I’ve had the chance to be involved with many types of virtual, live, and hybrid meetings and events. Leveraging my first-hand experience in participating as well as leading events as a committee member or chair for a variety of organizations such as cybersecurity, privacy, IoT and inside sales, I’ve developed a list of best practices for running hybrid meetings and events from 2 to 75 people. For this type of event, participation or collaboration is key. Running a conference with dedicated speakers broadcasting to a large audience is a different format and we’ll cover that separately.
First, let’s define the difference between a hybrid meeting and a virtual or online one. For an all-virtual online meeting, all of the presenters and attendees are remote, logged in via an online meeting platform.
In a hybrid meeting, a portion of the speakers and attendees are live in-person together in a room and another portion participate remotely online. Preferably for a hybrid meeting, the speakers and panelists would all EITHER be remote or live in-person. Someone should be designated the live room host so they can greet the in-person attendees and help with the in-room technology. Hybrid events are popular since they offer many of the benefits of all virtual meetings for speakers and attendee flexibility that we’ll discuss below. However, from my experience, despite the flexibility and these benefits, hybrid events are the most challenging to execute to a high quality standard.
Popular Online and Hybrid Meeting Platforms
First, let’s talk about the growing number of online meeting platforms available.
Just a few years ago, there were fairly limited options for hosting online meetings, with the old standards being WebEx, GoToMeeting, or Google Hangouts. More recently we’ve seen the growing popularity of newer online meeting platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, BlueJeans, Ring Central and others. As new tools come on the market, the variety of useful meeting tools has grown as well. In particular, newer tools offer breakout rooms which can be very helpful for hosting small breakout or working groups in larger meetings.
Planning Meetings for Associations and Community Organizations
While a lot of these rules can apply to corporate meetings, the dynamics of meetings where your members vote with their feet is what we’ll focus on here. Quality meetings make attendees want to show up. Many of these tips can be used for corporate meetings as well. However, when your members are showing up voluntarily then you want to be sure your meetings are delivering engaging, high-quality content so they keep returning for more.
I was a chapter chair for both the IAPP San Diego KnowledgeNet as well as the San Diego Chapter of the AA-ISP both before and during the pandemic. This gives me a useful comparison between live in person meetings and one hundred percent virtual ones. The audience personas of privacy professionals and inside sales professionals were quite different but the rules for planning and executing live meetings were the same.
Scheduling – When scheduling recurring meetings, consistency is key. Keeping to a regular cadence, once every one or two months, and sticking to the same day of the week and time is helpful for the audience to keep that spot open on the calendar. I recommend that committee members and chapter leaders meet at the beginning of the year and plan out the calendar for all 12 months so they can publish topics ahead of time. This also gives you plenty of time to find guest speakers and panelists for each topic.
Moderator / Host – Assign someone from the group as the moderator or host of the event. The responsibilities of the moderator / host are similar to a party host; keep all the guests engaged and make sure they have a good time. I don’t mean you have to be telling jokes. As MC you make the introductions, manage the chat or Q&A and keep things running on time. Whether they are live or virtual, participants have schedules they need adhere to. The moderator for a panel can be a guest but they must be an experienced moderator who knows how to keep the conversation between panelists moving and ensure that all of them get a chance to participate. For panels, the ideal size is 3 or 4 panelists. Invite 5 because invariably someone will drop out (travel, illness, work conflicts…) and then you’ll still have enough for a strong panel.
Preparation – I can’t stress this one enough. Every event, particularly panels MUST have a rehearsal. There are several reasons for this. One is to familiarize the participants / speakers with the technology and do a sound check. With so many conference tools out there these days not everyone has used the one you are using. Knowing all microphone and settings and being confident you can hear all the speakers lets you jump right into the main content of the meeting. Second, and this is critical for either live or virtual, it creates a rapport among the panelists. Create a topic thread, assign key questions to each speaker so they can prepare, and also so they can prepare how they want riff off the other panelists. This will create a natural feeling flow and a sense of engagement between the panelists. They don’t have to all agree either. It’s interesting for the audience to get a debate on various sides of a topic going. For online meetings, here’s an important tip: on the day of the meeting, start the meeting 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time and if you are a speaker, join 5 to 10 minutes early.
Handling Q&A – When you do webinars, you can screen questions. Live events or virtual events are a little different since you get the questions directly and you can “see” the asker. In this case, be prepared to handle questions that aren’t questions but soap boxing. You can politely cut in and ask them to please focus on their question. If they have a lot of questions or continue with their own commentary, invite them to come up after the meeting to engage the audience. Be sure to look around the room and pick different attendees from around the room who have questions. For virtual meetings you can open the microphone and ask people for live questions or it might be easier to have them put questions into the Q&A tab or chat and then read a selection of those aloud for the panel to answer. Don’t make panelists find and read for themselves.
Advantages of Virtual Meetings
When all meetings shifted to virtual, some groups were able to move smoothly online if they already had a calendar, speakers and a strong preparation process.
Many of the rules of virtual meetings are the same as live meetings such as planning, length and setup. In fact, from an organizational point of view, there were several benefits of virtual meetings, one being that the virtual nature brought speakers and participants from beyond the local community. We were able to bring speakers and panelists from throughout North America and even host international panels which let us explore different topics, or bring in fresh perspectives. Without the need or expense of travel, speakers and panelists were more open to invitations. Cross chapter participation was another bonus which also increased our audience size. Overall, expenses were less since we didn’t need to secure a room or host food and beverage. Best of all, it was easier for the audience to fit 60 – 90 minutes into their day, even the middle of the day, once they didn’t have to add travel time.
The one area that’s more challenging with virtual meetings is audience participation. That’s where some of the new tools like breakout rooms, polls, and chat can be very useful.
What’s Different About Hybrid Meetings?
Now let’s talk about the more recent idea, hybrid meetings. While it may sound easy to just follow the same guidelines as above, there’s a lot more to this hybrid meeting than just sending everyone a meeting link and hoping for the best. One of the most important elements is selecting a live venue that is equipped and can support the necessary technology to carry this off so that all participants can hear one another and actively participate. This will be your number one goal, looking for a venue with a good setup, preferably with built in screens and audio system.
Equipment Needed for Hybrid Events
Hybrid events are a much different animal since you’ll need some specific equipment in the room to handle the microphone and speaker challenges. In essence, a hybrid meeting is more like a virtual meeting but where some of the participants are sitting together. They’ll still need to be able to login to the same set up as the remote participants.
Most important, you’ll need to find a venue to share slides, speakers, and microphones for an in-person speaker. If you have audience participation, you’ll either need several table speaker phones, or hand held microphones that can be passed around. Panelists and speakers should either have lavalier mic’s or handheld so they can all be heard clearly. This is critical. One of the most frustrating things about a hybrid meeting is not being able to hear well.
Next, look into some specialized engagement and collaboration tools. We already mentioned that several meeting platforms have breakout room features and those can be very helpful for small working groups.
One of the tools we used in our CompTIA IoT Advisory Council is GroupMap. GroupMap is a real-time online brainstorming tool. If you’d ever used sticky notes for a brainstorming or mind-mapping session, this makes that even easier since everyone can login to their own “space”, add ideas, then vote or prioritize. GroupMap offers a number of different templates that make meetings a lot more efficient.
Hybrid Meetings: Yay or Nay?
As you might have guessed at this point, I am not a big proponent of hybrid meetings. I’ve been part of several now and it felt like none of those were as energizing or productive for all involved as the previous either live or virtual events. Face it, a live in-person meeting with an interesting group of people is best. And virtual meetings offered their own benefits that included expansion outside of the group. To be successful, the host and moderators should be in-person and the set up has to be perfect so the venue needs to be really well vetted to ensure that the live folks can login, hear, and be heard, but avoiding echoing or audio feedback. There needs to be a fairly equal number of remote and in-person participants. If just a handful show up live, it won’t feel as energetic as a regular meeting. It might be ok if the balance is the other way, that most are in-person, but that can leave the remote people feeling unheard or left out if they have to try and break into a group who is having a lively conversation. This is where the moderator or host can help bring everyone into the conversation.