Will 2018 be the year that virtual and hybrid meetings really take off? There’s evidence that meeting planners are gearing up to take advantage of the creativity and flexibility that technology affords.

It’s not as easy, however, as setting up a livestream or Skype session. Care and nuance should go into developing a successful event using digital tools.

Nearly a third of respondents in most global regions predict that virtual or hybrid technology will be used in more than 10 percent of their meetings in 2018, according to the American Express Global Meetings and Events Forecast; in North America, the number is 28 percent.

Leaders across the world agree that bringing people together virtually may be helpful for smaller meetings or to complement a live face-to-face meeting, but virtual meetings will not replace gatherings in real life, or IRL.

“Virtual and hybrid meetings are propelling exponentially,” said Debi Scholar, virtual meeting expert and strategic meeting management coach. “If you ask almost any company, their town halls are almost all global, spanning across many countries. Even small team meetings, such as project team meetings, training sessions, and investor relations meetings, all are going either 100 percent virtual or hybrid today.”

In fact, Scholar noted that meeting planners are getting their Digital Event Strategist designation in record numbers, and the knowledge has expanded into corporations, associations, and philanthropic organizations. Still, she said some industries – technology, professional services, and pharmaceuticals – are using virtual and hybrid options faster than others. The success of hybrid meetings, which combine in-person and online elements, is in fact leading to an increased number of virtual meetings.

“Some companies are finding that conference rooms are going unused because people are staying at their desk and joining their team meetings via a collaboration tool such as Webex or Skype more frequently than just a couple of years ago,” said Scholar.

The problem with this, according to Sourabh Kothari, advisor to the Digital Experience Institute of the Professional Convention Management Association, is that those sitting at their desks are not a captive audience, and can be easily distracted.

“Your computer screen is 3 percent of your peripheral vision,” said Kothari. “When you are at an event, the size of the stage is much more than that. There are 30 times more things for you to see than the screen when you are just attending virtually; that’s why audiences are so fickle. It’s not just online competition; they have IRL competition as well.”

While Kothari, who was previously senior manager in Rich Media Marketing for Cisco, advocates fewer, larger live events, he cautions against replacing them with slapped-together virtual or hybrid events. He said there are numerous components to consider when planning virtual or hybrid events. His mantra is: better speakers, shorter sessions.

“Your online experience needs to match your brand experience. If you are a big brand or you’re a leader in a market you can’t be putting on virtual or hybrid events where attendees are chatting with five people. It’s very detrimental to your brand,” said Kothari. “In a webinar everything is focused on the presenter. You don’t know how many people are on and you don’t care. A virtual event is different. The whole point is interactivity and the benefits of an engaged online community.”

Another advantage to a hybrid meeting is the ability to pre-record content, such as additional presentations, and then stream it during lunch and other breaks in the on-site meeting. When done correctly, hybrid meetings can convert attendees to the next live event.

Going Virtual

“People don’t understand that in virtual events, audiences are far more unforgiving than with live, because they can bail anytime,” said Kothari. “It’s easier to click a mouse than get up and walk away.”

For 2018, Kothari said he hopes the trend of shorter sessions continues, and that planners will include more interactivity – even polling attendees and asking questions – during meetings. Lastly, he reminded planners to assume that audiences are participating via mobile.

“That’s the only way you can guarantee that someone will stay with you all day,” said Kothari. “There’s no way, even if you are Google, to get people in their seats staring at a desktop screen for eight hours straight. Design your event to be watched on a phone screen; not an app, we’re all app exhausted. Nobody’s downloading your app; it has to be native browser. You’ve got to test and actually see what the mobile experience is like because that’s how it’s going to be for your attendees.”

Whether live, hybrid, or virtual, organizers need to remember that attendees are there to connect. While technology can be a great benefit to any meeting experience, it should never be the focal point, warns Scholar.

“There was one technology that was a 3D immersive technology that I used,” said Scholar, “and we were all so focused on the technology (because it was buggy and not working correctly) that most of us forgot why we were meeting.”

Photo Credit: TEDFest was a simulcast experience around the livestream of TED2017, “The Future You,” in Brooklyn last year. Dian Lofton / TED / Flickr