As the events industry starts to return, it’s becoming clear that hybrid events are going to become part of the new normal. While there are countless tutorials, resources and products that are geared towards making the technical transition easier to understand and execute, one challenge that remains is how to maximize remote audience engagement.
Founded in 2009 by Anthony Scaramucci and SkyBridge Capital, SALT is an annual global thought leadership forum and networking platform that encompasses finance, technology and geopolitics. In 2019, working with Encore Productions, SALT wanted to reinvigorate this high-profile, invitation-only event and take it back to its roots; a thought-leadership forum filled with conversation-based keynotes and fireside chats that blended together the intersecting areas of finance, tech, politics, academia, sports, military and entertainment.
“Although past events had historically been successful, SALT wanted to continue pushing the envelope on their events to stay ahead of competitors. They were looking to transform it into the event of the future,” recalled Chani Mintz, Senior Producer, Encore Productions.
After coming to an understanding on how to further evolve the in-person event, the task became more complex—how to take the event into the digital sphere in a unique way? The event planners wanted to make sure their virtual audience was given an experience that not only mirrored the specifications of the in-person event, but enhanced it. “We really had to change our mindset on how we approached this – it was really to incorporate the best of live show production with more of a television broadcast approach,” confided Jamey Gallagher, Vice President of Creative Strategy, Encore Productions. With this in mind, the production team leveraged three key techniques: creating an immersive environment, graphic elements and exclusive content.
Create an Immersive Experience
Create an environment where attendees can find and explore your content in a way that easily allows for sharing and participating actively in the experience.
In the case of SALT, there were multiple touchpoints for virtual attendees to interact with: a virtual lobby, exhibit hall, keynote presentation and networking lounge, to name a few. These creative elements allowed attendees to interact with one another and the material presented in a way that made them feel connected and part of the action.
Add Graphic Elements
The producers were also mindful of how keynotes and video content was presented to the digital audience. To mimic the energetic atmosphere at Bellagio, they crafted graphic elements that made each keynote feel as if it were a segment on a news channel. By using these graphics, along with picture-in-picture elements, call-outs for the next presenter, and making it look and feel like a highly-produced television show, the creative minds on this project brought a dynamic experience into existence for these users.
Create Exclusive Content for the Virtual Attendee
Between speakers, they utilized roaming cameras to make those at home feel like they were truly in the room. “The virtual viewer actually had a bigger experience than the live viewer,” said Jamey. “They went right from a live session, to an interview backstage and immediately to the conference center. The virtual attendee could attend up to five functions in an hour, where the live attendee could see maybe only three.”
These elements culminated into an event that SkyBridge Founder & Managing Partner and SALT Chairman Anthony Scaramucci proclaimed to be “by far the smoothest and coolest event we’ve ever done.”
A Rise in Hybrid Meetings and Events
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges to the event industry. But, with crisis, often comes innovation. As automobile manufacturers have quickly changed their business model from building cars to building ventilators, the events industry is responding with different ways to use technology to connect organizations and people.
One of the impacts of the pandemic is that people everywhere have become more comfortable with virtual technology. Our children and teachers have adapted from classroom instruction to online learning. Our colleagues kept collaboration and teamwork alive using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx and a host of other applications. While the Millennial generation has grown up with FaceTime and video chat, now even my 76-year-old mother has become proficient at setting up family Zoom meetings. These new realities are propelling the use of virtual technologies forward.
You may recall after 9/11 and the Great Recession when planners, venues and technology companies expected video conferencing to become a part of the new norm and invested significant capital in that direction. We learned quickly that the industry at large was not ready to make the move to this type of virtual approach. We underestimated the importance of human connection. The ability to read body language and meet face-to-face is important. The opportunity to socialize before and after meetings is crucial. Technology can never fully replace face-to-face communication, but it can become a tool to help us through challenging times, and the answer might just be a combination of in-person meetings connected by technology.
Things are different now than in the aftermath of 9/11 or the Great Recession. Great advances have been made over the past decade in technology, hardware, connection speeds and the use of the Cloud to enable virtual events. Most importantly, meeting and event participants are now more comfortable using technology to connect virtually. COVID-19 has prepared us for a technological pivot in the meeting industry.
Humans, whether Millennials or Baby Boomers, are social people. We must meet, in-person and often to create true connections.
Hybrid meetings allow us to connect event participants while simultaneously providing piece of mind. In-person meetings will evolve to become more inclusive. While just a few months ago, a venue may have welcomed 500 people into a ballroom for a general session, the opportunity now exists to welcome 50 people into a more intimate setting in 10 rooms that can be spread out around the world. Connecting rooms or venues with virtual technology will allow this to happen. It will also allow options for participants who may be concerned about their health or have a pre-existing condition.
Additionally, as small, mid-sized and even large companies have become accustomed to employees working from home, our role in connecting people will be even more important. Square, Twitter and Nationwide are a sample of some of the organizations who plan to continue to offer remote working arrangements. This will present a new opportunity for venues to sell space so that team members of companies who have left the brick and mortar office behind can come together to meet. Working from home can be isolating and the need for team members to create face-to-face connections will increase.
This has created a tremendous opportunity for planners, venues, and technology companies to work together to meet these needs. It is our job to educate the industry about the possibilities of coupling in-person meetings with virtual technology to create hybrid events. Our role in connecting people is suddenly more important than ever. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that even though we can work virtually we crave social interaction. Our job is working together to make that happen for our clients.
The current environment across the globe has presented the meetings and events industry with a clear focus on virtual opportunities. As a result, there are some natural questions that come to mind. Are virtual meetings the new normal? Will they ultimately replace live meetings? And, can people do without face-to-face events?
The answer is understandably nuanced.
Technology to deliver virtual events continues to improve and offers a credible alternative in an environment where people cannot physically gather. Dramatic increases in use of webinars, livestreams – even the reality that ‘Zoom’ is becoming a verb – all demonstrate that virtual events are thriving. And with more of us becoming comfortable with the medium and more thoughtful in how to design virtual events, we will absolutely see an increased use in purely virtual meetings as well as hybrid events, even after governmental restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
But this does not mean face-to-face meetings can be fully replaced. At their core, meetings and events are meant to connect and inspire people. This happens not just in general sessions or breakouts, but also in moments of serendipity on exhibit floors and the social networking times outside the formal program. According to Meetings Mean Business, 84 percent of executives agree that team productivity is at its best when people meet face-to face. We learn, change, and innovate when we are together. This is due to real value we all get from human connection.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Our world is certainly forever altered. Virtual meetings will have their place and all of us need to learn how to leverage technology to increase the opportunity that our meetings can connect even larger audiences. Face-to-face meetings will also continue to have an important role as virtual cannot satisfy the purpose of every event. The opportunity for us all is to understand how to create hybrid events that give attendees the best of both solutions in order to multiply the impact of our meetings.
On Global Meetings Industry Day on April 14, 2020, I sat down to discuss this topic in detail with Tara Higgins, President at Hargrove, Tricia Rawh, Executive Director of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation’s Center for Education, and Jim Huss, Director of Employee Events at Intel. We discovered that now, more than ever, we’re positioned with a wealth of tools at our fingertips to go virtual. But as we move forward, when is the right time to use which format? It boils down to strategy and purpose.
“Now our toolbox is bigger,” said Jim. “Now we have more ways of accomplishing things. Sometimes that’s a great thing, sometimes that’s daunting because – which one do I choose in which situation. But if you start getting very clear on what the purpose and goals of your events are, I think that leads you down the right path for what technologies to deploy.”
Tricia agreed, astutely stating that “meeting objectives will have to drive the delivery method whether that’s virtual, in-person or a combination of both.”
There’s an opportunity for all of us to have louder voices around advancing the strategic goals of our organizations with the right combination of virtual and in-person for our events. The time to start these conversations is now.