Even as in-person meetings continue to reemerge with a vengeance, virtual meetings have taken a primary position in the event professional toolbox. A streaming option can serve larger, more geographically diverse and executive audiences, act as a flexible insurance policy in the event a new threat grounds attendees while providing valuable data about behavior.

Smart Meetings talked to experts building the next generation of virtual meeting platforms to find out how the technology is changing to fit these new requirements and what predicted consolidation and continued layoffs may mean for meeting professionals.

A More Customer-focused Virtual Environment

“We live in a hybrid world where almost every major event has a virtual component, even if we don’t call it that,” said Bizzabo Chief Marketing Officer Alon Alroy. He pointed out that virtual events have always been a critical part of the marketing mix, but old-school webinars have been put on “steroids” and are now much better at delivering Return on Attention (RoA) as new features are “humanizing” remote experiences by giving people the tools to react, express their feelings and play. “We are turning attendees into participants,” he said.

In the brave new virtual world, content can get people in the room, but now that it is available on demand, high-quality facilitation and moderation is the key to giving people a voice and helping them participate. “When a speaker can hear the basic human gesture of clapping at the push of a button, it is beautiful to see,” he said. “Plus, you can measure it.”

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Bizzabo, which has built what it calls an Event Experience Operating System, is producing an Event Strategy Forum this month and “Using Data to Power Marketing Campaigns” is one of the topics for the digital roundtable along with “The Future of In-Person Events.”

After a slowdown from 2021, the use of streaming technology is steadily growing again, Alroy reported, citing a survey that found 68% of organizers plan to have a virtual component at their next in-person event. In fact, he predicted that when the dust settles and more virtual platform companies have acquired or been acquired, virtual events will be more frequent and engaging than they were in 2019. “Yes, hybrid meetings are more complicated and costly, but virtual is here to stay without a doubt,” he said.

As event technology companies become more efficient and focused on what customers want, Alroy theorized that will help meeting professionals who may have been overwhelmed with too many options during the explosion of virtual streaming platform companies.

“My advice for planners is to look for a solution with the breadth to support lots of different use cases,” he said. “Many planners have post-traumatic stress disorder and want to minimize risk to satisfy the CFO sitting on our shoulders.” Choosing one solution for all meeting needs makes you more efficient, he concluded.

The Back-up Plan

By the fall of 2021, a lot of Joanna Pineda’ global clients were saying they were done with virtual. Then omicron and the culture wars hit. “We can’t shut the door,” said the CEO of Matrix Group International Inc., a digital agency that developed its own streaming platform, BeSpeake, from the ground up in 2020 to serve clients who were scrambling to achieve their goals. “We learned a lot about how to do in-person and virtual meetings better during the last two years,” she said.

“We need to be more intentional about networking and create more intimate introductions,” she said. Tools such as planned speed dating can ensure everyone meets five new people rather than just putting people in a room with cocktails and hoping for the best. She pointed to birds-of-a-feather sessions as a way to facilitate conversations between people with shared interests.

Experience with virtual programming even informed improved time-of-day network scheduling best practices. In-person events historically save networking for the end of the day. She learned that in the virtual environment, starting with small-group networking during coffee when people are more open-minded is much more compelling. Conversation topics incite more discussion at lunch and sheer fun like a mixologist or music works well at the end of the day.

Another digital lesson that is making in-person events better, the understanding that every 7-10 minutes we need to do something to change the physicality of the room, even if it is just calling for questions.

Now all variations of meeting delivery are on the table. Pineda is working on true hybrid events with every session streamed live to thousands across the world. But she also has clients who are highlighting just a handful of sessions for at-home audiences. Others are recording speakers and offering virtual programming weeks later with experts available for questions. One even did two completely different sessions at the same time with only one general session shared.

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Part of the appeal for Pineda is the wealth of data available for streaming events. “I pretty much know when someone gets up to use the bathroom,” she said.

Exhibitors are demanding details about who and how they are engaging. And attendees are asking to be able to see all the sessions with better production values than you can get in a massive ballroom, even though sometimes on-demand viewing is lighter than would have been predicted.

For mid-level attendees, in particular, virtual worked well for educational programs, Pineda reported. The virtual tools introduced during the rush to streaming, such as appointment scheduling, directed networking and messaging can bridge and augment programming in the ballroom to benefit attendees and sponsors alike.

Pineda also predicts consolidation in the number of virtual platforms available since the market can’t support all venture capital-backed companies. But she still believes there will be enough choices so meeting professionals can be intentional about the user experience just as they are in a convention center.

She suggests not signing long-term contracts “because you don’t know what is going to happen.”

Establishing a relationship with your meeting platform before you need them, just like you do with your banker, is a smart way to be prepared for the things you don’t normally think about. “The chances for an in-person meeting to go wrong is real, especially in a time when as much as 15% of attendees just don’t show up or speakers can’t make it because of flight delays or surges. You have to be ready for that.”

Flexibility as a Constant

The rush to put contingencies in place spans almost every industry. For life science companies, the imperative to meet was never greater than when many were searching for life-saving cures over the last two years. Many of those companies have returned to in-person gatherings according to Marc Crawford, CEO of Array, which specializes in delivering content for medical and biotechnology companies. But he is seeing an ongoing need for an alternative engagement tool. “The demand for the convenience and flexibility of virtual events isn’t going anywhere,” he said upon the release of the company’s “Hybrid Event Planning in 2022: The Complete Guide.”

There are many reasons for the residual digital. Convenience and flexibility can attract more influencers, presenters and attendees. Decreased costs associated with venues, food, beverages and accommodations can help expand distribution.

However, Array points out that “creating a synchronous and engaging event presents a number of unique challenges.” Among these are the risk of creating siloed audiences who experience the event differently with the potential to alienate the virtual audience.

He also cautioned that the quality of the data can depend on the technology used and appropriate advanced planning. “Many life sciences events are often planned without first determining highly defined KPIs. Without a clear way to measure impact, stakeholders will have difficulty assessing ROI and seeing the value in hybrid events.”

Virtual events must also combat distractions and unexpected technical issues to realize the benefits of scalability engagement.