The topic of hybrid special events—which extend traditional in-person events with tools such as broadcasting and social media—is hot.
A whopping 70 percent of respondents to the latest online poll from Special Events say they either stage hybrid events now or are considering doing so. Also, the Professional Convention Management Association announced Thursday that it has invested funds in the Virtual Edge Institute, which studies virtual events, as a way to "drive the next wave of innovation" in the event and meetings industry, said Susan Katz, director of corporate events and travel at True Value Co. and chair of the PCMA board.
EVERY EVENT A HYBRID
The Special Events poll reveals that 25 percent of respondents are already staging hybrid events. And for some special event professionals, hybrid events are not cutting-edge but commonplace.
To events giant Jack Morton Worldwide, headquartered in New York, "Every event is considering a hybrid from the start unless there is a specific reason for it not to be," explains senior public relations manager Abby Trexler.
Jack Morton is gearing up to produce "Cotton's 24-Hour Runway Show" for client Cotton Inc. The campaign will enable fashion fans throughout the U.S. to upload images showing their flair with cotton fabric to a website; 24 winning contestants will be invited to join professional models in Miami in November for a 24-hour fashion show, which will be streamed live on MTV.com.
International event powerhouse Vok Dams Group, headquartered in Germany, was among the first agencies to integrate the Internet into special events back in 1998. And the company's commitment to hybrid events is clear: “The future belongs to hybrid events, which pair live with MoSoLo—the use of mobile/social/location-based technologies," says company leader Coja Dams.
For Microsoft's partner conference in Germany last week, the Vok Dams team turned to a mix of elements, including a custom event guide app, communication via Facebook and Xing (the German version of LinkedIn), Xbox Kinect modules at the event, and scannable tag codes at networking events that helped the 1,400 guests learn more about one another.
"We think that nowadays you should not only mention the ROI as a return on investment, but also understand it as a return on involvement," explains Vok Dams' Wolfgang Altenstrasser. "The more people get involved into a brand, a product or a communication message, the better their response will be in the form of buying decisions or recommendations. Hybrid events involve people even more than classic events did in the past, and at this point you can see that virtual and social media elements offer a lot of advantages for companies planning to use them."
Vok Dams offers a white paper on hybrid events; click here.
USE WHAT YOU'VE ALREADY GOT
Several event pros who routinely stage hybrid events stress that complex technology is not a must.
Go West Creative of Westlake Village, Calif., has been creating hybrid events since 2000, says president and co-founder David Fischette. "We call them 'multi-source' events. However, in the last three years we have been pushing this concept much harder as it is a very viable alternative to having to fly thousands of attendees to one centralized location."
Earlier this year, Go West staged just such an event for a large insurance carrier. The top executives gathered in a studio to give a 90-minute presentation, which was broadcast live to 57 movie theaters equipped to receive satellite downlinks. At each movie theater, from 200 to 800 attendees from the company viewed the presentation. Staffers in another 100 smaller locations—such as boardrooms in outlying offices—watched the presentation via live web-streaming. Thanks to the Go West TuffTxt platform, participants could interact in real time with the executives, "shattering the feeling that the audience was merely watching a video," Fischette says.
"The beauty of this," Fischette adds, is "multi-source events can be incredibly cheap, from Skype and Twitter, to most costly, satellite and interactive texting."
The best technology for hybrid event need not be the newest, only the most appropriate. As Trexler says, "Experienced digital strategists and producers who can envision the event and recommend the technology to make it happen are more important than the technology itself."
HOLDING OFF ON HYBRID
Although hybrid events are in the headlines, a total of 29 percent of respondents to the Special Events poll say they don't stage hybrid events now and have no plans to do so.
For the team at the New York office of Global Events, the notion of hybrid events makes sense but has not yet become part of their standard event toolkit.
"We went through a period maybe 18 to 24 months ago where it was a really hot topic," explains CEO Adam Sloyer. "We set up a partnership with a virtual events company to be able to actively pursue opportunities in the market, and we had some interest. But at the end of the day, nothing ever really came to fruition. We continue to keep the partnership intact and we have inquiries now and then, but I don't see it being as big of a hot-topic item as a few years ago."
Jason Wanderer, founder of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Precision Event Group, questions the idea that simply putting a digital spin on a live event makes the event better.
"I think that you need to do what you are an expert in; we are experts in the production of live events," Wanderer says. "We can easily stream an event online, but the creation of a true hybrid requires the development and production of a complete digital guest experience. Perhaps the question here is, what is a true hybrid event? Is it just a webcast or is it the technological design of a virtual experience that mimics the live? I think many agencies would say they can produce both, but I also have heard the job title 'environmental engineer' used for janitors."
Wanderer also questions the value of social media one-offs.
"Social media is a brand asset that needs to have a 365-day-a-year presence controlled by the client/brand," Wanderer says. "Simply creating a Facebook site for a one-time event is useless unless you continue the dialogue with consumer/guests for the other 364 days of the year actively."
ASK YOURSELF WHY
Angela Smith, a veteran of creating hybrid events for tech giant Cisco, recommends that event pros study their own goals before launching hybrid events.
"I see time and time again that people still make the mistake of trying to 'replace' a traditional event with virtual, or market the option of the 'hybrid' extension all wrong, says Smith, who oversees solutions design for Walnut Creek, Calif.-based InVision Communications. "What people really need to be asking themselves today is, 'Why am I having this event in the first place? Do I still need to keep the traditional format I have had over the years? Has my audience demographic changed over the last one to three years, let alone the last 10 years?'"
Smith cautions, "Technology is changing at light speed; it’s really time for the event marketers of the world to assess their portfolio and align new business models to their event marketing strategies." And she adds a telling quote: "I heard [Dell CEO] Michael Dell speak last week; he said, 'The lines between business and IT are vanishing.'"
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