The term “hybrid” is now commonly used to describe event formats that combine in-person and virtual experiences. While the concept of a hybrid event may be familiar, it raises an important question: Is there such a thing as a hybrid attendee?
Experience Design Summit, and many seem to agree that hybrid formats require event planners to design two different event experiences — one for in-person attendees, and another for those participating remotely. But is there room for any overlap in these two experiences?
Gerrit Heijkoop, the founder of LiveMediaEvents, even suggested that we scrap the term “hybrid event” altogether because it misleadingly suggests a mix of the two formats. Instead, he believes that attendees experience events in only one of two ways: virtually or in person. “The term hybrid we should get rid of — it’s a production term,” he said. “In an audience perception, they either attend a physical in-person event, or a virtual online event.”
At Skift’s most recent hybrid event, however, many in-person attendees chose to live stream some of the event content on their mobile devices, preferring to watch some sessions from their hotel rooms or the venue hallways instead of from the live stage. When speaking at a recent EventMB webinar that covered the event, Behind the Scenes of the (Hybrid) Skift Global Forum, SpotME CEO Pierre Metrailler confirmed that this kind of attendee behavior is part of a growing trend:
"[With] the live streaming of the session being made available on the mobile app and the web, we would think, 'Okay, only the remote attendees will enjoy that.' But, in reality, we see that the in-person attendees love to go and [take] coffee breaks; they love to go and chat with other people. At the same time, they want to have a peek at what's going on during the live session. So, it seems that this [trend] is here to stay."
While popular opinion has led many to believe that everyone would opt for the in-person experience if they’re already onsite, real-world events are painting a different picture. And hybrid event organizers can’t afford to ignore the growing demand for hybrid attendee experiences.
Why Some In-Person Attendees Want Virtual Access
Ultimately, the hybrid attendee experience is all about giving attendees choice while also taking personal comfort into account. Virtual event experiences may never offer the same level of engagement that comes with in-person sessions, but attendees may not always want to commit to a fully immersive experience — even when they’ve already traveled to the event venue.
Whether you prefer to be in the presence of a speaker or free to move around is simply a matter of preference, and that's one of the key takeaways from the hybrid movement: Attendees often like to have the option to choose.
MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR NETWORKING
According to Metrailler, some in-person attendees want to network with each other in the hallways while still catching snippets of speaker sessions here and there via the live stream. As Skift CEO Rafat Ali noted, this phenomenon is not really that big of a departure from the days of using spillover screens to broadcast a live speaking session beyond the immediate room.
With many event apps now providing live stream access, attendees can enjoy even more flexibility in choosing where and how they want to consume content. The technology powering mobile event apps has improved to the point that video streaming options are a standard part of the package.
Attendees can now switch between watching the session inside the conference room and viewing it on their smartphones in the hallway while discussing it with a fellow attendee — or contributing to the live chat via text comments. It is a considerate compromise for those who wish to analyze a session without causing any disruption to the speaker.
BALANCING EVENTS, WORK, AND HOME LIFE
Another factor could be the widespread shift to working from home. As Josh Hotsenpiller explained in the recent EventMB podcast episode Technology as a Catalyst of Community, some conference attendees may crave a bit of alone-time in their hotel rooms after 18 months of working from a home office — often surrounded by family members.
Hotsenpiller also noted that the trend towards remote work could leave many event participants feeling a greater sense of obligation to continue working even when they’re on business trips. It’s much easier to catch up on work emails from the privacy of a hotel room than it is in the front row of an audience. Some event attendees even have businesses of their own to run and manage; they may not have the time to stay at one venue for an entire event. The hybrid attendee experience allows them to continue watching sessions while they take a taxi or wait in the airport for their flight.
Speaking of a recent event he was involved in, Hotsenpiller stated, “The auditorium sat around 1,600, and they had 160 people come down for it. Everybody else streamed it in their room.”
This kind of flexibility can be highly appealing to attendees who have become used to multitasking while participating in a virtual meeting or listening to a session.
There will also be attendees who don't want to attend sessions or events with large crowds, especially post-Covid. When in-person attendees are given the option to stream some content from outside the venue, they can stay for as long as they feel comfortable. If the packed room becomes overwhelming, however, they can continue watching from another location. The choice is not only about preference but about comfort too.
Finding the Right Balance
Can attendees ever have too much choice?
In his podcast episode with Josh Hotsenpiller, Miguel Neves cautioned against the risk of attendees becoming too averse to stepping outside their comfort zones. “I think the danger then is if people get scared or shy away from networking,” he said. After extended periods of quarantine and working from home, many are struggling with social anxiety — and while it’s important to take everyone’s comfort level into account, it’s also key to encourage attendees to get the most out of their in-person experience.
Hotsenpiller countered that a hybrid experience can actually improve networking opportunities if the event organizer uses an app that can facilitate smart matchmaking. That way, attendees can book in-person meetings with other onsite attendees who have shared interests, instead of just relying on happenstance meetings to strike a connection. He also recommended using virtual networking icebreakers to help counter social anxieties.
Emphasizing that it’s important to avoid making remote attendees feel like second-class citizens, Rafat Ali also recommended creating some experiences exclusively for the online audience. Speaker Q&A sessions can work well this way, and with the rise of the hybrid attendee, even in-person attendees can participate.
With the hybrid attendee in mind, key best practices that event organizers should adopt include:
1. Giving in-person attendees access to live stream content on their mobile devices and tablets
2. Providing networking recommendations, structured virtual networking icebreakers, and remote scheduling tools
3. Creating some experiences exclusively designed for online consumption
Hybrid attendees are becoming too common for the event industry to continue denying their existence. A truly flexible event format has many draws that align with post-pandemic trends, and organizers need to design their events with the needs of hybrid attendees in mind. The digital audience is not only made up of those connecting from home. Some are walking in and out of the room.