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Mixed Messages

Hybrid meetings are likely here to stay, but are already morphing into something more

Since the world closed down in March 2020, the hybrid meeting has stepped up to fill the void. Powered by Zoom and other virtual platforms, hybrid meetings morphed out of the 100 percent virtual landscape to the partially opened world of mid-2020 to the now more fully opened, but meet-in-person-cautious world of 2021.

A recent study from the Global Business Travel Association predicts the number of hybrid meetings held in the US is set to double in 2021. “As restrictions ease and business meetings resume, hybrid meetings could be on the rise to better accommodate both in person and virtual attendees and reach a broader audience,” according to the GBTA report.

The research, which was conducted with support from meetings technology provider Cvent, reveals that technology plays a central role in the new growth of hybrid meetings. The majority of meetings and event planners surveyed were “interested” or “very interested” in adding technology components to virtual meetings to “deliver a more engaging and immersive online event.” The respondents pointed to elements such as virtual conferencing, online registration, post-event surveys, live polling and mobile event apps. 

“A smart mix of virtual, in-person and hybrid events is the future,” says Cvent’s CMO Patrick Smith. “These three event delivery models will enable companies to reach and engage bigger audiences and gain deeper insight into attendees’ interest. The use of (live-streaming ) technology will help to lead the way in this new environment where we expect events to be more numerous and impactful than ever.”

Improving the Quality

Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer at Bizly, a meetings content and planning platform, agrees that hybrid meetings are here to stay. Iwamoto says advances in technology will be increasingly used to power both in person and hybrid meetings as the world assesses what “the new normal” will be. “We have to make hybrid integrations easier,” Iwamoto says. 

As the pandemic broke, Iwamoto explains, “We saw a bunch of technologies come to the forefront and the hands down winner was Zoom, which has a lot to do with how easy it was to use. However, now Microsoft Teams and Google are creating a more comprehensive, fluid platform than what Zoom has. Zoom has not diversified. The competition is working harder with corporate support packaging behind it.”

Iwamoto sees technological advancement in hybrid meetings will center around “improved reliability and improving the quality of the meeting itself.” A new frontier might be to challenge the sit-down meeting model with technology that allow participants in a hybrid environment to “stand up and move around,” he explains.

“We also have to work to make meetings themselves shorter – the right agenda for the right purpose. At the end of the meeting people have a play book, a structure and a consistent experience. They know why they had that meeting. They are clear on the purpose and the action-ables of that meeting.” 

Corporate leadership is not likely to be changing its new-found adherence to virtual and hybrid solutions anytime soon, Iwamoto says. “To some degree we’re seeing pent up demand for in-person meetings from those who have been vaccinated. When conferences first started live attendance again we saw 25 percent onsite versus 75 percent virtual. Now it is getting closer to 50/50 but the sad reality is that there are a lot of C-level executives who don’t want their budget to be back at $50 million. There’s still a lot of risk management because of unknown factors. Prior to the pandemic, companies had passive approval for meetings. When COVID-19 hit, that shut down and conferences and events went to active approval, way up to a very senior level. Now the passive approval is moving toward people attending virtual or hybrid meetings where there’s little to no risk attached,” Iwamoto notes.

Zoom Cocktails, Anyone?

“The million dollar question is, how long will it be hybrid?” says Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, chief customer officer of Groupize, an enterprise meetings management platform. “No one has a crystal ball. No one expected COVID-19 to last this long,” he says, adding “Everyone is tired of Zoom cocktails – they want a better experience.” However that experience is most likely going to include a hybrid model, he notes. “We are seeing in-person groups of 100 to 400 people starting to reconvene but the world has changed. You can’t go back. The immediate demand is still on virtual/hybrid meetings.” 

The changes on the meetings landscape that de Gaspe Beaubien sees – both in person and hybrid – will be in an increased emphasis on “duty of care,” and the fact that there will be “less and less professional planners; everyone in the company is a planner now. These people need easy-to-use tech solutions,” he says. “Hybrid aspects will fade out,” “But duty of care will continue to be important. Ultimately, I don’t see hybrid meetings going away, it has its place. But real networking in person is where the business gets done.”

Technology boosts to hybrid meetings are no better than the people who implement them, emphasizes Colden Hippisley, the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center’s technology manager. The hotel – A Curio Collection by Hilton historic property – is known for having a full audio/visual team in-house, which is a plus that sets it apart from many of its competitors.

“In both virtual and hybrid meetings, you can have the latest and greatest but no matter what it is, there will still be an issue. There are gremlins! I swear there are. I’ve seen them. You have a perfectly organized meeting and something happens and it has to be dealt with. What can make or break a meeting in my opinion is to have the right people in the right spots: Their IT folks and our IT folks. The people make a difference and we have a Four Diamond A/V department, in house.”

The Elephant in the Room 

Hippisley says he believes hybrid meetings are here to stay. To respond to that demand, the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center “added a lot of video technology, including cameras mounted on the wall for better audio and video, and front and rear cameras that give more of a real-time feel for presenters,” features that move hybrid meetings from a static presentation to a more fluid feel.

“Face-to-face is still so important, but what is exciting are the advancements in tech that hybrid meetings can incorporate. We keep an eye, for instance, on what Zoom is doing in their beta group. Clients are using some of these newer advancements. Microsoft Teams have also really improved.”

However, the most important technology advancement for the continued seamless integration of hybrid and in-person meetings must have three critical components: “reliability, compatibility and access,” Hippisley maintains. “Can I just walk in to a meeting with my Windows computer, my Mac, my phone? That’s the question. These companies keep adding capabilities. We have to make sure that everything works and flows together.” 

Along with compatibility, Hippisley says the elephant in the room is consistent, reliable, quick broadband access. “You would be surprised, but a lot of hybrid meeting attendees live in rural areas where the Internet access is not great or limited,” he says. “We have to be able to guarantee the ability for people to access the same broadband quality across both hybrid and in-person models.” He points to new satellite technology being developed by people like Elon Musk (“for crazy fast Internet”) as part of that solution. 

“The biggest tech advance we can have is to be able to count on broadband access for everyone involved, including in rural parts of the country, which is increasingly important for at-home components of hybrid meetings.” Reliable online access, he says, “makes everyone relax. And when your client is relaxed and not stressed, everyone is winning.”