How the switch to hybrid could lead to better business conferences

New technologies and tools help create a cohesive experience at hybrid events and allow in-person and virtual attendees to connect and engage.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — January 20, 2022

Just as it seemed like there was a window of opportunity for safe in-person events, the rapid rise of Omicron slammed it shut. The much-anticipated annual Consumer Electronics show (CES) saw only 45,000 in-person attendees in Las Vegas this year, down from it’s usual 170,000+. The World Economic Forum postponed its annual meeting in Davos to early summer. The Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off this week, will happen almost entirely virtually, without the annual crush of film fanatics to Park City. But after two years of pandemic ebbs and flows, event planners are able to take it in stride, because many events are now hybrid events from the start. This new style of event — in which some attendees participate in person and others join online — offers opportunities to rethink business conventions and the potential to engage new conference-goers.

About 50% of corporate event attendees believe hybrid events are the right format  — even beyond the pandemic — because they offer the benefits of in-person attendance with the convenience of virtual participation. 

Hybrid events make it possible for more people to participate, since a plane ticket and hotel room aren’t required. “It makes an event more accessible, and it can bring new folks into your community,” says Rachel Heller, senior event content manager at the Santa Fe-based cloud accounting software firm Sage Intacct

Ensuring remote participants feel included

In 2020, Sage Intacct went virtual with Sage Transform, its annual 4,000-person conference, where accountants come to network and learn new skills. But in 2021, Sage Transform decided to go hybrid. Some 2,000 people convened in Las Vegas in early November for the event, while another 2,000 joined online. Heller and her team used the RainFocus event platform to integrate in-person and virtual elements, paired with the CLEAR app to verify COVID-19 vaccination status for in-person attendees. They planned 100 in-person breakout sessions and delivered livestream and on-demand content to remote attendees, along with branded notebooks sent in the mail.

A speaker and an in person audience attending a small conference.

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Hybrid events aren’t as simple as broadcasting what’s happening in the room. To foster connections between in-person and virtual attendees, event planners have been tapping into new technology and tools to create a cohesive experience.

Jenny Burke, chief marketing officer at Shared Assessments in Santa Fe, says it’s critical to choose a host and concierge who’s available to virtual attendees via chat throughout an event. During livestream Q&As, the moderator in the room should coordinate with the virtual moderator to make sure questions are split evenly between in-person attendees and those joining online.

Event planners have been tapping into new technology and tools to create a cohesive experience.

Virtual moderators should ask questions in the chat to engage participants and encourage activity — where are attendees logging in from? Who’s a first time attendee?

Shanee Kraus, manager of HP’s Experience Lab, notes that including far-flung participants also means accounting for their different time zones. Responsible for organizing and hosting big events, the Experience Lab even before the pandemic produced distributed, live events for audiences (including some 50,000 HP employees) by setting up studios for panel discussions and presentations in several continents, so participants can tune in live during their own business day. 

“It’s not an American, European, or Asian event,” she says. “It’s a global event.”

Connecting attendees near and far

Hybrid events aren’t as simple as broadcasting what’s happening in the room. To give everyone valuable content and foster connections between in-person and virtual attendees, event planners have been tapping into new technology and tools to create a cohesive experience.

Don’t think of it as two separate forums, says Kraus. “It’s one event where you’re connecting everybody.”

Kraus suggests choosing one robust event platform that works for both in-person and virtual attendees. The best ones have interactive features and opportunities for networking. She uses Canapii, which offers features that mimic the feeling of networking and mingling; and Hopin, which has built-in email marketing tools, a registration feature that gives insight into attendee preferences, and a networking component where participants can link up for one-on-one video calls. Pigeonhole is another app that provides Q&As, polls, chat, reactions, and surveys.

A Black professional woman attending a virtual conference at home.

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Having a robust platform is important because virtual attendees often want to participate in sessions live but also access them on demand.

Shared Assessments' Burke is planning a hybrid conference for risk management experts in April and chose Vario Productions, a virtual planning platform with a social area where participants can create their own profile as well as an integrative polling feature. “It’s a nice way for people to interact,” she says. 

In addition to tuning in for livestreamed event sessions, virtual reality platforms like EXVO can help remote attendees feel more present, with opportunities to explore virtual event halls as avatars and socialize in online lounge spaces. 

“People want to be connected — especially when they’re on the virtual end of an event,” says Natasha Miller, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Entire Productions, who has helped companies set up a video booth in a quiet conference hall corner where in-person attendees can network with virtual ones.  “Giving them access to the people and energy of those on site will really amp up their feeling of engagement and being seen and heard.”

Getting creative with content

High-quality content is table stakes for any conference, but especially for a hybrid one, where attention spans of remote attendees are shorter. Virtual attendees want to participate in sessions live but also access them on demand.

To up engagement, Heller and the Sage Transform team had around 70 speakers pre-record 15-minute “lightning talks” made available to attendees on the first day.

Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES, says that when the event went virtual last year, “we threw out our playbook on conferences.” An hour-plus keynote is just too long to engage a virtual audience, she explains, noting about 25 minutes is more digestible. She coaches speakers on how to perform for a virtual audience by alternating between looking at the in-person audience and the camera. 


RELATED: See what CES 2022 tells us about life in the coming year and beyond.


As more events go hybrid, expect faster-paced, shorter segments that include a variety of formats, including speeches, interactive talks, and experiential presentations. Conference organizers are also trying virtual break-out sessions, one-on-one video chats, and gamifying elements like virtual scavenger hunts. Recording also makes it easier to repurpose content in blogs and social channels.

Another benefit is the ability to tap into data to improve events. Planners can gain insights for future events, such as gauging engagement by examining how many users dropped out of a particular session and after how many minutes. One colleague of Heller’s used virtual conference data to discover who the top 10 favorite speakers were at her hybrid event, and then planned to bring those speakers back over the course of the year for a series of webinars.

With these new opportunities to enhance the event experience, along with the flexibility and accessibility hybrid events provide, Kraus envisions more and more organizations embracing the model. 

“It gives us more options,” she says. “Hybrid is here, and it will stay.”