A little over a year ago, as the first wave of COVID lockdowns was just starting to ease, I wrote in this blog that virtual and hybrid events would be the new normal for some time to come, and that hybrid meetings would persist post-COVID, and perhaps permanently.
After a year in which the world gained more familiarity than it ever wanted with virtual and hybrid meetings, I would no longer use the word “perhaps.” Hybrid meetings and events are now a permanent part of the landscape, even as face-to-face starts to return. While that article and the technologies it discussed are still relevant today, there has been much innovation, experimentation, and learning about virtual and hybrid events in the past year. This week I will provide an update and highlight some of the interesting technologies that have found their way into the meeting and event space.
Both research and experience suggest that many people still want in-person events. Most human beings need physical contact and the deeper relationships that come with spending time together. At the same time, many conferences have discovered a large untapped audience: people who wanted to attend and would pay to do so, but who could not justify the time, expense, or disruption of travel, especially where long distances were involved. Just as televised sports dramatically expanded the audience (and revenue base) of games that once required physical attendance, many conferences have found they can expand their audiences without materially reducing in-person attendance.
Event planners have learned much about managing the challenges of hybrid events. Face-to-face conferences often run from early morning to late evening with a combination of sessions, workshops, breaks, meals, and social events; most attendees can remain reasonably engaged through all or most of the day. The attention span of remote attendees is much shorter, however, and if the audience is global, prime hours for many might be far outside of normal working hours, or even in the middle of the night. As a result, many virtual and hybrid events have learned the importance of keeping the interactive portions short, and for hybrid events, offering much more content in recorded form for attendees to absorb at their own pace over days or weeks.
Virtual attendees can easily be lost during breaks between sessions as well; the herders who marshal attendees back into the main event room at face-to-face conferences have little success doing so with virtual attendees. One successful technique for keeping virtual participants engaged is to hire a dedicated emcee and make it more of a continual show as opposed to simply a live feed. When physical attendees go on break or to lunch, the emcee can fill the time interviewing speakers, visiting interesting exhibits or sponsors, or providing other “color” that makes the virtual attendees’ experience more meaningful.
There is no single answer as to whether hotels and other meeting venues should incorporate fixed technology solutions and offer hybrid-ready meeting rooms, maintain a stock of simple equipment that can be deployed as needed, or rely on a third-party audiovisual provider. The right answer for a hotel may be a combination, and depends on size, business mix, support resources, and the size and design of its meeting rooms. Many of the technologies discussed in this article can be deployed in any of the three models. Hotels that choose equip specific meeting rooms for turnkey use in various common scenarios should be certain to market these capabilities clearly, such as “room fully equipped for up to eight local attendees in a hybrid meeting” or “suitable for a presenter making a virtual presentation.”
Web conference Platforms
Some venues have looked at offering web conference platforms to venues and/or event planners for hybrid events, but they all pretty much reached the same conclusion: event organizers already have their own platform of choice (Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc.). Especially with the level of sensitive information that may be shared in some hybrid meetings, venues and third parties would have to manage security if they were to offer their own platforms. Few are prepared to take this risk, especially since they typically lack the necessary skills and would gain very little commercial advantage. This is the one aspect of hybrid meeting technology where customers prefer to “bring their own.”
Can You Hear Me?
The most important technology for successful hybrid meetings is audio, yet this is the one aspect that many venues (especially hotels) often execute poorly. If you cannot hear a presenter, an audience member asking a question, or someone sitting in a small meeting room connected with remote participants via Zoom, nothing else really matters. Remote participants may end up disengaging because they cannot follow the conversation, and the meeting may fail to meet its objectives.
For audio, the most important equipment is not even technology, it is acoustics. This includes wall fabrics and ceiling tiles that absorb ambient background noise and enable microphones and speakers to work properly, and it may involve replacing HVAC fans with quieter ones or eliminating other sources of background noise. As one expert told me, you can put a laptop with a microphone in a room with good acoustics, and it will sound better than a $2,000 microphone in a room with poor acoustics. For hotels offering meeting spaces for hybrid meeting participants, the first investment should be acoustics. It makes for better physical meetings as well; with less background noise, attendees in the room can hear speakers clearly at a greater distance from the microphone or at lower volume.
One COVID-related innovation is ReadyRoom. This is an expert-driven process of standardized design to optimize small or medium conference rooms for hybrid meetings. Specialized audiovisual consultants inspect the room and identify the necessary acoustical upgrades as well as equipment needs. They do not sell equipment but will assist each venue in identifying the best options for each room, and provide surveys, master plans, designs, procurement services, and project management. Every room is unique, but the total turnkey cost to equip small to medium sized meeting rooms (350 to 1,000 square feet) using the ReadyRoom approach is typically in the range of $20,000 to $60,000.
Microphone technology has improved and adapted in ways that better support hybrid meetings. For small to medium sized conference rooms, beam-forming microphones are capable of being directed at specific areas of the room; they can identify and amplify the voice of the current speaker, suppressing background noise. There are versions that can be mounted in the ceiling, hung from pendants, or placed on tabletops, and the cost is in the range of $2,000 to $4,000 for one microphone and basic controls (all costs mentioned in this article are intended only as general guidelines).
In ballroom settings where the audience will be asking questions, the traditional handheld microphone has been a staple of face-to-face conferences for decades. However, it performs poorly in most hybrid environments. Few audience members heed the request to “wait for the microphone,” and when they start without one, remote participants may hear only the end of the question or nothing at all. Better options, depending on the room setup, include catch microphones like Catchbox (a foam box with embedded microphone that can be tossed into the audience from a distance, $450-$750) and Crowd Mics, which enables audiences to speak (or text or vote) directly from their own smartphones. With any audience solution, it is important to consider how the speaker can control audience microphones (typically via a control panel) as well as how the audio is mixed into the remote broadcast feed.
Can You See Me?
Video quality matters less to remote participants than audio, but it can nevertheless be what differentiates a high-quality production from the typical haphazard Zoom meeting, where half the participants are frozen, jittery, showing only their foreheads, gazing off into space, or have their cameras turned off. Quality video broadcasts from conferences should use dedicated, wired (not wireless) Internet bandwidth that is not shared with attendees. Without this, the speaker is virtually guaranteed to tell everyone in the audience to download a 20mb document at the same time, leaving the remote audience in the dark as the video feed dies.
The right video camera depends on the room and application. In most cases a PTZ camera (so named for its ability to pan, tilt, and zoom) with autofocus is desirable; better ones incorporate some level of automated control as opposed to offering only manual adjustments via a remote control. For example, units like the IntelliSHOT Auto-tracking Camera (about $2,100) work well in a “huddle space” (typically 4-6 people sitting around a table to participate as a group in a hybrid meeting). They can automatically adjust the view settings for people in the room, zooming out when new attendees arrive or zooming in when they leave (called “autoframing”).
For small to medium size conference rooms, products like Meeting Owl ($1,000-$1,800) can sit on the table and provides a 360-degree view of the room for remote attendees in a strip across the remote screen. It also includes eight directional microphones and can use them to identify and call out, in a large video frame, the person speaking at any point in time. Other options for small to medium rooms include all-in-one or componentized solutions that incorporate a PTZ camera, sound bar, beam-forming directional microphones, and video display; these can work well up to 20-25 feet (again, depending on room acoustics). Numerous well-known companies offer options in this category, including Biamp, Bose, Crestron, and Yamaha.
For a presenter on a stage, other solutions enable the camera to keep them in frame as they move around. These can work on a real stage in a ballroom or a fake one for a virtual presentation, such as might be done in a small meeting room. There are different ways to do this; the most mature involves the presenter wearing an infrared lanyard that the camera can track (for example the RoboTRAK Presenter Tracking System camera, about $4,100). Newer AI-based approaches such as the VDO360 Autopilot ($3,545) recognize and track individual people in the video stream, which can carry some risks depending on how well it can distinguish between people and how many of them might come into view. Lower-end solutions like Obsbot ($199) enable the speaker to control the camera using hand gestures but are more appropriate for use by a lone remote presenter than for a staged live production.
Cameras to capture audience participation have yet to catch up with hybrid meetings. For example, if you need to zoom in on someone asking a question from the audience, you will need several mobile or fixed-location cameras (depending on the size of the room) and a production crew to manage them, even in a smaller room.
Within hybrid meeting rooms, attendees often need to connect to the screen and speakers to share presentations, documents or videos, and the old practice of “passing the cable” is awkward and messy (and connectors are prone to damage). Meeting rooms with built-in screens, sound bars, cameras and/or microphones can benefit from wireless connection capabilities such as offered by Biamp Modena (formerly known as HRT Huddle Hub) or ClickShare.
A last note on video is the importance of quality display units in any a meeting room where attendees need to view remote participants or a presentation. Most consumer-grade display screens are highly reflective, and in meeting rooms with windows, attendees may see less of the presentation and more the reflection of the trees outside. When this happens on a personal computer or mobile device, a simple adjustment to the angle of the device will make the presentation visible. That is either not an option with a wall-mounted display unit, or even if it swivels, it may simply switch the pain from one attendee to another. Commercial display units with anti-glare screens will cost maybe 30-40% more, but are essential; the NEC units found in most airports and quick-service restaurants are often selected for this reason.
Engaging Remote Audiences
In-person conference attendees have lots of stimulation and options for filling their time productively: general sessions, breakouts, meals, networking time, and social events. Remote attendees can easily participate in the first two, but it is harder to replicate the others. Engaging the remote audience can be easier if the hybrid offering is not just a broadcast of the sessions and breakouts, but a full production with a starting time, and ending time, and constant programming throughout, with any breaks short and tailored to the needs of remote audiences (as opposed to the long networking and meal breaks that are common at face-to-face events). For reasons noted earlier, scheduling hybrid sessions for a few hours a day, with more recorded content and over a longer period of time, is usually a better option than trying to run the hybrid program concurrently with the face-to-face one. The remote production can include not only live and recorded sessions, but also other elements that are exclusively targeted at remote attendees.
One effective approach is to engage an emcee to shepherd remote attendees through the event. During breaks in the conference program, the emcee can provide commentary, interview speakers, or take attendees on a tour of special exhibits, for example. This helps to package the remote sessions in a way that avoids losing the attention of remote attendees during long breaks and meals.
Many hybrid conferences need professional production capabilities. The recently announced partnership between Cvent and Encore is an interesting development that seeks to combine Cvent’s event marketing and management platform with Encore’s production capabilities to provide organizers with an end-to-end virtual and hybrid event solution.
Networking is a critical aspect of many conferences, company meetings and trade shows, providing the opportunity to informally meet new people or reconnect with old ones in informal settings. Within the past year, there has been much innovation (and too many products to mention) around informal virtual networking. A common approach is to create virtual “tables” that an attendee can join if there is an empty chair and if someone at the table lets them in; once accepted, the attendee joins an online meeting environment with those at the table. This type of capability is increasingly built into virtual event platforms, and some are offered on a standalone basis. They provide reasonable experiences for virtual meetings (not quite face-to-face, but an acceptable substitute when face-to-face is not an option). Unfortunately, they do not adapt well to hybrid meetings. In-person attendees who have the option of in-person networking will choose that over virtual networking every time, and remote attendees will be limited to networking only with each other.
Hybrid Trade Shows
My own observations agree with the consensus of several experts I spoke with: virtual and hybrid trade shows (as opposed to conferences) rarely work very well. I know of no toolset that really replicates the experience of wandering a trade-show floor. There are several that try, but attendees and exhibitors alike say that the experience is consistently underwhelming. The only one that is currently even on my radar as a potential breakthrough is AllSeated Exvo, with its clever implementation of avatars, but it is still not a complete answer.
One of the limitations of virtual trade shows is that very few exhibitors have learned how to manage a virtual “booth,” nor do the tools provide the right kind of support. When a hot lead comes by, they need quickly get them talking to the right people on their team. This happens naturally at in-person trade shows but often only with multi-hour delays (or not at all) at virtual ones. Most virtual trade-show platforms appear to have expended a lot of effort on the attendee experience, yet they provide exhibitors with few if any of the tools they need to effectively coordinate remote staff working a booth. Because of this, most booths at virtual tradeshows I have tried were left seemingly unattended most of the time (or attended by someone who was distracted by multitasking). Attendees quickly got frustrated trying to visit them and often gave up after visiting several booths and getting no engagement. Returning a chat message an hour after the attendee has moved on to something else is not effective.
There is a chicken-or-egg problem with virtual trade shows. Exhibitors see light traffic and fail to staff their booths adequately, or with their A-teams. Attendees find booths that are seemingly unattended. Both problems need to be solved simultaneously to make it work, and no one seems to have found a way to do that.
One startup company does offer an interesting answer to hybrid trade shows, but only for attendees, rather than for venues or organizers. Instead of spending several days to attend an overseas trade show, you can contact Port and they will arrange to have someone attend the event in your place, complete with a live video link connecting them with you. You can guide them around the trade show floor verbally to the booths you want to see, and their camera and microphone will allow you to see what there is to see and to interact with in-person attendees. Your stand-in can also perform translation services if needed. This may be a great option for some trade-show attendees, particularly while international travel remains restricted.
In the final analysis, though, many products exhibited at a trade show need to be seen and picked up or touched in three dimensions to be understood. Virtual Reality notwithstanding, there is nothing in the virtual or hybrid world that fully replicates the live experience.
As the meetings and events business starts to come back from the pandemic, it will return in a changed state, with hybrid taking a much larger role. To be sure, some events will return to in-person only formats, but many event organizers have discovered new opportunities where hybrid can expand access significantly and help their revenue, educational, or other objectives. But hybrid carries with it many challenges that are either not present, or that are more easily dealt with, in live events. Meeting and event venues need to carefully evaluate the types of hybrid events that they might be able to book, and ensure that their physical spaces, equipment, network, production partners, and sales and service processes are aligned with the new world.