Going Hybrid: Tips for Event Planning in 2021 and Beyond

A woman uses a computer to attend a hybrid association event.
Association Event Planners: Is 2021 your year of hybrid? Take a look at what 2020 taught us—and how association event managers are incorporating virtual formats into their new normal.

By Heather Hughes – Sr. Events & Communication Specialist

If your association events team is still a little breathless from all the juggling you did in 2020, you’re not alone. Last year, event teams turned on a dime to pivot their in-person gatherings to virtual formats. And for a large number of associations—it worked. They stayed laser-focused on making sure they had technology in place and delivering the best possible attendee experience. Over the course of the year, as planners got the hang of virtual, we saw some truly creative and effective uses of virtual platforms.

Now, we’re looking ahead with hope to 2021, excited about the gradual return of some in person opportunities. But we know better than to put that cart before the horse. In-person events will continue to be limited in scope and affected by enhanced protective measures.

As we learned in Protech’s recent webinar, Association Events Chat: What to Know for 2021, associations aren’t backing away from the challenge. Instead, they are embracing the opportunity to expand their member connections in creative ways.

How Will Events Evolve? Different Approaches, All Hybrid

We’ve heard from a number of associations that are already well into their event planning for this year. With the understanding that in person events won’t truly come back before mid-summer, everyone is taking a hybrid approach—that is, planning for some version of in-person and some form of virtual experience.

But what that looks like varies widely.

  • Planning in person, with a virtual backup. Associations with events later in the year may be hedging their bets, putting effort into planning a fully in-person experience. However, in every case, these organizations are also creating a backup plan that can go into effect the moment it’s clear they have to go virtual.
  • Planning all-virtual events. For some organizations, virtual events were a hit. Because they found a technology platform and an approach that worked well, they are sticking with that format this year.
  • Building the best of both worlds. Some associations see hybrid as the future of events and are investing in creative and engaging experiences on both sides of the screen.

Leveraging What We Learned

Regardless of the approach, the impact on your event teams is significant. Even under the pressure of rapid adaptation last year, associations already knew that a virtual event isn’t just streaming content at your attendees. You have to create a meaningful experience. In a hybrid model, you have to create that experience for both in-person and virtual attendees.

For some teams, that challenge may be daunting. But the technologies we tried out last year are in place to make that experience not only possible but also effective for all your attendees. And what we learned is helping us to address some of the toughest challenges of the virtual environment.

Challenge 1: Keep virtual networking from being lame.

After attending a string of online learning sessions, attendees need a break. When events planned networking sessions as those “breaks,” they quickly discovered that they were competing with Zoom fatigue and the natural overlap of online work demands. Participation in networking dwindled.

How to handle it:

  • Offer virtual avatars that let attendees “walk” around the virtual space to connect—much like a video game.
  • Re-invent the face-to-face conversation. Establish a table networking session that lets attendees connect to a Zoom room and have a video conference. Just like that, you have a live conversation with a real person.
  • Structure networking around specific topics. Set up virtual roundtables where there is an expected discussion topic and assign moderators to feed in questions and spur discussion.
  • Let attendees know in advance what networking opportunities will be available and how to use them.
  • Share attendee lists that help users find people they know, people they have something in common with and people in companies they want to connect to.
  • Provide separate time slots for breaks. People need this time to rest, reset and regroup before interacting with others.

Challenge 2: Where do I go? How do I get there? What do I do?

For many attendees, the all-day virtual event was a new experience. And if they attended multiple events during the year, they may have been frustrated as they were forced to learn a new platform, new navigation and new ways of interacting for each event.

How to handle it:

  • Communicate about event access early and often.
  • Provide easy-to-access instructions throughout the event platform.
  • Keep it simple; leverage your tech capabilities creatively but don’t over-complicate your event with features that will distract from your primary goals.
  • Provide a mobile app that is geared to both in-person and virtual attendees. An app can make it easier to:
    • Participate in polls
    • Follow social feeds and engage in chats
    • Engage in forums and networking sessions
    • Connect to experts, sponsors and solutions
  • If your platform works, stick with it so attendees have a consistent experience at all your events.

Challenge 3: Set your team up for success.

Even though your event team has upped their game, it’s still important to remember that in a hybrid world, they are planning two events at a time—not one. One key to helping them reduce their workload and deliver a seamless experience is to leverage integrations between systems as much as possible.

For example, your Protech AMS enables you to integrate your event registration system with your mobile app. That means when someone signs up to attend, they automatically receive both event access information and mobile app access; your team does not have to do that step manually. Integrations will save hours of work for your team.

More tips for handling event planning:

  • Get your technology platform first. Ensure you choose a platform with the right bandwidth for your expected number of attendees and the ability to optimize capabilities for everyone who’s connecting.
  • Develop and follow a detailed communication plan that includes all stakeholders: Your team, your attendees, your sponsors and the public.
  • Have the right people on your team to run the event. If your team has skillset gaps, partner with an expert in the space who can keep things running smoothly as you plan and host the event.
  • Make sure you have time to break your system. Last year, you probably had to adapt to system glitches on the fly. This year, build in time to fully test and try out every piece of your system—before your attendees arrive.
  • Be sure you have a backup in case something does fail.

Hybrid Events Are the Future

The truth is, now that our attendees have had a taste of the remote experience, they’re likely to expect that virtual will continue to be an option. As they say, there is no “new normal”—it’s just what it is.

When you have the right virtual event platform—and you leverage the capabilities of your Protech AMS—you have the opportunity to create exciting and engaging event experiences.

Want more insights and tips for running your virtual and hybrid events? Download our webinar Association Events Chat: What to Know for 2021.