The decision to add virtual elements to your live event is a challenging one. The fear factor is often high, and the required change level is seemingly monumental. Sometimes the need for technological knowledge may be intimidating, or it’s a concern about 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.
The first objective of planning a live meeting is to determine your goals. The same is true for a hybrid discussion incorporating 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 and 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? The well-known keynote speaker may have the 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 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 essential 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 exceptional 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 the first industry to broadcast a presentation. Referred to as a “live case,” cameras enter 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, making this education available to the virtual audience is essential. Remember that the more sessions are streaming simultaneously, the higher the costs will be. Each room requires a set of cameras, spraying equipment, and operational staff. However, fees charged to the virtual audience can offset this cost. If the CEUs are mandatory for their jobs or to maintain certification, the cost can be justified, and attendees are willing to invest.
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 worldwide. “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 solid signal to transmit. However, if you are sharing high-definition medical photos, the call will need to be at a greater capacity. The more motion or video the presentation contains, the stronger the signal needs to be, which requires more expensive technology.
Step 5: Guide your speakers
It’s essential to let speakers know that they will be presenting to a live and virtual audience. Give them as much information about the virtual audience as possible, such as the number of people 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, 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 essential to ensure 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 challenging to determine who would attend the presentation virtually versus in person. First, decide if you are reaching a local, regional, national or international audience. Your membership may include 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 solid 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 most 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 need to gain specific technical skills to set up the virtual presentation. Consult with your internal IT person and hire a vendor with a history of successfully streaming presentations domestically and abroad.
If your presenter is off-site, you have a choice of three ways to stream the presentation: via the 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 team 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 branches “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 platform must have fiber not already in use, called “dark fiber.” “Many 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 from 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 of upwards of $2,000. A 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 set 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 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 costs a $3,000 fee, and a downlink truck at the meeting venue costs another $3,000. Satellite space is rented for approximately $600, and similar to a meeting planner’s site visit at a hotel, both platforms need to be “scouted” to ensure the signal works. This incurs a charge of $500 for each scout. The total satellite cost is $7,600 instead of 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. Ensure 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 essential. If there is a lot of background noise, the on-site audience will have difficulty hearing the presentation, and the online community’s ability to attend 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. You need a backup plan if the technology goes down and you lose the signal. If a presenter is off-site, like 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, airing an alternative presentation is impossible. Wait until the password 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. If the transmission signal or audio is lost, the virtual concierge can immediately call tech support to fix the problem. This person can also update the online audience if there is a delay in the agenda. For example, if a speaker is 15 minutes late in starting a presentation, 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 in 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 repeatedly. 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 the added promotion of the brand.
Step 11: Follow up
As you would survey your on-site audience for feedback on the meeting’s success, so should you watch 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 the times the presentations were accessed post-event.