A version of this post originally appeared on SmartMeetings.com.
In June, organizations across America were excited about the return of in-person events, and the enticing potential of hybrid events. How quickly things change.
By late July, COVID-19 cases were again spiking across the United States. Corporations, universities, government agencies, and associations abruptly began rethinking the structure of their conferences and team building events for the remainder of 2021 and into 2022.
The result is a chaotic, volatile environment in which meeting and event planners are struggling to optimally balance their meeting objectives with attendee preferences and safety, constantly changing guidance from the CDC, and local government rules restrictions.
What are planners to do? Here’s a look at the current state of popular options, plus the only wrong choice.
Live In-Person Events
The current status of in-person events varies widely from state to state, and even city to city, based on several factors:
Local case loads: While virus cases are increasing across the country, the impact is uneven. Some states are seeing fairly modest increases in positive tests, while others are seeing more widespread outbreaks.
Local regulations: Broadly reflecting those variations in impact, regulations vary considerably from place to place. While some communities are still imposing capacity restraints and mask mandates, others are mostly open. The governor of Nevada recently announced, for example, that large venues can do away with mask mandates as long as attendees are fully vaccinated and raise the attendance limit to 4,000.
Community standards: Not only from place to place from organization to organization, different groups of employees have a different comfort level with the risk/reward calculation for live gatherings.
The venue also matters. Recent research from the UK concluded that “mass events can take place safely” if held outdoors and with reasonable precautions.
The near-term outlook for in-person events is impossible to forecast. Tomorrow’s news may bring new concerns over the Epsilon and Gamma variants—or show new cases declining again after recent spikes.
Regardless of what happens with live events, “virtual events are here to stay,” according to Steve Gottlieb, CEO of virtual event platform provider Shindig. “The cost savings are just too compelling, and online events are less disruptive. Virtual or hybrid events enable organizers to greatly expand the number of participants. And with the right technology, the networking and interaction in online events can mimic the natural mixing and mingling of in-person gatherings.”
Meeting and event planners recognize these benefits and are taking advantage of significant advances in virtual event technology over the past 18 months. The possibilities have dramatically expanded beyond the limitations of lecture-style webinars and boxy “Hollywood Squares” type interfaces in a short time.
Corporations recognize the benefits of team building activities, regardless of the format: from virtual team building bingo or a minefield game to charity events (such as bike donation) and professional development activities.
Scott Flynn, CEO of team building provider Best Corporate Events, says his company saw a surge in bookings for live events in June only to see interest pivot back to virtual events more recently. Now, in late August, live events bookings are surging again.
“We’re agnostic about the format,” he notes. “Pretty much any team building program, from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to professional development to game shows, escape rooms, or physical activities can be delivered in virtual, in-person, or even hybrid environments.”
Whether for team building, other corporate events, or even fundraising galas, Tracy Fuller of InnovativEvents, an event planning firm in Des Moines, Iowa, is seeing the same shift.
“We’ve had game shows and galas that have far outreached their regular live audience with virtual events, and this means more donations for their charity and more awareness as well. It’s a win/win,” she says.
Throughout the first half of this year, hybrid events were generating tremendous buzz. Then planners began experiencing the increased costs and challenges of actually executing hybrid events, and skepticism set in.
Li Hayes of speaker management agency Go Leeward argued here in early August that hybrid is dead. “The primary barrier is the return on investment,” she wrote. Describing a large event that went hybrid for one year, “the organizers said, ‘Never again.’ The cost of production, between software and other resources needed to pull off a simultaneous virtual immersion experience, increased their budget by more than 30 percent, and the work to plan a hybrid was like planning two entire events at the same time.
“But the financial return wasn’t there… even with an overall increase in attendees, the added expense wasn’t covered. Their conference planner decided that in the future, events will be either all live, or all virtual, but not a combination of the two.”
Yet despite those arguments and increased skepticism, hybrid is not in fact “dead.” Event technology consultant Brandt Krueger argued just two weeks later, in Debunking Hybrid Event Myths, that concerns over increased complexity, higher costs, lower security, and cannibalization of in-person audiences, are overblown.
“A decade ago, I was extremely lucky to be around the early pioneers of hybrid events, and I saw early on the benefits they could provide, including expanded audience, increased accessibility, creating connections between people in locations around the world, and serving as a tool to promote and encourage people to attend in person,” he wrote. “Almost all the hard-learned lessons from those early days still stand as best practices today.”
The bottom line, according to Bryan Burns, COO of team building apps provider SmartHunts, is that hybrid is definitely a viable option, even if not always the best choice.
“With the right technology, activities like team building scavenger hunts, amazing race games, and CSR programs can work in any format (live, virtual, or hybrid), and often indoors or outside. What’s most important is for meeting planners to explore the capabilities of the technology, then determine the best way to align their objectives with what the technology can deliver.”
“I think hybrid events are here to stay,” adds Tracy Fuller. “Why wouldn’t they be, having more reach and more impact with a small amount of additional cost to larger funds raised? It just makes sense.
“I don’t think you can discount the ability to reach more people with your message either. This last year, as things loosened up with COVID rules, we saw many watch parties take place for some of our charity events and galas. Small groups of people got together to watch the gatherings on-screen in a home or office, essentially creating their very own hybrid event. And it worked.”
The Only Wrong Choice
Clearly, the current environment is fluid. In-person events may be a viable option, particularly for outdoor activities, but there are many factors to consider. Live events have come a long way since early 2020, as the technology has advanced, organizers have honed their skills, and audiences have grown more comfortable with online participation. Hybrid events still present challenges but offer unique benefits as well.
So what is the only wrong choice?
“Doing nothing,” says Roy Charette, co-founder of higher-education focused provider of team building programs for colleges and universities, Best Collegiate Events. “The only bad choice organizers can make right now is to allow the uncertainty of the current environment to paralyze their decision making, leading them to postpone or cancel events.
“Students, as well as corporate employees crave connection, possibly even more so now. Businesses need team building events to integrate new employees with existing teams in light of turnover and market changes.
“Colleges and universities, of course, turn over roughly a quarter of their student body every year,” he notes. “And with more schools requiring vaccination, in-person team building events are a great way to welcome new students and provide healthy activities for upperclassmen.”
The fluidity of the current environment for team building and other events makes choosing the best format difficult. For virtual events, one key is to avoid over-reliance on a single technology platform and instead choose the best tool for every type of event. For hybrid events, it’s determining how to manage and minimize the unique challenges. And for in-person events, the best guidance may be, as they used to say in broadcast TV, “check your local listings” for the latest updates on your planned location and venue.