Technology has removed the four walls that traditionally housed events in one space, at one time. Now hybrid is hot. The term has come to refer to an event that offers both an in-person component and at least some of its content live via the Internet to groups of attendees participating from organized satellite locations or to individuals at home or work. The growth of hybrid events has been driven by society’s increasing adoption of technology and also by economic factors: greater competition in the technology industry is driving costs down, coupled with reductions in corporate travel budgets.
Whether it’s a big, international conference, such as SAP’s Sapphire Now that creates elaborate broadcast studios on its show floor, or a small, internal corporate meeting that may only use one camera, the purpose of a hybrid event remains the same: to engage participants—both in-person and those attending virtually—in a meaningful experience while staying on budget.
Here are 10 production tips to keep in mind to create a successful hybrid event.
1. Quality audio is paramount. Weak sound or static will be even more annoying to remote attendees than to those in the room. “That cuts down on your engagement,” says Samuel J. Smith, C.E.O. of Interactive Meeting Technology, a Minnesota company that specializes in the design, production, and execution of interactive technology for events. Also consider whether the remote audience needs to be able to hear people other than the main presenter. “If a person asking a question doesn’t have a microphone, the virtual audience can’t hear it. That will be a big downside. They will hear some dead air and then hear the presenter answer and have no idea what he is referring to,” says Dennis Shiao, director of product marketing for INXPO, a Chicago-based company that provides online destinations for events, recruiting, training and communications.
2. Purchase enough bandwidth. Internet bandwidth determines how much data can be transmitted and at what speed; for the virtual audience it determines how your event looks and feels. Without enough bandwidth, the virtual audience will see low-quality video—the signal may drop out or require continual buffering—which can be frustrating for virtual attendees. In most cases, planners purchase bandwidth from the venue, which usually has an exclusive arrangement with a bandwidth provider. While this is not a place to skimp, look for opportunities to negotiate the cost in the same way you negotiate the cost of space. Also keep in mind that bandwidth requirements are directly related to how many sessions are being streamed at the same time: three sessions going out at once require three times as much bandwidth. Once you are on-site, verify that you are getting what you are paying for by using one of the many Web sites that offer a free, instant measurement of Internet upload and download speeds, such as InternetFrog and Bandwidth Place.
3. Determine the number and type of cameras needed. Start by determining which sessions will be streamed. For a conference with sessions in multiple rooms, planners can cut down on the number of cameras and operators needed by scheduling the sessions to be streamed at different times so the same room can be used over and over. A hybrid event needs at least one fixed camera, but (if the budget allows) multiple cameras per session are preferable because different angles and shots can help keep the virtual audience engaged. As for the type of cameras, Smith says even if your event will not be streamed in high-definition, it may be worth using high-definition cameras so videos produced from the event will be top-quality. If that is not a concern, the choice of camera can be one way to save money. “In a pinch, I used our family’s old digital video tape camcorder and it was just fine,” says Midori Connolly, C.E.O. and chief AVGirl of California-based Pulse Staging and Events, an audiovisual staging company.
4. Vendors need to communicate with one another. A hybrid event can involve multiple service providers, such as the company running the audio and video in the room, the information technology team from the venue, a webcasting provider, and possibly a virtual platform provider. “Anybody who is touching the experience needs to be talking to one another,” says John Pollard, event services program director at Sonic Foundry, a Wisconsin company that created Mediasite, a platform for hybrid events, webcasting and lecture capture. “These people need to know who the contact is for each other, then they can ask the right questions and take care of a lot of the issues [for the planner].”
5. Stream for all devices. Mobile has become increasingly important, so you’ll need to make sure your vendor’s streaming capabilities work on iOS and Android mobile devices. “You send one stream, which is a Flash stream, for desktop browsers and Android devices, but you have a second stream, which is iOS, for iPhone and iPad,” says Gregg Greenberg, director of global online marketing strategy for SAP, a German business management software company that hosts the annual Sapphire Now conference, a hybrid event with multiple satellite locations worldwide. An event’s webcasting company can create appropriate solutions to handle different types of streams.
6. Test the stream. According to Greenberg, SAP runs two tests for Sapphire Now and its other hybrid events: one the day before (optimally at the same time of day that the event will take place) and a second one about 90 minutes before the first live shot. “The live stream will be on but we will play a recorded video,” he says. “Then, about 10 to 15 minutes before the live shot, we switch to a room shot. That gives us time to fix things.” Greenberg also recommends running at least two encoders—the equipment that compresses audio and video so it can transmit over the Internet—in case one fails.
7. Plan to engage the virtual audience. If speakers will use slides or videos in presentations, how will they be shared with the remote audience? Do they need to be prerecorded or uploaded prior to the live presentation? In an optimal situation, the audio and video are linked two ways. That is, attendees at the physical event can see and hear all of the remote audiences and vice versa. When that is not possible, due to budget or production constraints, the priority should be that all remote attendees can see and hear the physical event, and that they can submit comments and questions, usually via text or Twitter. Experts also recommend planners develop content specifically for the remote audience, which can be used to fill time when the physical event is on break and to develop camaraderie among the virtual attendees. A virtual M.C. can also help by serving as a host and guide for people participating online or from pods.
8. Make sure speakers talk to the virtual audience. Not only should all speakers be aware of the virtual audience, but they should greet them at the start of the event and several times thereafter. “One fun thing to do is to tape a smiley face to the camera to remind the speaker to address the remote audience [since] a lot of presenters are trained to not look into the camera,” Connolly says. And when a question comes in from a remote attendee, the presenter should acknowledge who and where it is from. “People love to hear their name,” Smith says. “It makes them feel good, and especially if they are home alone and they don’t have people to connect with in the hallway.”
9. You don’t have to do it all. “You will never be able to fully capture and provide the face-to-face experience to a Web audience,” Shiao says. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to properly narrow the scope.” Planners should expect that most people participating in a hybrid event prefer to allocate a few hours, not an entire day, to the experience. “Face-to-face you can keep people all day,” says Corbin Ball, a Washington-based consultant who helps clients determine how to use technology effectively for events. “With virtual or hybrid events you can’t expect people to be sitting at a monitor all day long as they would be sitting in a meeting room. So you need to provide blocks of time with white space around it.”
10. Focus on the meeting’s objectives. “The most important thing to keep in mind is figuring out what technologies make the most sense to achieve the event’s particular goals,” says Mary Boone, a Connecticut-based consultant who works with clients on organizational communication and meeting design. “A lot of times that gets lost in the excitement of experimenting with new technology.” She recalls a meeting of 200 senior association executives where planners created an app intended to be used by attendees to submit questions to the presenters, only to find that most preferred to ask questions aloud. “Whatever technology or audiovisual [equipment] you are using, all of it should be in service of making the meeting more effective, and not just for the wow factor,” Boone says.