Hubs, Spokes and Hybrid…

Whilst I am writing from the cycling capital of the UK, Cambridge, this is not, as the title might suggest a blog about bicycles – it is interesting though isn’t it to see the language of events evolving before our eyes; terms, that even just a year ago would have little to no relevance to our industry are now embedded in the event planners’ vocabulary.  Indeed, to hark back to the bicycle analogy; hubs, spokes and hybrid meeting formats have not only enabled the wheels of our industry to keep turning but when venues can open again, they may also offer a route back to the face-to-face events that we all crave.

Here are my thoughts on what you might like to consider in your planning but first, it is probably best to explain how we, here at Meet Cambridge, determine the difference between these types of events…

How are hybrid events different to virtual?

Virtual events have no physical audience in a shared space, they are usually totally online and delivered in real-time or ‘on-demand’, they may have pre-recorded sessions or they may feature broadcasts from a stage or a studio in a venue; they involve a single remote audience.

Hybrid events, on the other hand, involve two audiences: an in-person gathering in a venue or venues, either in a single destination or multiple destinations, in a hub and spoke format, and they have an audience of online viewers, which may involve interaction with a single event platform and/or social media networks.

Whilst many will not regard virtual or hybrid as substitutes for in-person events, these formats do offer huge potential.  Technology has developed rapidly and as it continues to evolve, I believe that we will discover that remote elements can significantly enhance and complement an in-person event.

What do you need to consider when organising a hybrid conference or event?

1. Restyle the programme

There’s no easy to way say this but if you are about to switch a physical event to a hybrid one, you will probably have to start again with your programme. Today, we’re online for our working life and in our personal life too – your event will be competing for your attendees’ attention and engagement; the format will need to be tailored to both the in-person audience and the online audience – both are of equal importance.

  • Research other events that have switched to virtual or hybrid to get an idea of how programmes have changed.
  • Consider the technical abilities of your online audience and the infrastructure that is available to them for viewing in their location.  Their internet may not be fast enough to cope with viewing high-definition videos, for example.
  • Build-in time to replay sessions at different times to accommodate different time zones.
  • Remember, refreshment breaks are important for your online audience too.
  • Keep sessions short, whilst it may be fine to sit in an auditorium for 2-3 hours, that’s a long time to be sat at a screen.
  • If your event involves off-site elements such as industry tours – don’t leave your remote audience out, invite them to join you on a live feed, such as Facebook or Instagram live and have someone on the actual tour to facilitate that for you.
  • Consider electronic poster sessions with audio files to provide explanations and give delegates the option to live chat with the author in timed sessions.
  • Offer intimate ‘kitchen table’ type discussion sessions with speakers and/or sponsors that both audiences can be part of, together.
  • Factor in some fun too – quizzes, scavenger hunts, cook -a-longs etc. could all be adapted to suit both audiences.

2. Choosing a Venue

All of the usual checklists are still relevant in terms of choosing a venue(s) for the in-person part of the conference or event but you will need to consider these additional elements too:

  • Check for evidence of enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols, the in-person attendees will need to be safe and secure. Look out for accreditations such as the Meeting Industry Association's AIM Secure, and/or VisitBritain's We’re Good to Go or ask to see the venue’s COVID risk assessment.
  • It’s likely that a form of social distancing will be required for a while, so think carefully about the size of space you will need to accommodate your audience.
  • Can the venue offer outside space options for breakouts or other sessions where delegates can get out into the fresh air.
  • Wifi and bandwidth – can the venue’s infrastructure cope with your programme? Can the venue offer additional bandwidth or a dedicated network?  
  • Does the venue offer interesting and quiet spaces for one-to-one calls where members of both audiences can connect online with each other?
  • Can the venue either offer in-house offer technical support and filming services or can they help you find suitable suppliers?
  • Is there space to build an engaging set or backdrop in the rooms where streaming will take place? Think along the lines of TV production, it needs to be appealing to both audiences.
  • Audiences need to be able to see one another – can your room facilitate this?

3. Sponsors and Exhibitors

Whilst it’s true that the sponsor/exhibitor experience will be different at a hybrid event, with careful considerations for each other’s objectives and needs, there can be many advantages:

  • More opportunities to engage – can sponsors lead a symposium for example?
  • Offer exposure to any on-demand content you create to extend their reach for longer.
  • Make it easy for exhibitors to engage with your chosen platform – they’re being asked to supply collateral in lots of different forms for lots of different platforms which can be costly and time-consuming – simplify it for them.
  • Offer a range of sponsorship options for both audiences so that they can pick and choose where they would like engagement and placement.
  • Offering a remote element to your event online registrations will allow you to extend your reach and increase your chances of engagement, which in turn is beneficial for sponsors and exhibitors too. 
  • Remember to ensure that your chosen platform has the capability to collect the right data from both audiences to allow you to evaluate the success of your event - metrics are powerful tools that will help you attract future sponsors and attendees.

4. Pre-Event Information

Joining instructions are as important as ever and it might seem obvious but it’s important to have different information for your different audiences.  Just as attendees at the in-person event will need travel information etc., your online audience will also need clear joining instructions ahead of the event too, here are a few things to include:

  • Browser recommendations for your chosen platform.
  • The optimum upload/download speeds required.
  • Details about where they can get technical help before and during the event.
  • If you can and depending on your data sharing policy, consider sharing the attendee list in advance and give everyone the opportunity to contact each other so that networking can start before the event or open the event a day before so that attendees can ‘check-in’ and start to make connections.

5. Testing, testing…

Practice makes perfect and in the case of hybrid events, it’s more important than ever before to factor in rehearsal time.  Here are a few things to consider:

  • Rehearse with speakers in the same environment, with exactly the same technical set up, laptop, lighting, WiFi connection etc. as you would require at your event.
  • Remember to book rehearsal time at your venue, in the rooms you will be using.
  • Check upload and download speeds and test on the same browser.
  • Ensure your speakers are confident and comfortable with addressing both audiences and switching between the two.

6. Work with a Professional

Hybrid events have been around for many years but it’s likely that they will become more mainstream. Delivering a successful hybrid event requires a very particular skill set, not only in the organisation phase of the event but in the delivery too:

  • Consider working with a Professional Conference Organiser, you could handover the majority of the leg work so that you can focus on your programme.  Many will be able to offer the use of in-house software which could save you time and effort in researching suitable platforms. ABPCO has a handy checklist for what to look out for when you're considering which platform to use.
  • Employ the services of an experienced moderator who has the ability to engage with both audiences, bringing the online audience into the room and vice-versa.
  • Work with a skilled AV supplier – they will help you identify your technical needs and ensure that attendees have a good experience throughout and crucially, on-demand technical assistance during the event for everyone.

Whilst there may seem much to consider and new formats to get to grips with, the fundamentals of event organisation remain the same; the ethos of providing a space to connect people, to enable them to have a shared experience is and always will be a priority.  The large, in-person events of yesteryear may be a while away but the pace of change and the possibilities that technology gives us for connecting venues and even more people is inspiring – to get back on that metaphorical bicycle – what a ride to be on!

Meet Cambridge is the conference and event bureau for Cambridge and the official venue-finding service for spaces at the University of Cambridge, its Colleges, hotels, unique properties and training centres. It provides a free venue finding service for event planners as well as an event management service.  For help and advice please call + (0) 1223 768740 or visit: www.meet-cambridge.com

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