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The pros at Meeting Professionals International (MPI) hosted a hybrid event in 2020 and the team is gearing up to make the experience even better in 2021.
In November of 2020, MPI chose to take a hybrid approach to its annual World Education Congress (WEC). The experience was so successful that MPI has already begun planning for WEC 2021 — another hybrid event.
After working together on such a successful venture, we wanted to take a look back with Melinda Burdette, director of events, and Jessie States, director of the MPI Academy and digital director of the event, to gather their perspectives and personal insights as well as advice for other meeting professionals considering a hybrid approach.
Q What was your team's strategy?
MPI: Everything we chose to do, we did it with a purpose.
Early on, we decided hybrid wasn’t going to be a copy/paste experience for our two audiences. We learned that a hybrid event doesn’t have to be hybrid at all times. There were portions of our event that were solely in-person or solely digital, and that’s okay. You are planning an event with two distinctive experiences and finding where the crossovers are to ensure it works well for both.
Q How did you approach your two audiences?
MPI: We tried to make our digital content live whenever possible so that our virtual audience stayed engaged and present in the moment. Your attendees at home will crave that feeling of an in-person event, so make sure you’re giving it to them whenever possible.
Q Tell us about your content strategy.
MPI: Our virtual and in-person audiences had separate agendas, except during keynotes and general sessions. Those large sessions ran concurrently for both audiences so all attendees experienced them together at the same time.
We wanted our presenters to interact directly with the digital audience—to see their faces and enable them to engage, which would allow the digital audience to shape the conversation. So, we asked our presenters to present twice. This approach worked well because we got positive feedback from our speakers that they enjoyed the opportunity to present to and engage with both audiences.
A major takeaway for us when planning our strategy: make sure to capture ALL in-person content so you can share and host it on-demand after the event.
We wanted to stream all of our in-person content, but budget was definitely a consideration. So, we set up two green screen rooms where presenters could re-present to the virtual audience and have live Q&A. Broadcasting/streaming can get expensive, so consider this approach when planning.
Q How crucial was networking?
MPI: Making connections and having interactions are key for both audiences. For the in-person audience, we were very adamant that WEC shouldn’t look that different from previous years. We focused on how we could design a similar experience, but make it safe.
Keep in mind that there will be a number of people who may not be comfortable taking part in all the in-person activities you plan, and that’s okay.
We utilized our virtual event platform OnlineEvent Pro™ for virtual networking. 1:1, video chats, topic-based chats, AI matchmaking, breakout rooms — all of this functionality was very important to us, as we designed the experience for virtual attendees.
Q How did you vet partners?
MPI: It’s incredibly important to design your experience before you choose your technology. Set your objectives first, otherwise you’ll be boxed into technologies that limit you — this is especially important for your virtual event platform. Make a list of must haves, nice to haves, and not necessary for your event then research partners once your team is firm on that list.
Q How do you plan for a perfect event?
MPI: I don’t believe in a perfect event — no event is without flaws. Spending time on the strategy, ideation, and the process of vetting partners was a key part of us having a successful meeting. Don’t rush to the outcome, spend time on your “why.”
Q How did you approach health and safety for on-site attendees?
MPI: You can only control the safety within the “bubble” of your event. You should be very diligent about your systems and precautions within your event, but know when you have control and when you simply don’t. For example, our typical know-before-you-go for attendees is 5-6 pages — in 2020, it was 12 pages. We were thorough and made sure to be as clear and transparent as possible in our communications, and we spent a lot of time making plans and then asking teammates to poke holes in the plan before sharing anything externally.
Q What were the big takeaways and lessons learned?
MPI: Pivot was the word of yesterday, nimble is the word of today.
Having the right team and the right partner will ensure you can problem solve and think quickly during your event.
As an example, once our event started, we saw a comment in the virtual audience chat about having an audience “fan-cam” that would highlight virtual attendees on screens inside our ballroom during general sessions. Thanks to this real-time chat idea, we were able to add that additional layer of engagement on-site because we had the right partner who was nimble and could make it happen. The audience loved our fan-cam — it became a highlight of the event.
Q Any advice for meeting planners who are new to virtual or hybrid?
MPI: You need dedicated staff for the digital experience — don’t underestimate the work. If you think one person can handle a portion of the event, put in at least two. Having a nimble partner for event technology and execution is important, too.
Making sure your emcee and other talent are nimble will ensure you can solve problems quickly and jump into a “plan b” seamlessly if needed. Ask your technology partners and talent about their ability to adjust plans and examples of how they have been nimble during past events.
Q What's the main focus for your next hybrid event?
MPI: We will partner with specialized companies to dive into the air quality of the spaces and work with our furniture providers to showcase how event design has changed — we plan to share this information and all our event details with both in-person and virtual audiences.
To actively avoid a “SALY” approach (same as last year), our team is reviewing 2020’s event alongside feedback from our stakeholders to make sure we’re evolving and innovating with our audience’s needs.
We’re also looking at each component of the in-person event to see how we can make a positive impact on the local community. We’re really excited to continue to use our platform to also enrich the event community we serve and be a valuable source for insights and innovation.
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