Discover what a hybrid conference is, and the advantages and challenges that come with organising and hosting one.
For the last two years, those in the conference industry have become used to the standard in-person conference model transitioning to the virtual world. Conference software has quickly adapted to the rapid demand for platforms that can provide tools and features to facilitate an engaging event attended by a global audience sat in front of their computers.
The world is starting to open up again, and conference organisers are now looking at returning to live events but want to keep some of the elements of the virtual alternative - not least because of the dramatic expansion of their target audience. Could the answer be, then, hybrid conferences?
Our clients have increasingly asked our advice about hybrid conferences - what they are, how you host one, and what elements of in-person and virtual have value and can be incorporated into an event that creates and provides the best of both worlds. Read on to find out our responses.
As explained above, at its most basic level a hybrid conference is an event that combines the elements of live, in-person events with virtual ones. The key factors to consider when deciding if you want to host a hybrid conference is which elements of each are a priority, which you would like to retain and how to do that in a streamlined, cost effective way.
There are a few fairly tried and tested models that are worth considering.
- One location hosting the live, in-person event, but broadcast and streamed simultaneously to a virtual audience.
- A virtual conference that is streamed to live locations globally.
- Multi-site: Several locations hosting different live, in-person sessions, and streamed simultaneously back to the satellite sites, as well as to a virtual audience.
Whichever type you explore will depend on many factors, not least your budget, and where your audience is located.
Whichever hybrid model you go with, as with virtual conferences, one of the biggest advantages is the global audience reach. Anyone with a laptop, or even a handheld device, and an internet connection can attend and contribute. When conferences were entirely ‘in-the-room’, some of the potential global academic community were excluded, based on their location, funding and their individual personal responsibilities.
Thankfully, virtual conferences encouraged us all to confront and address this, which has resulted in richer, more diverse contributions to all fields of research and study.
One of the negative by-products of an event held entirely in-person is the sheer cost, along with the impact it has on the environment. It’s important to stress that the latter is no longer a personal conscience issue, with companies and organisations having increasingly strict sustainability procurement processes and policies. Hiring large auditoriums and conference centres isn’t cheap, nor is the cost of keeping your event operational, which nearly always includes extra staff. Millions of miles of air travel can be saved, along with the waste produced by events attended by thousands and hosted in huge conference centres.
Thanks to the smaller audiences, hybrid events can be held in smaller, more economical venues, with the more geographically distant attendees free to choose to attend from the comfort of their homes or offices. Event hire, catering and accommodation costs are dramatically reduced, which means organisations with minimal budgets can hold conferences and attract a global audience.
While many conference software platforms have spent a lot of time and resources developing highly interactive virtual platforms - the gamification of conferences, if you will - the flashy interfaces that resulted often divided potential attendees. It was a bit like a Marmite situation - you either love or hate them. The rationale was to try to recreate the ‘in-the-room’ experience, but it is difficult to replace eye contact, a friendly introduction and a discussion over a cup of coffee with a colourful avatar moving around the screen. With conferences partially back in the room, collaborations are easier to instigate and be part of. Our clients often tell us that this is one of the key reasons that they wanted to get back to live, in-person events. If we have learned anything over the last two years, it’s how crucial human contact is - in all aspects of our lives.
The other major bonus with keeping this aspect of an in-person event is that you can start generating income from exhibitors and sponsors again. Trying to get attendees to visit a virtual booth when they are distracted with several browsers open, is a lot more difficult than when you’re dangling a few real-life freebies in front of them!
One major benefit of the virtual conference model is that it has allowed conference organisers to gather and analyse data in a very streamlined and efficient way. Q&A sessions can be recorded, interactive polls can be automated and attendee statistics and data can all be collated and analysed after the conference. There’s absolutely no need for printed feedback forms any more.
Many of the data collection features are automatic via conference software and video-conferencing tools.and require no extra skills or staff. These tools allow for highly valuable insights, ensuring any post conference contact is relevant and highly targeted.
The key challenge will always be how to keep your virtual audience engaged and satisfied. Inevitably, the focus will be on what’s going on in the room, and the virtual audience could be unintentionally regarded as mere spectators, rather than active participants. It is crucial, then, that virtual engagement is managed professionally and creatively - by providing high levels of service and a dedicated staff to offer concierge-like services, such as guiding attendees and providing recommendations.
Another key challenge will be logistics. A hybrid event requires both virtual and in-person conferences to be planned and managed. Regardless of the size of the event, you will still need to book a venue for the in-person part, and hire staff and provide catering. A scaled down event doesn’t correlate with an equally scaled down workload.
Take signage, for instance. If you decide to go for a multi-site option, this will be multiplied. Getting quotes and going through the procurement process of sourcing caterers takes just as long whether you are providing for 10 or 1000 attendees.
One way of counteracting some of the challenges listed above is to host the live and virtual conferences one after the other. Whilst this won’t reduce costs, it will make logistics easier and will enable organisers to focus on each specific audience.
The in-person event can be held first and all sessions and content can be available virtually after. One disadvantage of this model would be the lack of interactivity between the live and virtual audiences. Essentially these are two separate events and the necessary planning and management would have to take this on board.
Oxford Abstracts has been providing academic conference management software for over 20 years. During that time, we have been listening to our clients, and constantly developing our platform and responding to their ever-changing needs.
We have brought together all the complex elements of setting up and running an academic conference into one powerful and easy-to-use platform, which is incredibly flexible and will handle any hybrid conference, regardless of size and set-up.
We’re happy to answer any of your questions and offer advice on how to manage your conference, regardless of whether you decide to choose our platform for your event.
We’re looking forward to meeting you!