Hybrid Events are Dead; the Future is Hybrid.

Hybrid Events are Dead; the Future is Hybrid.

Graham Forsyth

Head of Marketing

Don’t be fooled into thinking hybrid events are a new concept.

In 1937, Bunny Austin played George Rogers at Wimbledon. While it’s perhaps not on the tip of your tongue as one of the classic moments in sporting history, it is hugely significant to the world we operate in today.

This match was the first event televised on the BBC. A live sporting occasion, being broadcast to the nation – one of the first hybrid events.

Later well-known mainstream examples also include Steve Jobs’ “Keynotes” and Elon Musk’s infamous unveiling of the “CyberTruck” (and subsequent window smashing), both of which have a feeling of rawness and spontaneity to them.

In terms of visualising a hybrid event format, we only need to look at the news – we’re familiar with news anchors switching to a ‘segment’ of reporting which was recorded and edited ahead of the live broadcast, before switching back to a live Q&A. This act of incorporating live and pre-recorded elements is a perfect example of what hybrid events have looked like in the past.

Hybrid events are perhaps most closely associated with trade-shows, conferences, and seminars, which combine the aforementioned in-person and digital components. Since our world was plunged into the challenges brought on by COVID-19, ‘hybrid’ is already today’s industry buzzword. So what does the future have in store?

Hybrid as the new normal

The challenge with the traditional thinking of hybrid events was that typically organisers would think of the in-person experience coming first. A lot of planning, resources, and budget goes into the in-venue experience, meaning that the digital component would often result in a simple feed of content for those unable to attend. This resulted in a poor experience, low engagement, and question marks raised over the validity of digital events.

For a long time, the digital experience was an afterthought.

Anyone that has been involved in the planning of an event, seminar, (or indeed a children’s birthday party), knows that event logistics are varied with high risks attached. Who needs the headache of adding technology into the mix?

But as our lives became more digitised, event organisers began to appreciate and innovate on the digital experience, understanding that it allowed events to scale to a wider global audience, including new markets. Technology provided more scope for engagement, and the experience became richer.

Simultaneously, attendees were beginning to expect a digital component to events. As organisations tightened the purse strings, and carbon emissions were being scrutinised from unnecessary travel, digital events became part of the conference planners’ agenda in their own right.

Today, the event landscape looks dramatically different to how it did 12 months ago.

We expect in-person events to return soon, but the realities and practicalities of these events will look very different.

The ‘When I want it’ Economy

Currently, the effectiveness of in-person vs. digital event debate continues to rage. Some correctly point to the fact that we are inherently social beings and therefore crave face-to-face interaction.

Undoubtedly, this is true. But as humans, we also chase convenience.

While your silver-surfing grandparent may still be doing their banking in-branch, the new wave of banking organisations are digital-first, disruptive, and have caused the establishment to rethink its customer-facing strategy. We don’t generally talk about hybrid-banking, but it is a concept and approach simply designed to satisfy the needs of all customers, no matter their preference.

Commerce began its digital transformation in the late-noughties. Again, driven by convenience, it had a huge impact on bricks-and-mortar stores and the traditional high streets. But more recently, both online and offline, we’ve seen the rise of boutique stores. Smaller, independent, niche stores, which deliver on an exact customer need.

The conference and tradeshow world cannot ignore these trends.

Today, your customer may choose to pop to the local Italian restaurant for their pizza. Tomorrow, they will flick on an app, select the same pizza from the same restaurant, but will want it delivered to the comfort of their home.

The customer has long been in charge of how they self-service their needs – from banking to shopping, and even to social engagements.

Why should industry events be any different?

This year, thanks to Bunny Austin and George Rogers, we can celebrate the 84th birthday of hybrid events. But much like tennis racquet technology or the bounce of the new balls, what we saw from the hybrid event from Wimbledon in 1937 is a world away from what we see from hybrid events today.

As hybrid events bring together the best digital and in-person experiences, one should not outweigh the other. The strategic planning of an event to deliver the experience all attendees expect – in-personal, or digital, boutique, or all-encompassing – is one of the most notable transformations of today’s events industry.

The Future is Hybrid

For many, Artificial Intelligence is a terrifying term. Billions of data points, what do we do with all of this insight?

For event planners, the data you own and that collated by your technology partners, gives a clear indication of your event attendees’ behavior, needs and requirements. This can help industry experts make smart decisions when planning events, but it can also point to factors that increase the convenience our attendees crave.

For example, the data can point to content trends. Content is one of the cornerstones of a great conference experience, but the data on content can also challenge our thinking about the format of our events.

As we marry in-person and digital content experience, data can drive the agenda. What types of content lend themselves to in-person engagement? Are other content streams best suited to a digital environment? How often do we ask a speaker whether they would prefer to deliver their content online or face-to-face?

Traditionally, in-person and digital events ran in parallel. But should we now challenge this thinking and look at how sequential events in-person and the digital elements (which can happen at different times), can complement the experience and the strategy of the event? Sequential formats help keep specific audiences engaged and add to the flexibility of the agenda for the attendee.

The ability to segment and structure different elements of this experience is also a bonus: a virtual-first approach can act as a qualifier for the live event later, whilst a live-first approach can utilise virtual elements as a follow-up for lead and contact generation by providing recorded content.

At the same time, the sequential format makes events even easier to plan and execute for the organisers and exhibitors – as the same staff who attend the event in-person can also participate in the virtual elements of the experience.

Data makes Hybrid Networking Smarter

Another cornerstone of event experience is networking. Finding those valuable connections, and this experience needs to be considered across in-person and digital channels.

We wouldn’t expect an event attendee to walk into a conference hall of 10,000 people and have to find their valuable connections without us trying to make this a more convenient experience. AI-powered networking online can help attendees sift through thousands of attendees and make smart suggestions for those they should meet.

Data can and should drive a smarter way to make strategic event decisions.

If we are thinking about hybrid events as a new strategy, we are thinking about it incorrectly. If you are being spoken to as if hybrid events are a new strategy, you’re being sold to incorrectly.

Today, we need to challenge our preconceived concept of what hybrid events are.

By challenging our thinking, reconsidering the delivery of events to the channel of our audiences’ choice and meeting their needs most conveniently to them, we’re heading in the right direction of the future of hybrid events.