Now that most parts of the country are on the downslope of the whiplash Delta variant, meeting professionals are reassessing what their future programs will look like. For a preview, we asked Eric Holmen, CEO of Splash, the event marketing software company that powers tens of thousands of business events each month, for trends in how organizers are adjusting their programs. Spoiler alert, it could be smaller, more tech driven and hybrid, but not in the way many expected at the beginning of the year.

A Hybrid Shift

Eric Holmen

“We saw a lot of hybrid experimentation when live events started coming back in June and July,” Holmen said, after sifting through keywords and calendars of customers using the platform to promote their programs.

Those hybrid meetings are coming in lots of different shapes and sizes. Some large groups are throwing a camera in the room to capture the presentations for an extended remote audience. For smaller groups a progression of virtual content sharing followed by some in-person workshopping and closing a few days later with virtual lessons learned might be more effective. “I think in the future we are going to see more mixing it up rather than simulcast,” Holmen said.

By definition, hybrid meetings are a mixed bag. The addition of a virtual option allows for dramatically higher registration rates, which can help build a marketing funnel. But Holmen’s data shows that attendance rates are much lower. At events held between mid-July and mid-August, only four out of ten people (39.5%) who registered for virtual actually attended compared to almost seven out of ten (66.6%) who committed to going in-person. “It is not the same level of engagement and intimacy, but it is a good database-building activity,” he conceded.

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The result of this best of both worlds approach could be increased ROI as the incremental additional cost of virtual streaming technology could pay off in greater reach. “Think of it, unlike a physical ballroom, there is no limit on how many people can attend virtually,” he said. “You will come out ahead when you consider all the numbers in the pipeline.”

Best Practices

Some hybrid events are engaging better than others. “The best engagement across platforms takes a lot more work up-front, a lot of preparation,” said Holmen. The most effective events allow attendees to get to know each other in advance, matching people with commonalities based on LinkedIn and other profiles like a good dating site. “That way you can cut through the noise and get a much better connection,” he said.

The best hybrid event producers have also gotten much more comfortable using customer relationship management tools to maximize the data being generated about who is attending, what is resonating—and what isn’t. “Event marketers need to get good at being part of the data flow,” he said.

An Adrenaline-Filled Future

Holmen predicts that now that vaccination rates are rising and infection rates are declining in most of the United States, there will be a “normalization period” where hybrid becomes a norm. During that time, the total number of virtual events could decline, but the value of each one will increase. “There won’t be one every week, but there will be more preparation around each one,” he said.

The future for virtual and hybrid could be as an augmentation to promote an in-person road show or workshop.

When they are less ubiquitous, Holmen expects attendance will go up and about half of those who sign-up will actually attend.

“In-person is like the roaring 20s right now,” he said on a phone call from an event he was attending. The smiles all around him proved what the data was already saying. The percentage of his customers’ events that were in-person rose steadily from April 2021 through August 2021, indicating that, at least prior to the Delta variant disruption, in-person events were coming back.

“You get all the endorphins, energy and adrenaline, it’s great,” he enthused. For at least the first year, he sees in-person as the preferred way to connect and consume content because people missed the interaction so much. But those high-fives might be planned in parallel with programming for those who can’t attend or want to make the most of their precious time together.

“We are in for an exciting couple of years ahead,” he concluded.

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