo or free trial of the products and services available
Sharing access to online marketplace
Encourage attendees to join community forums on the event website or social media channels like LinkedIn. For hybrid exhibitions and trade shows, onboard buyers and sellers to an online marketplace where they can connect all-year-round. This will serve as a common platform to drive productive conversations, conduct business and provide a ready-made pool of attendees for your next hybrid event.
Once the post-event activities conclude and you have a fresh set of engaged prospects and leads, you have an opportunity that must not fizzle out. Complete the circle by helping your new and existing audience play an active part in your event community.
This way, you can effectively make the transition from the traditional linear funnel model to the ‘flywheel model’ where your past and future marketing activities will trigger each other to create a perpetual lead generation engine, boosting business growth both in the short and longer-terms.
Hybrid events will feature heavily in the evolution of the events industry, with year-round online marketplaces connecting buyers, sellers and content. Learn more about how to build and nurture an online marketplace to support your events with our free eBook ‘The Marketplace Blueprint’
There's more you might like
How AI matchmaking is reshaping the future of events
Artificial intelligence (AI) has become ubiquitous in all walks of life, whether for completing a personal chore or conducting your business. We daily interact with AI in some form, like browsing Netflix recommendations, shopping on Amazon, or using digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. According to global market intelligence firm IDC, the global revenue for ...
Your complete guide to planning hybrid events in 2021
We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way business events are organised in the current era and possibly for years to come. While 2020 was marked by a collective shift to virtual events, the event industry landscape is being redefined by hybrid events in 2021 and beyond. Amid easing social restrictions around the globe ...
3 ways AI can remarkably improve virtual event engagement
Last year, when live events businesses adopted virtual events as their primary marketing channel, customer expectations drastically changed across several industries, including events and exhibitions. To engage customers and provide immersive, personalised experiences, there is a growing need for event organisers to integrate modern-age technologies with real-time responses and improvements. As global market research company ...