Hybrid hotel

0323 Editorialcontent Business Meetings Feat

Here we are, three years from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when it comes to business conferences and meetings, it’s become clear that they will never be the same. It’s become even clearer that while in-person gatherings still have their place (and their devotees), virtual components have their nose in the tent and it will be very difficult to remove them.

This creates challenges and opportunities for people who organize business gatherings — the principal challenge being to treat online participants the same as people in the room. That challenge will only intensify during the remainder of this decade. While the pandemic year of 2020 was a boon to video conferencing tools, the online data platform Statista reports that in Q2 2021, the leading mobile conferencing platforms experienced a 58% decrease in installs compared to the same quarter the year before — 200 million vs. 479 million — but the momentum has only temporarily been slowed. A Fortune Business Insights Report states the video conferencing market was worth $6.28 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $14.58 billion by 2028.

Now that the same hybrid model that applies to work in the office also applies to many separate functions, we sought the advice of people who’ve spent some time organizing events that are necessarily a mix of in-person attendees and remote meeting participants. One of those people is Brian Lee, president of Revelation PR, Advertising & Social Media and president of Revelation Events. Lee has seen nothing to suggest that business gatherings where knowledge is exchanged have gone fully in-person or fully virtual. “Any results of any kind of attendee survey has always been hybrid,” he states. “There will always be people who want to go back in person and others that would just prefer meeting online. Typically, we’re just planning for hybrid in most cases.”

To gain an understanding of how organizers are approaching hybrid gatherings, we spoke to Lee, who is also an entrepreneur in residence at Madison College, where he serves as a marketing instructor; and to three women who helped organize the third annual Aging Well Summit — Joy Schmidt, a dementia care specialist with the Dane County Aging and Disability Resource Center; Bonnie Nuttkinson, an outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center; and Kathi Vos, a retired UW–Madison professor. We also interviewed Collin Donohue, senior project manager for Studio Gear, a Milwaukee-based audio-visual service with a location on Cottonwood Drive in Madison.

They offer the following tips to ensure that hybrid conferences or seminars come off without too many hitches.

Be mindful of ‘meeting equity’

When Lee advises clients about hybrid meetings, he encourages them to think about purpose and goals first, just as business professionals would with any initiative or marketing campaign. “In this case, you’re having a meeting of some sort, and it’s either to make a decision, provide updates, brainstorm, or whatever it is, and that has to be made possible regardless of the format of the meeting — fully in person, fully virtual, or hybrid,” he states. “And then, what we do is talk about strategies for accomplishing the purpose of the meeting, and the main strategy is that everyone attending the meeting can equally participate. 

“That is known as meeting equity, and to accomplish meeting equity, you have to look at three areas: technology hardware, software, and human behavior.”

With hardware, especially for those attending in person, organizers must solve audio and visual challenges. Microphones, for example, ideally will be omni-directional and capture sounds from all sides. “I’ve also seen mics hang from ceilings for larger rooms, and you’ll likely need speakers so that you can hear the participants who are online,” Lee advises. “You can’t simply use your laptop speakers because they won’t be powerful enough.”

As for video, Lee is a devotee of the two-screen solution. He has seen organizations use giant TVs — at least 65 inches. However, when sharing content such as a presentation, “we’re typically now trying to advise to use two screens if possible, so you will have one screen for the content,” he explained. “If you’re seeing the power point presentation, everyone in the room and online will see that power point presentation. The second screen is to show the participants and the chat box, so that people in person can still see the people online. So, that’s why there could be a need for two screens.”

On the software side, there are several considerations, starting with the best interactive content tool. There are several platforms to choose from, but for virtual and hybrid meetings, Lee recommends tools that are fast to load, easy to use (including the phone app), and offer robust feature sets that include instant messaging and call features. The last thing you want is a platform that takes forever to load or requires some time to work out the kinks or is generally frustrating due to “bugginess.”

The better tools make it possible for online or in-person attendees to engage in content, whether it’s polls, quizzes, or social conversations. Lee’s team uses Skype for virtual and hybrid meetings but that doesn’t mean other platforms are off limits. “We’re experimenting with Ring Central, so we’re constantly looking at other tools as well,” he states.

Additional software might be needed for collaboration. Google Docs and Office 365 enable meeting participants to work on documents live, together, and in real time. Lee also likes a tool called Whiteboard Team, which enables live whiteboarding “no matter where you are,” he states.

In addition, it can be helpful if the software platform has an auto-follow feature that either zooms in and/or follows the person who is speaking. This is more of an advanced feature, but having a camera that can follow the speaker, and focus on that person, adds value to the presentation.

Last but not least is the human element, and this is often overlooked. When the meeting invitation goes out, organizers should ask that anyone who will be meeting virtually not be multitasking during the meeting and that they keep their cameras on the entire time. Lee also recommends that when attendees are online, they stay unmuted so that they can “chime in” more quickly. “As you know, it’s easy for people there in the room to converse among themselves without ever waiting to hear from those calling in,” he notes.

One last piece of advice on the human side is that sometimes, it’s nice to have an advocate for those who attend online — a designated tech troubleshooter who is separate from the program coordinator or emcee. The advocate does not have to be an information technology professional, but some degree of tech savvy is required. “That advocate will say, ‘Hey, Jim has a comment. Let’s hear from Jim,’” Lee states. “That advocate could also be your meeting facilitator, so if you are having your meeting facilitated, that person would be in charge of advocating for those online.”

The person in charge of making sure technology runs smoothly plays the role of problem solver so that the emcee can “just do their thing,” Nuttkinson says. “Make sure people know their roles and what that looks like, so while things are happening, the team just functions and does what needs to be done.”

Stress sound strategy

When it comes to audio-visual presentations at an in-person gathering, Studio Gear’s Collin Donohue knows it’s easy to focus on the stunning visuals made possible by creative lighting designs and large, colorful video screens, and forget about quality sound. When that happens, it can undermine even the coolest visual presentation.

“Sound doesn’t show up on social media, but it’s probably the most valuable element because if people can’t hear what you have to say, you might as well not hold an event,” Donohue says “So, a strong focus of ours is to help people understand that we can make an event look really cool, but you must pay attention to your audio and the capability of the person behind the mixer.”

Another key to quality audio is un­derstanding that every environment has its own sound challenges. Sound can be influenced by everything from the material on the floor or ceiling to the size and shape of the room. That’s why no audio-visual service would set up a corporate event, theatrical stage, or party venue without inspecting it first. Part of the pre-planning involves working with customers to build a 3D model of the event space that includes all of the audio-visual elements, seating, or any other elements in the space.

“We want to plan out and visualize the space as close to reality as possible so that we can take into account all spatial factors,” Donohue notes. “For example, if you have your screens right next to the stage, and those screens are 20-feet wide and your stage is 40-feet wide, that’s 80 feet worth of space that needs to be kept visually clear. We then need to plan out the sound system to take that into account.”

Value virtual

With virtual options, Lee finds it easier to lure attendees who might not otherwise attend in person, and organizers of the Aging Well Summit believe the same is true for speakers. That’s not a universally held view (Lee says there isn’t enough statistical evidence yet) but every speaker invited to the present at the summit did so virtually, including keynoters Martin Schreiber, former governor of Wisconsin and author of My Two Elaines, which chronicles his family’s experience with dementia, and Carl V. Hill, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at the Alzheimer’s Association National Office.

The summit, which focused on brain health and healthy caregiving, was held over two days in November. While the in-person segments pertained to caregiver training at Cairasu Home Care in Madison, virtual speakers also included Carol Van Hulle of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology; Susan H. McFadden, professor emerita of psychology at UW–Oshkosh; and attorney Signé Mbainai, assistant corporation counsel with Dane County Corporation Counsel Office.

While it’s never easy to secure speakers, Nuttkinson says it’s easier to get speakers — prominent speakers — if you offer them the chance to present virtually. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summit began in 2020 in a virtual space, so organizers have the opposite experience of most event planners whose gatherings started on an in-person basis and had to be switched. “I personally think you can get a bigger name that maybe would not be in your budget to do the honorarium for them, or for whoever they are working for, their company or organization, to pay to fly them to you,” Nuttkinson states. “So, I think you can usually pull in people that you might not have as much access to or have the funds to access.”

Thanks to his role as an instructor in an academic setting, Lee’s take is slightly different. “Right now, we’re still getting speakers to come in person,” he says. “Over the past two years, people have found it hard, if you’re a presenter, to be a talking head and not be in that same room as the audience. Personally, I’ve found that too because I teach and I don’t want to do online teaching anymore. I want to be back in person where I can interact with people right away.”

Attendees are another consideration. In the past, frontline caregivers were not given the opportunity to go to conferences, supervisors were, and the virtual [Zoom] format of the Aging Well Summit helped take down whatever barriers existed. The 153 registrants included national and inter­national guests from beyond Wisconsin. “Really, this Zoom platform is pretty accessible to everybody no matter where they are,” notes Vos. “Too often, you are left out if you are not able to pay and drive and participate in a face-to-face conference.”

Encourage engagement

Asked if there are certain things you need to do in person that cannot be done virtually, Lee says the answer lies in efficiency. If a task or program segment can be done more efficiently in person — one-on-one or in small groups — then online takes a back seat. “Time is so valuable,” he states. “I don’t want to spend 20 minutes doing something online that I could have done in two minutes in person. So, that’s the main consideration.” 

Engagement is another consideration. When he’s teaching a class, Lee believes that students are far more engaged in person “because they really feel that we’re together, in sync, and that they are more apt to ask questions,” he observes. “I get no questions altogether when we’re online, and I wonder if anybody is paying attention. I get far more questions in person, and I’m not talking about traditional students, I’m talking about returning students. With adults in the workforce who want to learn a new skill, I get way more engagement in person.

“The other thing that is done better in person than online is meeting facilitation,” he adds. “I can read the room a lot better in person … Being in person and looking at people, reading the room, and seeing their emotions — it’s just so much easier.”

The Aging Well Summit fostered engagement with an end-of-the-day (Saturday) panel discussion, which pertained to aging advocacy, and the virtual option was helpful in recruiting panelists for a late Saturday program. “The virtual option made that quite nice,” notes Joy Schmidt. “To be able to bring them in on a Saturday, that was the other piece. Most people work during the week, so that was good.”

The other engaging exercise was two breakout sessions — virtual breakout sessions. Whereas in-person interaction seems to work better in the education setting, advocacy can hold up in a virtual context. At the Aging Well Summit, attendees were able to break into clusters of four or five people and discuss their reactions to the speakers, and caregivers could address ways to support each other.

“One of things I’d like to elaborate on is thinking about how we learn and how we engage people with movement and with dialog,” Nuttkinson says. “Encourage people to move sometimes so you’re not just sitting at your desk, and make it as engaging as possible.”

Document decisions 

The planning of a hybrid event obviously can be done in person or virtually, but no matter the format, it’s important to document how you will host a hybrid meeting for various situations. That way, it’s on paper, somebody can follow it, and the plan can be continually improved over time. “After the meeting, you can always do a survey or just ask people how it went,” Lee notes, “and get that feedback, and then you can incorporate that feedback to improve your plan, so I like the pre-planning stage and having those discussions written down.”

Post mortem

In their post-event review, Aging Well Summit planners have discussed two virtual events of shorter duration. Whatever the format, they will be prepared to help participants stay engaged. “Make sure there is time for interaction because it’s really easy to lose their interest,” advises Schmidt. “Whether it’s polls or breakout sessions, those are really helpful.”

Volumes of video

Just in case anyone wants to see the now familiar sight of video conference platforms disappear from their computer screens, be warned. They aren’t going anywhere, especially where business meetings and gatherings are concerned.

A recent Fortune Business Insights report states that the video conferencing market was worth $6.28 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $14.58 billion by 2028. And this isn’t the only data that shows the extent to which video conference platforms will impact the market.

According to a report by the CRM platform HubSpot, 61% of professionals surveyed said video is obligatory for all meetings they participate in. A separate survey by the software company Fuze says 63% of professionals said they spend more time preparing for video conference calls than in-person meetings, so there is an engagement factor to be considered. And while many believe that multitasking during video conferences, illustrating a lack of engagement, is one of the big downsides, only 4% of respondents reported multitasking during video conferences compared to 56% of respondents that multitask during phone conferencing. 

So, when it comes to making sure remote attendees are treated as first-class participants, the task might not be as daunting as some believe. As long as they are able to see in-room attendees, and share presentations and meeting-generated content (on whiteboards, for example), there is a strong chance they will remain fully engaged. 

Designing a meeting for all attendees starts with pre-planning (including the necessary technology) and continues, as our experts suggest, with an in-room facilitator. These facilitators are essential to fully engaged hybrid participation.