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The Case for Separating In-Person and Virtual Experiences During Hybrid Events

By Paul Cook Angela Tupper

EventMB’s latest survey found that almost two-thirds of event planners are still struggling to develop their hybrid event strategies. Many now suggest that the winning formula is to host the in-person and virtual experiences at different times.

One of the biggest pain points involved with hybrid events has been the challenge of coordinating simultaneous virtual and in-person experiences. How do you create schedules that satisfy in-person expectations for longer sessions and free-form networking activities while also catering to a virtual audience? Increasingly, however, event planners are realizing that this is a false dilemma. The in-person and virtual components of a hybrid event can happen at different times, or asynchronously.

Mastering hybrid event formats could partly be a question of finding the right strategy. In our latest State of the Event Industry survey, we asked event planners if they had been able to develop a solid hybrid event strategy — and only 33 percent said yes. Furthermore, only 10 percent thought that a hybrid strategy wasn’t needed. This means that close to two-thirds of event planners are struggling to find the right approach.

The path towards a solid event strategy starts with a full understanding of the options. The first step is to understand all the new jargon that has popped up over the last year, and then to learn from the real-world experiences of event professionals who have already experimented with hybrid formats.

In this article, we’ll clear up some of the terminology and share expert insights into the pros and cons of “asynchronous” hybrid events.

 

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Hybrid Events

The difference between the terms “asynchronous” and “synchronous” might at first seem confusing. After all, it’s only the letter ‘a’ that is the differentiating factor. That one letter really functions to mean “not,” as in “not synchronous.”

When it comes to hybrid events, the word “synchronous” is used to mean that the virtual and in-person components happen at the same time. “Asynchronous” hybrid events, then, involve hosting the in-person and virtual components of the events at separate times. It might seem unnecessarily complicated to use “synchronous” instead of “simultaneous” — and “asynchronous” instead of “staggered.”

The word choice is partly based on the idea that hybrid events are really one entity made up of two parts. The words “simultaneous” and “staggered” suggest a stronger sense of two independent parts than the terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous”.

While there may be an argument for using these terms, it’s important to make sure that we clarify our meaning from the outset — especially in an event sector that suffers from the ongoing proliferation of jargon.

 

Defining Hybrid Events

Even the word “hybrid” itself leaves room for multiple interpretations and applications. Although the basic format arrived on the scene some years ago, there is still no clear consensus on the exact definition of a hybrid event. If you ever needed confirmation of this, look at the number of people that reference virtual and hybrid events as being interchangeable. But they are not.

For some people, a hybrid event is simple: a combination of virtual and in-person components happening at the same time, with two sets of audiences. Delegates can go to the physical location to meet, learn, and socialize with other delegates, or they can join virtually in real-time. It’s a synchronous event.

When both components are held simultaneously, the in-person and virtual experiences can also be so enmeshed that both audiences have a blended experience. For example, in-person attendees might decide to stream some of the sessions from their hotel rooms, or virtual attendees could pose questions to the onsite speaker.

Hybrid events, however, can also involve virtual and in-person components that happen at different times, potentially allowing some attendees to join both the in-person and the virtual experiences.

The key point is that hybrid events come in different shapes and sizes, and they can involve varying degrees of attendee interaction. To further explore different hybrid event formats further, we recommend downloading our Hybrid Event Evolution report.

 

Desynchronized Events: The Most Efficient Hybrid Strategy

EventMB editor in chief Miguel Neves recently posted a question on Linkedin, asking whether 2022 will be the year of desynchronized hybrid events. (While some may prefer one term over the other, we will be treating “desynchronized” and “asynchronous” as synonymous for the purpose of this article.)

The wave of responses suggests there is indeed a growing movement towards this approach to hybrid events.

A common thread was that hybrid events are more difficult to coordinate, and that they cost more to produce. However, some argued that the benefits of going hybrid outweigh its challenges.

Further, the idea of desynchronizing hybrid events prompted a discussion about logistical challenges for one reason: They were explaining the problems that an asynchronous strategy can help to solve. A desynchronized approach is seen as a way to alleviate some of the pressures associated with hybrid events — both in terms of budgetary spend and the use of staff resources.

 

A NEW WAY: ASYNCHRONOUS HYBRID EVENTS

In general, the overwhelming majority of people who commented on the post thought that asynchronous hybrid events were a good option.

As Rhiannon James of Questex pointed out, hybrid formats can expand an event’s reach while also providing a built-in backup plan in case the in-person option falls through:

“We've been doing this [hosting asynchronous hybrid formats] for a number of events in 2021 — it depends on the community and the event of course, but we've been able to attract different audiences for our sponsors and provide different content for attendees by taking this approach. (Of course, it's like organizing multiple events but has provided a safety valve in some cases also).”

Rhiannon James, group president of pharma, technology and education, Questex

Implying that a staggered approach amplifies these benefits, James went on to say that her organization is taking an asynchronous approach for their upcoming hybrid event, Fierce JPM Week, in January 2022.

The discussion also provided other event examples, including IBTM World with the digital experience held after the in-person event, and the World Conference of Science Journalists with the virtual component held before the in-person event.

It looks as though a trend is already developing.

 

LOWERED COSTS

To help explain some of the motivations behind the shift, Bob Vaez of EventMobi pointed out that an asynchronous approach can help to reduce the event’s production costs and help to spread out some of the added logistical burden:

“The critical factor that no one has brought up so far is 'asynchronous hybrid events' are best value for money! Yes, it is 100% more work, but it is done by the same team, and you cut out massive on-site cost for AV and streaming during the in-person event. Most of the virtual content can also be created before the in-person event happens, making the event execution less chaotic!”

Bob Vaez, CEO, EventMobi

The explanation behind the cost reduction is really a matter of how the content is captured and broadcast: When the virtual experience is held separately from the in-person event, organizers can rely on webcams to capture their speakers — in this way removing the need for an onsite AV team to capture the live stage with professional cameras and operators.

 

POST-EVENT OPTIONS

As Vaez pointed out, staging the virtual event at a separate time from the in-person gathering can ease some of the pressure on staff, simply because the added work can be addressed in stages.

Other commenters also weighed in on the impact this decision has for the audience experience.

Gerdie Schreuders of LiveOnlineEvents, for example, believes that asynchronous hybrid formats provide opportunities to reignite attendee interest after the in-person event closes.

Schreuders likens the phenomenon to earlier forms of post-event recaps designed to keep the momentum going, with content divided up into highlights that appeal to specific audience segments:

“It’s a bit back to the old days when we used to create content in different ways (podcast, social media, video both informative as social etc) to use for different target groups (delegates, potential new delegates, students, single topic related target groups etc) at different times after the event (immediately, weeks after or until the next edition).”

Gerdie Schreuders, founder and partner, LiveOnlineEvents

Schreuders reinforced the point that it can be a budget-friendly option, but also noted that it may remove some of the excitement felt with a synchronous hybrid experience. “I think it’s a good and cost-effective format for some events although you miss the excitement of being live all together at the same time at the same event,” she said.

 

PRE-RECORDED VS. LIVE CONTENT

Echoing Schreuders’ observations, Michael Lipton of Luster raised the question of whether virtual add-ons are really events at all:

“Virtual events will benefit by removing a lot of the focus on synchronicity. The most interesting question then becomes: as virtual events skew towards becoming asynchronous, at what point do we realize that they’re really not events at all anymore?”

Michael Lipton, co-founder and CEO, Luster

Ultimately, the idea of a “virtual event” really comes down to bringing the audience members together for a shared experience at a set time — whether the content is live or a simulive broadcast of pre-recorded content.

Lipton’s point also raises another possible interpretation of the words “synchronous” and “asynchronous”: Are the speakers presenting in real-time while the audience is viewing them, or at some earlier point? For the purpose of this article, however, we are focusing on the idea of hosting virtual and in-person experiences at separate times (not on the question of whether to use pre-recorded content at virtual events).

Importantly, asynchronous hybrid events don’t have to rely on pre-recorded content. Speakers can present live using their webcams. If the idea is to record the live stage at an in-person event and share the highlights later, a lot of the cost savings are in fact removed. (While this option may remove the need to set up live streaming tech at the venue, it still requires the use of an onsite AV team with professional recording equipment.)

 

PRE-EVENT OPTIONS

As the decision to host a virtual experience in advance of the onsite event shows, the digital component does not have to use recorded content from the in-person gathering.

Valentina Voronova of Brella raised the possibility of hosting virtual experiences in the lead up to an in-person event:

There might be a variety of options: having a virtual element placed only before, only after or before and after their-person event. Or having a combo...Regarding the virtual element prior to the event — it's all about being creative with content — having a dedicated welcome video on the platform, showing who is coming and enabling early conversations, inspiring your sponsors to create tailored content specifically for your event and your audience…”

Valentina Voronova, customer success manager, Brella

Of course, hosting two separate “live” events does involve double the work, but some believe that the payoff is worth it. The virtual experience can facilitate more tailored content, with audiences more able to pick and choose which sessions they want to watch. As Florian Teufel, head of marketing at MEETYOO stated, “The other day I felt creative and wrote 1+1=3, referring to outcomes.”

 

WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS

If we take the view that synchronous hybrid events are too hard or too costly, does that mean that asynchronous hybrids are the way to go? Does it make sense to use pre-recorded content because it reduces the pressure to deliver a flawless experience on the day-of? Or does it make more sense to stick with live digital broadcasts because they help to capture some of the excitement of a shared experience, even if all the “live” attendees are connecting remotely?

Only a short time ago, there was backlash among event profs (and some clients) at the idea of using pre-recorded content. It was said that delegates would be disappointed. Would they? Was there any evidence to back such a statement? Does this view still prevail?

At first glance, it would appear not and maybe that’s because after 15 months or so of virtual productions, the production value of recordings have been massively improved. But this is the key point: If asynchronous hybrid formats are the way forward, then there are two overriding questions to address. One is the question of using pre-recorded content, and whether this undermines the idea of the experience really being an “event.” Second is the matter of how much extra work (and expense) the organizer is taking on in arranging a second event.

A careful dissection of asynchronous hybrid events must be carried out for event organizers to fully evaluate the potential pros and cons.

 

IN CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, every year there will be new challenges to deal with. However, our clients have businesses to run, and we need to help them succeed.

The idea of having an asynchronous hybrid event in the tool kit can only be a good thing. It doesn’t matter what the echo chamber of the event industry believes. Clients don’t care about the language we use.

One reason to welcome the new trend is the added element of choice that it provides to clients.

What matters is that we listen to our clients and deliver according to their requirements. Depending on how the next asynchronous hybrid events turn out, this format may go from being a trend to becoming a permanent feature in the world of events.

about the author

Paul Cook
Paul Cook has been immersed in business events for over 20 years, as a producer, writer, advisor, speaker, facilitator and educator. He is also the founder of the Hybrid Event Centre and the author of two books, Risk It! and Remotely Engaging. Paul is a Past President of the UK Chapter of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and works on projects that help develop organizations and the events space.  
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Angela Tupper
Angela Tupper is the deputy editor for EventMB, a branch of the Skift media company. She has been reporting on both event industry news and event technology for close to three years. Angela’s background includes a combination of writing, editing, marketing, and teaching roles, as well as hands-on experience with association events. With an interest in all topics related to events, she is keen to learn more from industry professionals. She currently calls Montreal, Canada, her home city.
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