The Many Flavors of Hybrid: Creating the Perfect Event Portfolio

It feels like you can’t have a conversation about events today without “hybrid” being brought up.  But what does hybrid mean tactically for planners, and how do we sustain virtual and hybrid event programs that engage attendees and cut through the noise? | Originally aired on September 30, 2021


Rather read a transcript of the session?


Key takeaways.


Determine the best event model for your audience.

There is no one-size-fits-all hybrid event model. Review data, poll your audience, figure out what works best for your key stakeholders and optimize for their experience. 




Optimize the journey for both the in-person and virtual audiences.

Whether this is hiring a professional Emcee or utilizing a live-desk feed, make sure both audiences feel engaged and educated, online or in-person. 


Develop an event program strategy that's integrated and omnichannel.  

Build an omnichannel marketing strategy to make sure your attendees' journey continues after the event is over.


Embarking on your hybrid strategy, make sure you get a professional emcee that is comfortable mitigating between the virtual and physical world.


Episode Transcript

Samir Mehta: Welcome, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. My name is Samir Mehta, and I will be your host for today's Coffee Break, The Many Flavors of Hybrid: Creating the Perfect Event Portfolio. It feels like you can't have a conversation about events today without hybrid being brought up. It's top of mind for lots of event marketers as we look to the future of the industry. But let's be honest, what does hybrid really mean? If you were to ask 10 people, you'd probably get 10 different answers. That's a question that we're hoping to help answer today with an awesome panel of featured guest speakers.

Samir Mehta: I have Tammy Ball, Director of Marketing Events at Teladoc Health. She's somebody Iron Horse has worked with in the past and in the present to help produce virtual and hybrid events. We're excited to get her take on hybrid events for their future 2022 roadmap. Our second guest is Devin Cleary, Vice President of Global Events at Bizzabo. We've had the fortune to work with Bizzabo as well, and it's awesome to have Devin on our Coffee Break today because he's not only going to be able to tell us what Bizzabo is doing, but also how Bizzabo's customers are thinking about hybrid events. So, welcome to both of you. Super excited to have you. Give a little wave to everybody that's out there.

Samir Mehta: Well, let's get started here. Tammy, we've worked with you for the last couple of years, and you've been through the roller coaster of having to respond and react to the entire industry going from in-person to virtual because of the pandemic. And then most recently, you've had the opportunity to actually plan and execute a hybrid event this past July for Forum 2021. We'd love to really get a sense of what were some of the challenges that you and your team faced in thinking through that hybrid event in July. Now that you've been through it, you've had time to think about it, what are some of the learnings that you could share with the audience today?

Tammy Ball: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It's an honor to be here. Devin, I'm so glad that you're able to be on this panel with me as well as Bizzabo was the platform that we’ve been using. And so, it's fun to be on this panel with you. As Samir has mentioned, we've been working with Iron Horse for some time now on a number of large digital virtual events. You're right. I mean, it's been quite the evolution of what we've done, thinking from the first event that we've done with you up until just this most recent July. When we did this hybrid, it was kind of like baby steps into the hybrid space, I would say. Most of it was a virtual event, and then we decided that we wanted to have some in-person receptions. That, of course, posed some challenges and risks, because really at the end of the day, we just didn't know how many people would be comfortable enough to attend something in person.

Tammy Ball: So being able to find that right mix of an in-person event; what cities did we want to do those in and how often, versus how many content thought leadership sessions were we going to have online, and trying to balance those two out, I would say, were there the biggest challenges that we had. It was a gamble [hosting in-person receptions] and there were a lot of guesses involved, but they did end up being quite successful in all of them. Going forward, I think there were some great key learnings from them. Being able to involve our commercial team earlier on, I think would've been a wise decision, such that they could bring in more of their clients. Maybe getting those in-person events filled up a little bit more than they were, I think was probably one of our biggest key learnings.

Samir Mehta: Thank you for sharing. Well, let’s go to Devin and then I have some questions for both of you. Devin, thanks for joining Coffee Break today. Like I mentioned earlier, super excited to hear Bizzabo's perspective. You guys obviously have this unique vantage point of not only planning your own events, your own hybrid events, but also seeing how your numerous customers are thinking through this in real time. I think it would be fantastic if you could maybe take a moment to talk to us a little bit about how you and your team are thinking through hybrid. I know there are many different flavors out there, so perhaps you can help us demystify maybe not the 31 flavors of hybrid, but perhaps the three or four that are out there.

Devin Cleary: I'd be happy to. Again, Samir, thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to join today. Again, Tammy, it's great to tag team this panel together. So hello, all of you event profs out there. We're so grateful that you're joining us today and taking the time to get to know us a little bit better. So when we think about hybrid, my first statement, and it's kind of a craft statement, but to me, it really is that buzzword. I'm so excited for the day that we just go back to calling them events, regardless of what's in front of that. I would also just say that hybrid, to me, and I think even representing Bizzabo, this is a way to really conceptualize and frame a strategy or a format, maybe, not even a strategy, but more of a format.

Devin Cleary: So, I really would ask every single person listening today to really start off when you're thinking about the exploration and the ideation of your event program, what are the goals that you have or the type of experience you are hoping to create for your major stakeholders? Whether that is attendees, whether those are presenters, whether those are sponsors, and all of them play an integral role and need prioritization. So first, think about that before we just dive in and say, "We're automatically going to default to hybrid," because not every program based on size and the intended outcomes you're hoping to drive require that.

Devin Cleary: Again, I'm not anti-hybrid by any means. I'm just saying, as I think a lot of us are jumping the gun versus doing a lot of the internal work with our organization. And do you have the insights to understand what these different stakeholders need to really feel fulfilled, and want to give you their time and attention? Time is the most expensive commodity right now. So, you really need to make sure that you're personalizing and curating the best experiences if you're going to be successful.

Devin Cleary: Now, going to the actual question, though, in terms of hybrid, there's really four models that we have developed at Bizzabo, and these are the ones that we employ and consult with our customers on a regular basis. It's just to make sure, again, we're creating a framework so that people can really understand what are those flavors available to them that they can pull out and really leverage for themselves. So I'll give a high level glimpse of what those. I'm going to just give you the preview of each of those four and spend a couple seconds on each. So, number one, it is the two simultaneous events, and that is where you're really seeing, and it's the most common model, it's where you're going to be seeing that simultaneous networking and also content streaming. So it's where the virtual and the physical elements have an equal balance.

Devin Cleary: The pro of that real quick is it really ranks high for accessibility. We all want to make sure that we can continue to reach and go beyond the boundaries of what hybrid has offered us and really speaking to new customers and future customers unlike ever before. And then, also, it maximizes that visibility for your sponsors. But the con is that, again, your planning time, you're going to probably have less time to do that and it's really two events with that one unified experience. So, is that going to be worthwhile? We are so focused right now on mental health, on team burnout. There's so many new expectations and I would say requirements that we're putting on our teams and we really need to be mindful of what the impact is going to look like moving forward.

Devin Cleary: The second model is what I call the delayed model or the delayed event model, and that's where you still have both features, both, again, an in-person and virtual offering, but they're not happening at the same time. And that's where the content is live for the in-person and then you execute more of an on-demand or a delayed style for the virtual piece. The pro of that approach is that your in-person audience gets to rewatch that magic again, because there's a secondary run-of-show for any content that they were not able to consume. A lot of times your in-person audience is going to be that priority, that VIP, your top customers. So you're ensuring they're getting the proper messaging that you're trying to go to market with.

Devin Cleary: Also, organizers can focus 100% of their time for the in-person audience first and not feel that pressure to have to balance simultaneously two programs in one. Now, the con and things that you have to really evaluate is that you're engaging this virtual audience, but you might have a lower adoption or subscription rate. We're all looking at this new metric, ROA or that return on attention. You really have to think if this model is going to play to that strength or it's going to deviate from the outcomes you're hoping to drive from that massive audience online, and you don't want to take away the live event experience, so that's really important to your attendees.

Devin Cleary: The third model is what I call the live studio audience model. Again, still, both features, virtual and in-person, but you're really creating a very personalized broadcast moment in person. Think of this like a TV show or I'm going to a live studio audience. That's really what this model is talking about. This allows you to, once again, reintroduce potentially VIP passes or tickets, especially if you're charging again, which obviously we're going to start to see an influx of that versus the open the flood gates, it's free-for-all value content over the last 12 to 18 months. We're going to create immersive event experiences and really you're encouraging your virtual audience to make that transition and convert to want to be in person. So we're reintroducing again FOMO. How do we create that FOMO, which is so important as part of our strategy? And then the con to that is translating that in-person moment, that in-person experiential piece to the live audience and not making them feel like second-class citizens, which is rule number 101 when we're thinking about virtual.

Devin Cleary: The last model, and then I promise to turn it back over, is the speaker-only model. So you're having multiple speakers flown in and source into one physical location, usually a studio or a very highly designed set. The audience is 100% virtual for this model. The pro to that is you're able to really control the production value. I can't say how many times, and even outside of my work with Bizzabo and other brands I've had the privilege of supporting, everyone has a different PowerPoint deck and they bring things last minute. How do you control the messaging and the look and feel for consistency? Well, this model really helps you do that. And then, again, maybe one of the resulting trends though that I would say, if you do go with this fourth model is we're going to start to see that hub and spoke piece, which we talk about on the slide in front of you.

Devin Cleary: So now, you can actually maybe localize different gatherings of people. So if you have key territories and geographies that you're invested in, think about even going a step further and having viewing parties or getting them together so they can actually respond in real time around the content, but the centralized nucleus is just those presenters in that context. The only con I would say is, again, how do you make sure that you're always on an engagement with that virtual audience? No one, especially after the last two years we've been through, no one just wants to be spoken to, they want to be spoken with. They want to be part of that dialogue and make sure they're really staying interactive. So I apologize for the long-winded description or answer, but that's what I would say in terms of those models that we've seen at Bizzabo.

Samir Mehta: Devin, thank you. That was an awesome summary. We'll go to Tammy real quick and then back to Devin. The framework, and I can't agree more with what Devin said, is having a framework, obviously, you neatly fall into one of those four slots. You may not, you may have elements of each. Tammy, with your audience, as you guys are thinking about Teledoc being in healthcare, being in that arena, sensitivity around COVID, the unknowns that still exist with the pandemic, have you guys thought about what are your top considerations or priorities? Because clearly, I agree, there is virtual event fatigue, Zoom fatigue, however you want to think about it, but also managing the risk that happens with coming in person.

Tammy Ball: Right. Absolutely. This is a huge hot topic right now and trying to figure out that balance of wanting to get back in person, but there's that anxiousness and the little bit of timidness. Being in the healthcare sector, maybe there's some unique requirements as well. There's a lot of extra precautions. We're having to look into vaccine requirements and verifications, and whether or not we want to do testings at in-person events as well and that's adding a whole new layer. So when we talk about rethinking our plans for '22, it really involves so much more than just whether or not we want to do something virtual or a hybrid or in person.

Tammy Ball: It's really how much are we talking about? Which segment are we dealing with? Who would be attending? Is this audience an audience that really would be willing to be in person? Are these physicians that are in hospital settings and aren't wanting to intermingle? Those are questions that we're having to ask as well. So, you're spot on. When you talk about all your four different models, each one, I was writing down different things that hit and resonated with me in terms of planning for '22. I won't necessarily respond on all of them, but maybe a later conversation because you're exactly right in thinking about continuing to make sure that those virtual audiences, they don't feel like second-class citizens.

Samir Mehta: And that was my question for Devin, because that is something that we understand, that we recognize. I think it's incredibly hard to figure, having two audiences and how do you both make them feel special and unique. Part of it is the technology may have not been there two, three years ago to do it. Devin, give some ideas or examples for the audience around how they should be thinking about not falling into that second-class citizen trap, so to speak.

Devin Cleary: So, when you embark on your hybrid strategy, my first tip and very specific recommendation, I feel very strongly about this, is make sure you get a professional emcee that is comfortable mitigating between the virtual and the physical world. The other piece of input I would share is think about your entire program and your run of show, and I want you to really take a step back and identify, are there background opportunities to showcase things behind the scenes? Because as you walk that virtual audience behind how you actually plan the in-person or what's going on around them, that 360 view without actually giving them a webcam to go around real time, that automatically makes them more, again, invested into what's happening and you're going to pique their interests. And that idea of playing with curiosity, that is a major element of the experiential formula that I really believe is the best practice for our industry. So having a host that can guide them through and also do regular check-ins.

Devin Cleary: So for many of you maybe right now, think about even having a live desk component. So if there's actually programming going on in your run of show, if you actually had a secondary channel that was always on and someone commenting on the information that was happening, or you had a central post where people can come in, because the other thing we have to acknowledge is that people are entering and exiting your events at a rapid speed. Not everyone is starting at the time the event kicks off and not everyone is exiting at the time the event concludes. So how do you keep them in the know, constantly educating, providing the instruction? You definitely don't want to take away from your core messaging. So offering those two simultaneous offerings will really amplify, again, the experience, make people feel like you're bringing them along for the journey, because again, the goal for 2022 is not 5,000 people in a room and they're all going through the same experience. It is 5,000 individual journeys that they are each taking and you have created the opportunity for them to navigate and build out that perfect adventure.

Samir Mehta: Awesome tips. I love the 5,000 individual journey metaphor or analogy there.

Tammy Ball: Yeah, me too.

Samir Mehta: I think that is exactly, as we think about it from a marketing standpoint, personalizing that journey and making sure that you understand the needs of the different audiences and obviously of the different folks that are coming, super important. I think that we're all in this crash course for hybrid events in 2022 here. So I know there's going to be lots of learnings. I know Bizzabo, you guys have put up a ton of information on your site about some of the best practices around hybrid events. And so, as a practitioner myself, definitely recommend for folks to go check out that information. Very helpful.

Samir Mehta: I'd like to pivot to a different topic now. This is a little bit of us being prognosticators, future predictors. We've seen the amazing success that virtual has driven. Obviously, organizations have been able to expand the reach of their brands, expand the reach of their events from hundreds to thousands or thousands to hundreds of thousands of people. It's been phenomenal to bring basically larger communities together, where they otherwise couldn't have traveled or couldn't have afforded to attend your event. On the flip side, people are really missing that human connection that can happen at an in-person event. And so, I hypothesize there's a state in which the events industry is going to be fundamentally changed. It's been disrupted because of the pandemic, but there is a home for both types of audiences, even both types of events, or virtual, hybrid and in person, but many people were really reacting and converting their in-person events to virtual. How do you envision an entirely different approach to your event portfolio going forward?

Samir Mehta: For example, some people might say, "I'm going to have a virtual track that happens once a quarter and I'm going to have one large in-person event," or vice versa, however it might be. I imagine that people are starting to realize that if you look at the spectrum from webinar to virtual event, to in-person event, there is this spectrum of how people might approach events differently than they have in the past decade or so. I'm going to ask our moderator to put up a quick poll question to get a sense of what our audience is thinking in terms of their 2022 event portfolio mix and how they might be changing it. But Devin, I'll go to you and just put your prognosticator hat on, your future prediction hat on and talk about how you think the industry is  going to change for so many different entities going forward.

Devin Cleary: I absolutely love this question. It's absolutely a hot button for me and I'm sure Tammy as well. So, when we think about everything that we've been through, our industry has never been more disrupted than post-COVID or pre-COVID or during COVID. So I would definitely confirm for all of you listening today and watching us, please do not do the things you did prior to COVID. What I mean by that, and I'll give you a specific use case, many of us have always incorporated a general session or a keynote of some sort for maybe our flagship programs and we can probably all relate to that. If you bring people back for the first time after 18 months and you put them in a venue in a more traditional venue, like a convention center or a hotel or whatever property you're leveraging to create your experience, I would just warn you that stacking chairs in a normal fashion and having someone come on a physical stage in front of them and speak to them for 45 minutes to an hour without any engagement, that is a live Zoom call. That is not an experience.

Devin Cleary: What I think we need to look at is revitalizing some really key elements of event programs, because not one size fits all. You have to go back to what your audience wants. Stop paying attention to all the headlines, all the research. As much as even Bizzabo is publishing a lot of content, you have to do what's right for your people, ask them what they want, engage with them, survey them, constantly try to tap into what they require to be successful and why, what the value is that they perceive as a result of them engaging with this content or at this event. By the way, you're going to have different types of attendees. You're going to have learners who just want to get education. You're going to have networkers who want to just meet people and expand their own professional portfolio of contacts.

Devin Cleary: So going back though, I think the future is also going to see a rebirth of even field marketing. I think field marketers and traditional event planners, they're going to partner much more significantly together. I also would just challenge everyone to think about our goal. I've worked on multiple marketing organizations. I've led incredible teams in my past. We have to do a better job of partnering with our chief marketing officers and our senior stakeholders. We have got to make sure that these events are embedded into the omnichannel. So many times, and I have been guilty of this, I am admitting this publicly on a global webcast, I have produced events that have never been connected to campaigns and other programs we do as a company. That is a missed opportunity in 2022. You have to make sure this is the crescendo of a major brand play or anything else that you do. So, that's a big piece.

Devin Cleary: And then the final observation or maybe tip or trick is there's this sense of community that has to really be part of your event strategy moving forward, so this always on. As a brand, we never want to stop speaking and building relationships with the customers and the future customers we talk to. So an event is a moment in time, but don't let that just be a moment in time. Make it a moment that matters that then accelerates a relationship, and then figure out other anchoring moments or other anchoring activities that continue people on a journey, a true journey, where you have an attribution model. You're understanding the different phases they're in currently and make sure that you're doubling down on that attendee mapping, so you can work better with your go-to-market team, exactly what Tammy shared at the beginning of this presentation.

Devin Cleary: She is spot on with some of those insights. So, that's what I would say in terms of what are some of the predictions and things that I've seen. And even subscription models starting to emerge to make sure that we can make that transition and cross that chasm from, we paid a lot of money for a conference. We then offered everything for free because we didn't want to lose anyone and we wanted to see them and keep them engaged over the last 18 months. Now, we want to get back to actually a revenue stream as part of our overall operating models.

Samir Mehta: Tammy, so you are living this right now.

Tammy Ball: Yep.

Samir Mehta: I know the team has been evaluating lots of different options. But what discussions or what thoughts has your team had about rethinking how your team and the global marketing team at Teladoc is reenvisioning your event strategy?

Tammy Ball: Yeah, absolutely. I could wrap up easily by saying that, A, I love that you're saying that we're not just rethinking the hybrid model of events, we need to actually rethink the in-person piece of it as well as we start going back in to seeing people again in person, and that we don't want to just fall back into those same patterns that we were doing before COVID. I think that that's a piece that a lot of people will forget or not realize that we don't want to do that. And so, we were keeping that fresh in our minds.

Tammy Ball: Two, it was almost as if you've been in our budgeting and planning meetings, Devin, because we're saying exactly those same things. How do we incorporate our account-based marketing and all those models with events, making sure that events are part of all of these campaigns and that we're using the data that we get from that, and then targeting certain audiences, and that we also have so much content from these events that we can repurpose and perhaps have like a little micro event? We're really looking at the hub and spoke or flagship and derivative models, whatever you want to call it, as ways forward for some of our larger events, like our forum that we host every year. Whether that large event is virtual or in person, we're still discussing, but then having smaller ones that really zoom in on a unique group of people or region, we're feeling that that will help zero in on some of those niche markets.

Devin Cleary: If I could just respond to that real quickly, Samir, sorry, again, plus one on all of that. Also, I would just ask everyone that's watching today to think about how some of us have also been in a holding pattern for these last couple months. We're really trying to figure out what is that next step? What is the right move? Who's going to take the first leap and showcase of the industry or the overall hospitality groups? What is the right methodology or the right model? Again, I would say you need to make sure that your technology, that the ecosystem, your vendors, your partners, everyone is embracing this agile model, where you can still move forward with planning. But then again, depending on conditions or if anything is to change on the positive or on the negative, you can still move forward and just, again, pivot appropriately to whatever median is going to be successful to deliver that messaging, to engage that audience and again, to drive the outcomes that you hope to accomplish.

Tammy Ball: Yeah. And flexibility is key. There is no one answer. We can't give an answer and say, "This is what you need to do for '22," because it's going to be a different answer for everybody.

Devin Cleary: Exactly.

Samir Mehta: So, we are coming up on time here. I wish we could keep on going, such awesome conversation. I took some notes and to help summarize on what we talked about today. I think to build on what Tammy just said is that there is no single answer for organizations out there. To what Devin said, you spend the time doing the research, talking to your audience, talking to your potential attendees, understand and define the outcomes that you would like out of your event. Now, in past times, it might have been just event outcomes, but tying those outcomes to your demand generation strategy, to your sales strategy, to your overall branding strategy will help drive clarity.

Samir Mehta: Yes, it's going to take some more time and it's probably going to require pulling more people into meetings that define this strategy and approach, but it will pay dividends, not just this year, but next year and the following years, because you'll start to establish a framework that aligns marketing with events, events with sales, and you really start to bring the entire organization together around outcomes that are not simply, "Hey, we got 82% attendance," but rather are we driving towards the marketing and sales outcomes as an organization to move the business forward?

Samir Mehta: The other thing that I will note, and there's lots of questions around this and I wish we could answer this, but I think people are really interested in learning about different ways to engage your virtual and physical audiences, tools and technologies. I know that there are a number of services and features that are starting to emerge in some of these platforms. We're happy to share some out later and point people to some resources, but we are at time. I wanted to first thank the audience for participating today. Tammy and Devin, fantastic conversation. Like I said, we may have to do round two at a later time, keep this going. It's good stuff.

Samir Mehta: Thank you, live audience. It's been a pleasure. Everybody have a great weekend.

Tammy Ball: Thank you so much. Take care.

Devin Cleary: Bye, everyone.