Are hybrid events too good to be true? Find out if a hybrid conference format is the right move for you.
After nearly two years of meeting online, many organisers and attendees are eager to find ways to connect in person once again. And, after those same two years, the world has grown used to the many advantages that virtual conferences present. So, it makes sense that hybrid conferences are being hailed as the best of both worlds for meeting planners in 2022 (and beyond). But, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
I’ve recently heard from several conference organisers asking the same question: “Is it okay to NOT host a hybrid event?” And my answer is always: “Of course! Just do what feels right for you and your conference community.”
With no clear definition and few real-world examples to pull inspiration from, hybrid events can be a daunting prospect for many conference committees. For some, the risk is worth the reward. For others, it might be plenty of hassle for no good reason. So, is a hybrid format the right move for you and your event? Take a look at some of the pros and cons of planning hybrid conferences to help you decide.
A hybrid event merging the physical and virtual worlds (SOURCE: specialevents.com).
PRO: You can combine the best of physical and virtual events
When done right, hybrid conferences really do give you the opportunity to showcase the best of the physical and virtual worlds. With the ability for eager participants to meet in person, networking opportunities increase and exhibitor booths can function well again. And you’re able to add the destination value of your event back into your promotional efforts.
At the same time, you can continue to deliver the benefits of a virtual conference to your community. On-demand sessions help you make the most of your conference content. And many of your bases are covered in terms of accessible and sustainable options for attendees and presenters. But, keep in mind that all of these benefits only come if you’re willing to put heaps of effort (and cash) into pulling off a hybrid conference.
CON: Planning a hybrid conference is like planning two conferences in one
One conference is difficult enough to run, let alone two at the same time! Since hybrid events blend the physical and virtual worlds, you’ll need to consider the separate attendee experience in both, while attempting to combine them. This requires double the team and double the tasks to check off your to-do list.
For in-person attendees, you’ll need to organise food, accommodation, venues and all the other bits that went into any pre-pandemic conference. To support virtual attendees in a full, hybrid conference format, you’ll need excellent internet connection and an AV crew in each venue room to manage filming. And you’ll have to set up an online conference platform that can act as the host for live streams and on-demand content. Finally, the in-person element of hybrid events still poses a risk in today’s world. So, you’ll need to ensure health and safety is a top priority when choosing and setting up venues.
PRO: Hybrid gives you a variety of revenue opportunities
Having a foot in both the virtual and physical world means you’ll have plenty of unique opportunities to collect conference revenue. Tiered pricing of tickets and more varied sponsorship packages are two of the main opportunities upfront. Later, selling access to on-demand sessions allows you to extend the value of your hybrid conference content beyond the days of your event.
CON: Most hybrid conference formats require a big budget
It only makes sense that planning two conferences in one is going to come with a hefty price tag. In a past episode of the Ex Ordo webinar series, all the conference organisers on the hybrid event panel noted that cost was a primary concern for them when it came to planning hybrid conferences. The budget needed for acquiring a venue and all the bits that make the in-person experience great is something you’re likely familiar with. But, planning a hybrid conference means you’ll have to add the cost of an online venue or event site that supports this (plus, an AV crew to help you connect the virtual and physical venues). And, if most of your community opts to attend virtually in the end, you may have doubled your costs for little reward.
PRO: A hybrid conference gives your attendees options
For those who are determined to have an in-person element at their conference, taking the hybrid route has the benefit of keeping options open for your attendees. With levels of discomfort still high around Covid cases, some people may not want to attend in-person quite yet. Even beyond the pandemic, financial or accessibility reasons can make the decision to attend virtual a no-brainer for many.
So, if you host a hybrid conference, those who really want to meet in person can fork up the cash and give up their time to do so. While those who are happy online, can curl up on their couch with a bowl of popcorn and consume your conference content like a binge on Netflix.
CON: You run the risk of cannibalising your attendee revenue and warping the overall experience
One potential downfall of a hybrid conference is the chance of cannibalising your ticket revenue. This could happen if the virtual element doesn’t attract enough new attendees from new communities, all while many of your usual in-person attendees take the cheaper option of joining virtual (even after you’ve spent the money to set up a venue for them to meet in-person). Some organisers that I’ve spoken to recently are finding it hard to encourage attendees to register for their physical meetings. It’s clear that it will take a lot more marketing dollars and high-value networking opportunities to get people to commit to spending that kind of time and money on an in-person experience again.
Furthermore, a hybrid conference can be a difficult beast to control when it comes to managing the attendee experience. In a 2021 study by Marketlic, almost half (46%) of organizers say hybrid event speakers “had difficulties engaging a virtual and in-person audience simultaneously.” If you make the mistake of favouring in-person over the virtual experience, online attendees could end up feeling cheated. And, since many of these virtual attendees may be trying out your conference for the first time, you risk messing up a retention opportunity for new members (or for in-person participants at your future conferences).
PRO: Hybrid conferences are still a novelty
Hybrid conferencing is still a relatively new concept. And, because there hasn’t been much of a precedent set, you’ll have a bit more wiggle room to be creative and make a few mistakes along the way. As an added bonus, the novelty of hybrid conferences means you can still use it as a way to gain a marketing advantage for your event. Writers for blogs will be more interested in covering your story, and prospective attendees will be curious to see what a hybrid experience really looks like.
CON: There are few success stories to pull inspiration from
Again, with hybrid conferencing being such a new concept, there’s really no definition for what it even means. So, it’s difficult to tell what your attendees will be expecting when they register. And it’s even harder to figure out what level of depth you want to dive into when working with a hybrid conference format.
You may even have some difficulty when searching for inspiration in crafting your event. Organisers who have run hybrid conferences are few and far between. And the limited examples of success stories often involve big meetings (with even bigger budgets). This is because many organisers who tried to run hybrid conferences in 2021 had to convert them to fully virtual events due to budget limitations or changing Covid restrictions.
So, should you be diving headfirst into a hybrid conference?
Hybrid events can be beneficial when run right. But, when it comes to ironing out the details of what a hybrid conference actually means, we’re hearing many different definitions and expectations. Everything from the ratio of virtual vs. physical attendees to the requirement for presenters to attend in-person seems to be up for debate. Some large, international events are even attempting to connect various physical hubs around the world through virtual methods. So, simply saying you want a hybrid event is only the beginning – You’ll need to define what that means to you AND make decisions much earlier than usual if you want to find the right supplier for your needs. And, before you get stuck in, it’s probably worth sending out a member survey to figure out if hybrid is something your conference community even wants.
For conference organisers who don’t think diving headfirst into a hybrid conference is the right option… you’re not alone! A recent research report investigated why a group of association event organisers were not taking the hybrid route. They stated that the biggest barriers to hybrid were: high costs (73%), level of risk with no certainty of success (68%), and time required (58%). The organisers also noted that blending virtual with in-person experiences and creating programs for hybrid conferences were the biggest event challenges their associations saw that year.
So, if a full-blown hybrid event just isn’t the right fit for you, or if you’re looking to host a simplified, “Hybrid Light” format, check out Ex Ordo’s conference management platform. We design easy-to-use, efficient software for scientific, medical, and technical events. And whether you’re looking to run an in-person, virtual, or limited hybrid conference, we can offer a platform package to suit your event needs.