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Event orchestration | 30 December 2020

7 Expert Predictions That Will Shape Hybrid Events in 2021

Rachel Rappaport

Almost 6,000 event marketers registered for (Almost) HYBRID to discuss the future of events. Here’s what we took away from our second virtual summit.

Last week, thousands of event marketing professionals from all over the world tuned in live for our second virtual summit: (Almost) HYBRID. Speakers from CNBC, Burning Man, IBM, and more joined us to share their insights and perspectives on the hybrid future of events.

For an exclusive look at how we planned and executed the event, check out our behind-the-scenes webinar.

Here are the key takeaways from our (Almost) HYBRID sessions:

  • Technology providers will play a pivotal role in the future of events
  • Promote engagement by shifting your focus to the virtual audience
  • Learn how to engage attendees by putting yourself in their shoes
  • Captivate your audience with highly curated, interactive content
  • Impactful events promote co-creativity and authenticity
  • The best way to embrace diversity is to make it your top priority
  • The most successful hybrid events strategies will be adaptive
You can watch all of the sessions from (Almost) HYBRID On Demand here.

1. Technology providers will play a pivotal role in the future of events

Bizzabo Co-Founder and CEO Eran Ben-Shushan kicked off (Almost) HYBRID with an insightful keynote about the future of the event industry.

This past year has presented us with unprecedented circumstances, and as a result, event organizers are looking to join forces and share best practices in a way that’s never been done before.

Eran’s keynote reminded us to embrace the future of events. The coming year will be an exciting opportunity to innovate and pave a new path forward for the events industry. 2021 will be all about hybrid events. This evolving format will combine the best of live and digital experiences, while allowing event organizers to safely reintroduce the in-person aspect that attendees are craving.

“An era where in-person and virtual attendee experiences are meaningfully integrated combining the irreplaceable value of in person with the amazing reach, insights, and possibilities surfaced by technology in the virtual medium.”

– Eran Ben-Shushan, Bizzabo

As the majority of event organizers quickly pivoted to virtual in 2020, it became clear that technology was one of the most important aspects of online events.

Technology used to be a microphone, powerpoint presentation, and maybe a webinar. Now it’s an integral part of any event, serving as the venue, your platform for engagement and interaction, live-streaming, APIs, and a means for surfacing data. If we’ve learned anything from 2020 that we can apply to hybrid events, it’s the importance of technology.

“This past year demonstrated the responsibility of technology to drive the evolution of virtual events. The hybrid technology of tomorrow..will need to be built from the ground up with the virtual and in person holistically in mind.”

– Eran Ben-Shushan, Bizzabo

After surveying nearly 400 event marketing professionals in our Evolution of Events Report, we discovered that organizers plan to lean heavily on technology as part of their event strategy. Attendee engagement tools, hybrid solutions, sponsor partnerships, and virtual integration will be the primary focuses for leveraging technology in 2021.

evolution of events report technology - hybrid event takeaways 2021

When it comes to hosting both virtual and hybrid events, there is increasing demand for technology providers to offer platforms and solutions that can handle thousands of online attendees while offering real-time interaction and deep analytics. In 2020, we saw hundreds of new technology startups as well as established companies innovating new ways to support event organizers in their shift to virtual. And they did it in a matter of weeks and months. This is an inspiring look at what’s to come from technology companies in the future.

2. Promote engagement by shifting your focus to the virtual audience

Dana Pake (MCW Events) and Mark Wilson (Cramer) joined moderator James Kotecki (Infinia ML) for an illuminating Hybrid Think Tank Session. They discussed best practices and examples on how to integrate both the online and live audience so that every attendee feels present at your event.

Our recent Evolution of Events Report revealed that audience engagement is still the number one challenge organizers face, even in the virtual realm. Event marketers are looking for tangible solutions and examples on how they can create an immersive experience for their attendees.

evolution of events report engagement - hybrid event takeaways 2021

The question is not only how we can engage our in-person attendees, but how can we make our online audience feel just as present?

The answer, according to Mark Wilson, is flipping the formula to focus on the virtual audience:

“Instead of treating the virtual audience completely differently than the venue audience, we’re going to put more emphasis on the virtual audience and spend more time and effort engaging them.”

– Mark Wilson, Cramer 

Dana Pake sums it up perfectly:

“Design your program with intention and integrate the two audiences.”

By focusing more on including the virtual audience and creating opportunities for both the live and virtual audiences to interact, we saw how effortless the engagement was as a result.

Hybrid think tank - hybrid event takeaways 2021

Creating a feeling of belonging was a recurring theme in this session. As Dana points out, audiences want to feel seen, heard, and included. Curating your content and delivering that content in a way that intentionally engages both your IRL and online attendees is a great way to promote audience engagement in the virtual and hybrid world.

3. Learn how to engage attendees by putting yourself in their shoes 

In our session, Driving Experience Through Innovation with IBM, Bizzabo’s Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer, Alon Alroy, chatted with IBM’s Program Director of Digital Innovation, Erin McElroy, to learn how IBM is innovating and experimenting to master attendee engagement.

Driving experience through innovation with IBM - hybrid event takeaways 2021

IBM is no stranger to events; in a given year, they host an average of 4,000 in-person events. And this year, they decided to take their biggest event of the year, IBM Think, completely online.

One of the main differences they realized was instead of the usual 20 to 30 thousand in-person attendees, they had almost 200 thousand people attending virtually. With such a large turnout, the team needed to be extremely creative to keep engagement high. IBM is known for creating immersive experiences that delight their audience. One of the ways Erin and her team have done this is by putting themselves in the audience’s shoes and getting to know them both personally and professionally.

For example, understanding that people might be tuning in from home – maybe they have children or pets – could imply that they don’t have the time or opportunity to give as much attention as they normally would to a live session. You might want to create shorter sessions and pick the most meaningful content that will keep your audience’s attention.

“Ari Sheinkin, who leads our analytics, says, ‘if you want to be great at experience, you have to be great at audience.’ And that’s truly understanding the audience.”

– Erin McElroy, IBM

Erin shared that she learned what their audience was craving at these digital events. They could then create immersive experiences like chat functions for networking to provide the most value possible for their attendees.

(Almost) HYBRID Slack Community - hybrid event takeaways 2021

At (Almost) HYBRID, we created a dedicated slack community with different channels that gave our audience the opportunity to network before, during, and even after the event.

You can apply to join (Almost) HYBRID Slack Community here.

4. Captivate your audience with highly curated, interactive content

Leon Winkler, Director of International Events at Ubisoft, shared his experience during another fireside chat, What B2B Organizations Can Learn from Esports and Gaming featuring Ubisoft. Leon shares in-depth examples of how the gaming industry is constantly innovating to create fun, engaging experiences for their audience.

What B2B Organizations Can Learn from Esports and Gaming featuring Ubisoft - hybrid event takeaways 2021

While the gaming industry does have an advantage – being that games are by nature, fun and engaging – the underlying aspects can easily translate to events. Leon explains what it is about games that gets people so excited.

“It’s tapping into that childlike joy – you want to interact and engage and touch. Especially in the digital world…everything is just visual and auditory but actually touching and interacting with an object…that experience embeds itself in your memory.”

The key to creating memorable experiences is to build in opportunities for attendees to interact. Event organizers are trying to recreate the in-person experience in a virtual format, but Leon advises that your budget would be better spent rethinking ways you can engage your audience digitally. For example, Ubisoft partnered with Parsec to stream their games and allow the community to play those games directly through their computers.

Kyle Suzuki, a fellow game lover and event professional echoed Leon’s thoughts on a recent IN-PERSON Podcast episode, sharing his earliest memories of video games and the role of nostalgia in creating experiences.

in person podcast kyle suzuki - hybrid event takeaways 2021

The other biggest piece of advice Leon shared with us is the importance of curating your content to your attendees. The key to creating engaging content is to consider not just what you want to get across, but what your audience wants to hear, and how they want to hear it.

“Content is king…focus on content that is relevant to your audience…You need to have content that captivates the attention of whoever is watching. Then on top of that, you need to create something that is engaging and creates dialogue. It has to be more than passive watching.”

– Leon Winkler, Ubisoft

This idea of creating relevant content and delivering it in an engaging way will ensure that your participants are actively listening to and interacting with your event. Virtual and hybrid events can create the same level of excitement as gaming by focusing on what your attendees want. Get creative and think outside the box in the digital world.

5. Impactful events promote co-creativity and authenticity

Burning Man Project’s Kim Cook sat with Bizzabo’s Dan Flynn, to unpack the idea of community and the role it plays in a virtual domain during the session How Burning Man is Imagining the Future of Community.

How Burning Man is Imagining the Future of Community - hybrid event takeaways 2021

Creating an involved in-person event community is no easy feat, and it’s even more challenging to translate that connection to digital. Kim reveals what it is about “burners” that makes them so excited to be a part of Burning Man. When the in-person event was going to be cancelled, over 14,000 people reached out to offer their help in taking the event online.

“The drive to be a part of something and co-create is super powerful and underutilized…At Burning man, it’s very much about illuminating and elevating the gifts someone wants to bring.”

– Kim Cook, Burning Man Project

The other goal of every organizer is for the event to stick with the attendees, even after it’s over and keep the learnings and the conversation going. Kim shared her own experience creating events that have lasting impact, and the common theme was authenticity. Creating an event that is authentic to you, your company, and your audience is an important part of not only attracting attendees, but making sure the experience stays top of mind.

“When we’re creating events, we need to be tapped into that which is authentically true..in a way that people feel that. That increases the likelihood that people are going to carry with them something that came about within the experience.”

– Kim Cook, Burning Man Project

When planning events, stay aligned with your brand and audience to create an experience that will resonate with your attendees. And create opportunities for your audience to co-create either with your event or with each other. People will be excited to bring their strengths to the table and work together to create an amazing experience.

6. The best way to embrace diversity is to make it your top priority

Another session, Empowering Diversity Through HYBRID, featured moderator Mita Mallick (Carta) and founder of Lesbians Who Tech, Leanne Pittsford, for a discussion on driving diversity in events and how a hybrid future provides ample opportunities for doing so.

empowering diversity through hybrid - hybrid event takeaways 2021

Leanne has become a leader in diversity both in her company and in her events strategy. The way she got there might surprise you: saying no, even if it means losing money or sponsors. Leanne validates that “It’s awkward, and there’s hard conversations,” but staying true to your values is the best way to create diversity in your events. Sometimes that means saying no to sponsors, attendees, or speakers who may not be values-aligned or won’t promote diversity in your event.

Continuing the theme of authenticity, Leanne places a heavy focus on building trust with her attendees and her coworkers. She reveals that it takes time to build that trust. So how does she do it? Time is one ingredient for building trust. This other is using diversity quotas to drive decision making in their event strategy…and saying no to valuable partnerships that don’t adhere to these event goals.

“We have a policy, sponsors need to submit 3 speakers, 50% of them have to be women of color…We couldn’t create that community without the people on stage reflecting the audience.”

– Leanne Pittsford, Lesbians Who Tech

In order to promote diversity in their events, organizers like Leanne are making hard choices and using their values to guide them in the event planning process. Diversity was a big topic of 2020 and will continue to be a major focus in 2021. Hybrid events create a lot of opportunities to drive diversity, one of the most prominent of those is reach.

“We had 30,000 people join who registered all over the world, there were 60 countries represented…anyone can join online so there are people from other countries that got to be a part of it and feel part of the magic.”

– Leanne Pittsford, Lesbians Who Tech

By removing in-person obstacles, people from anywhere in the world, or those who may not be able to attend live, for any number of reasons, are able to participate. There are so many opportunities for event organizers to foster diversity in their events in the hybrid era.

7. The most successful hybrid events strategies will be adaptive

To close out the event, we hosted an inspiring panel: How to Plan for the Unplannable with CNBC and WorkHuman. Bizzabo’s Director of Events, Rachel Ruggieri, spoke with CNBC’s Jonathan Meyers and Workhuman’s Devin Cleary about what it really takes to plan events in a dynamic and digital environment.

How to Plan for the Unplannable - hybrid event takeaways 2021

As the events industry shifts toward a hybrid future, flexibility will be the most effective approach. Event organizers can be Type-A, and it can be difficult to let go of the plan and just go with the flow. But in the ever changing world of events and especially in the paradigm shift we are currently in, being able to make changes and shift your strategy will be crucial to your success.

“Be Flexible. Not everything you come up with in a vacuum is going to work. Not everything that the audience says they want they’ll want. Continue to iterate.”

– Jonathan Meyers, CNBC

This idea of creating iterative event strategies will become even more important in 2021. The digital world is known for fast-paced change. As we leverage more technology in our events, trends will come and go faster than ever before.

As event planners and attendees get accustomed to virtual and hybrid events, their wants and needs will almost certainly change. In order to keep up with the demand and continue to create engaging events, Jonathan recommends that organizers keep pushing themselves and thinking creatively.

“Don’t stand still. Things that were highly successful at the beginning of the pandemic now feels stale and audiences and sponsors are moving on. You have to continue to innovate.”

– Jonathan Meyers, CNBC

The other important key to success in this dynamic time is to have a team of “Innovative people who can bridge virtual and hybrid.” Just like event strategies have changed drastically this past year and will continue to change in the future, event teams will also look different than what we are used to.

“Digital events absolutely require us to have an involved organization approach”

– Devin Cleary, Workhuman

As the events industry pivots toward a hybrid future, event strategies and event teams will also change. The most successful events will be those that take an adaptive approach and embrace the dynamic future of the industry.

Wrapping Up: Creating the Future of Events

almost hybrid thats a wrap - hybrid event takeaways 2021

(Almost) HYBRID was part of a much larger movement and discussion around the future of events as we know it. It validated that event marketers are resilient, innovative, and that we can come together in the face of a challenge to create meaningful change.

As we continue planning events, we hope these insights inspire you to continuously iterate and see this new domain as an opportunity. We are rewriting the playbook for events and it’s an exciting time to be an event marketer!

To hear from our speakers at IBM, CNBC, Burning Man, and more, tune in to our on-demand sessions.

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