11 Steps to Plan a Hybrid Meeting

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The decision to add virtual elements to your live event is not an easy one. The fear factor is often high, the level of change required seemingly monumental. Sometimes it’s the need for technological knowledge that may be intimidating or it’s a concern for how much these virtual elements will increase your already stretched budget for the live event. Many planners are worried the virtual streaming of sessions may decrease on-site participation, reducing revenue in other areas such as hotel commissions and sponsor participation. In actuality, the virtual audience can expand your revenue stream and generate marketing for your brand that will last long after the conference concludes. Here’s a step-by-step guide to organizing a hybrid event. Step 1: Start with the end in mind. When planning a live meeting, the first objective is to determine your goals. The same is true for a hybrid meeting that incorporates virtual elements into the live platform. Ask yourself what you want the end goal to be. Are you looking to expand your audience to members who could not otherwise attend? Are you offering continuing education units (CEUs), the virtual platform helping to increase the ability to gain this education after the conference concludes? Rosaelena Ledesma-Bernaducci, CMP, congress manager with McVeigh Associates Ltd., stresses the need to align objectives for all facets of the meeting. “It’s important to meet your objectives with the audience that’s virtually present as well as with the live audience,” she says. Step 2: Decide what goes virtual. Choose the conference elements you want available to a virtual audience. Are you streaming the entire conference, general sessions and educational workshops? Perhaps it’s the well-known keynote speaker who has star power to attract an expanded audience. Just as the on-site audience will pay a fee to see a giant in the industry who may be retired and rarely speaks, so too will the virtual audience pay to have this opportunity. Andy Straub, president of Blueyed Productions, which produces and integrates distance-learning programs, says it’s important to determine what you can bring to audience members that they wouldn’t otherwise see on their own. Straub’s company produced an event at United Artists movie theaters for Wine Spectator magazine. The theaters were set up with satellite feeds and the audience was taken into vineyards to get the first look at the year’s special wines ahead of the competition. The audience sampled the wines in the theater and asked questions of the vintners in real-time. “The ability to get thousands of people into a wine cellar at the same time was extraordinary,” Straub says. Another example is within the medical industry, which was perhaps the first industry to broadcast a presentation. Referred to as a “live case,” cameras go into an operating room and a surgical technique or medical device is demonstrated in real-time. A practitioner may never have had the opportunity to see this technique in use before. The value of this never-before-seen presentation attracts an audience both on-site and virtually. If CEUs can be obtained through the breakout sessions, it’s important to make this education available to the virtual audience. Keep in mind that the more sessions streaming simultaneously, the higher the costs will be. Each room requires its own set of cameras and streaming equipment, plus operating staff. However, fees charged to the virtual audience can offset this cost. If the CEUs are mandatory for their jobs or to maintain a certification, the cost can be justified and attendees are willing to make the investment. Step 3: Adapt the agenda. If you’ve determined your virtual audience will view the presentations from varying time zones, try to adapt your agenda to the best times for your participants. Eileen Roehl, CMP, managing partner of the Murfee Group, a medical and corporate meetings management company, has coordinated live case transmissions to 35 locations across the world. “We’ve done transmissions at 7 a.m. Eastern time to accommodate the European audience and at 4 p.m. Eastern time to accommodate the Asian market,” Roehl says. She also suggests placing the streamed presentation before a long break in the agenda. “This way, if there are any issues [with the technology], you have some cushion in the agenda timing.” Step 4: Define the content. Once you’ve determined which sessions will be streamed, define the content of those presentations. This helps determine the rate of data transfer or bandwidth needed. Do you have one speaker showing a PowerPoint presentation or a panel of speakers with no visual elements? A static image such as a slide with no video does not require a strong signal to transmit. If you are transmitting high-definition medical images, however, the signal will need to be a greater capacity. The more motion or video the presentation contains, the stronger the signal needs to be, which requires a more expensive technology. Step 5: Guide your speakers. It’s important to let speakers know from the very beginning that they will be presenting to both a live and virtual audience. Give them as much information about the virtual audience as you can, such as the number of people who are viewing online and what cities, states or countries they are viewing from. Kevin Novak, vice president of integrated web strategy and technology for the American Institute of Architects, suggests building the virtual experience as close to the physical experience as possible. “Make sure the virtual attendee has the same opportunity as the on-site attendee,” Novak says. This means speakers should be prepared to take questions from the virtual audience as well, whether the questions are coming from social media sites or a live chat platform. Speakers should acknowledge the virtual audience at the beginning of their presentations and thank them for attending. It’s also important to make sure speaker contracts include a clause allowing you to distribute their presentations online. If you decide to stream their presentations after the contract is signed, request an addendum granting this permission. Most speakers will likely comply as it gives them a wider audience and greater exposure. Step 6: Determine your virtual audience. If this is your first time entering the virtual community, it may be difficult to determine who would most likely attend the presentation virtually versus in-person. First, decide if you are reaching a local, regional, national or international audience. Perhaps your membership includes an international contingency that has stopped attending live meetings due to travel costs and budget cuts. This group would be a prime target for the virtual presentation. Novak looked at areas of the country where he didn’t have a strong in-person attendance at the annual convention and geared the virtual marketing towards those locations. “We found our on-site attendance was coming from a 300-mile radius of the convention center,” Novak said. “We weren’t hitting the majority of our membership [with the on-site meeting].” Step 7: Understand the technology. Knowing your technology needs can be a daunting exercise. While most planners have a general knowledge of audiovisual equipment and online processes, most do not have the specific technical skills to set up the virtual presentation. Consult with your internal IT person and hire a vendor who has a history of successfully streaming presentations, both domestically and abroad. If your presenter is off-site, you have a choice of three ways to stream the presentation: via Internet, fiber or satellite. “The decision comes down to cost versus image quality,” Roehl says. “The Internet is the cheapest solution, but it doesn’t give the best quality.” Staub says you can boost the speed of the Internet by using Polycom intelligence. Similar to a Polycom conference phone, the unit has video capabilities. One unit is placed at the off-site presentation venue and the other unit is placed at the hotel or conference center where the live audience presides.  The two units “talk to each other” to find the fastest way to move the signal. Fiber is the wired version of Internet access—think of a T1 line—and is ordered through the venue’s telephone company as a circuit. However, the venue must have fiber available that is not already in use called “dark fiber.” “A lot of venues don’t have the fiber because they offer Internet as an option,” Roehl says. Fiber can be cost-effective if you are transmitting in a local area, such as in the operating room example where the hospital is in the same city as the meeting venue, referred to as a “local loop.” Costs increase when the signal needs to be transmitted out of state, such as New York City to San Francisco. The local loop in New York City needs to be sent to a long-distance provider (incurring long distance charges of approximately $500) and then sent to the local loop in San Francisco. The fiber circuit must be activated, which can incur a fee upwards of $2,000. A one month’s usage fee of $2,000 is charged whether you use the circuit for one minute or three days. The activation and monthly usage fee are charged on both ends, so your cost is now $8,000—$4,000 in New York City and $4,000 in San Francisco—plus the long-distance charges. Satellite offers the same high-definition, limitless bandwidth as fiber, but it can be a bit more cost-effective if the venue has a satellite dish. If this is not available, satellite trucks can be rented. An uplink truck at the off-site venue incurs a $3,000 fee and a downlink truck at the meeting venue incurs another $3,000. Satellite space is rented for approximately $600 and similar to a meeting planner’s site visit at a hotel, both venues need to be “scouted” to make sure the signal works. This incurs a charge of $500 for each scout. Total satellite cost is $7,600 as opposed to the fiber option of $8,500. Whichever method you choose, make sure it is available on both ends—at the meeting venue and the off-site presentation venue. “You can’t have one site fiber and the other satellite, or one transmission standard-definition and one with high-definition,” Roehl says. “It needs to be apples to apples.” In addition to the technology, the on-site venue must be adapted to enable the best viewing for the online audience. “Lighting is the main complaint of online viewers,” says Erica St. Angel, vice president of Sonic Foundry, which provides a hybrid event platform and webcasting through its Mediasite technology. Make sure presenters are adequately lit to transmit to video and the online audience. Perform a test and tape the speaker at rehearsals or tape one of your staff members and see how the picture transmits online. St. Angel says it’s best to put the speaker on a riser so the camera can shoot over the heads of the audience. She suggests using two cameras, one to film the speaker and one to pan the on-site attendees. “This helps to draw in the online viewers and makes them feel as if they are a part of the audience,” St. Angel says. Testing the noise level in the room is also important. If there is a lot of background noise, not only will the on-site audience have difficulty hearing the presentation, but the online community’s ability to hear will be further diminished. Step 8: Have a backup plan. Every good planner knows that you shouldn’t plan an outdoor function without having backup space indoors. The same is true for a virtual event. If the technology goes down and you lose the signal, you need a backup plan. If a presenter is off-site, as in the example of a live case at a hospital, a taped case can be aired in the downtime or the agenda can be shifted to the next live presentation. “We have taped cases on-site and ready to play if needed, and the session moderators are prepped on the taped cases,” Roehl says. “We also have the next session’s live speakers present, so if there is a problem, we can proceed with the live speakers and do the transmission later.” If the signal to the online community goes down, the ability to air an alternative presentation is not possible. Simply wait until the signal is back and notify the online audience that any part of the presentation that was missed will be available online after the conference. Step 9: Ramp up staffing. Just as a live event has staff members assigned to each meeting function, from audiovisual to food and beverage monitoring, so should the virtual component have a dedicated staff member. St. Angel calls this a “virtual concierge” and advises that this person should have no other job but monitoring the online presentation and perhaps the social media responses. That way, if the transmission signal or audio is lost, the virtual concierge can immediately call tech support to get the problem fixed. This person can also give updates to the online audience if there is a delay in the agenda. If a speaker is 15 minutes late in starting a presentation, for example, the online audience might think the technology is down. The concierge can send messages to the audience via chat or social media sites and get in front of the camera to inform the audience of the delay. Step 10: Determine virtual fees. If you charge a fee for your conference, determine how the online presentations will be priced compared to in-person attendance. Novak says AIA did not charge a fee for virtual attendance for the 2009 convention. More than 17,000 online viewers attended sessions over three days (22,500 people on-site). In 2010, they charged the virtual audience a fee of $165 for 36 sessions viewed real-time and also available on demand post-event. The online viewership went down to 3,000 people. “Market the virtual component separately so it doesn’t get lost in the on-site fee package,” Novak says. In 2011, AIA taped the sessions, but did not stream them to an online audience. Instead they made the presentations available post-conference and on demand, charging $29 per CEU credit. Don’t forget to communicate the link to access the presentations over and over again. St. Angel says the virtual attendee should receive the link when registering for the conference, then a reminder at least a month before the meeting and again a week prior. The link should take attendees to the organization’s website or event website for added promotion of the brand. Step 11: Follow up. Just as you would survey your on-site audience for feedback on the meeting’s success, so should you survey the online audience. Generally the same questions can be asked of both audiences. It would be helpful to add questions to the virtual audience’s survey asking them how easy the site was to access, if they had any problems with the signal, etc. Be sure to ask them if they plan to attend the conference next year, on-site or online. It’s also beneficial to track how many times the presentations were accessed post-event.