Call them omnichannel, multichannel, hybrid or all of the above, but the bottom line is that events that cater to both in-person and remote audiences could be the norm for the foreseeable future. A number of surveys reveal that most meeting professionals intend to incorporate digital elements into their future events.
The Professional Convention Management Association just wrapped up its first omnichannel event, hosting its Convening Leaders annual meeting mostly online, with a few hundred people gathered at a hub in Singapore and smaller groups meeting at several locations in the United States, among them Caesars Forum in Las Vegas and the Gaylord Rockies in Aurora, Colo., as well as in Oklahoma City, and Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beaches in Florida. Hybrid events were a major topic of discussion — in session content as well as the informal "Conversation Starter" online meet-ups.
"The future of events is omnichannel — period," PCMA president and CEO Sherrif Karamat told M&C Asia editor Lauren Arena after Convening Leaders wrapped up. "Face to face will be alive and well, and Convening Leaders will still be 5,000 people in a face-to-face format, but we will also be putting on an event for 15,000 to 25,000 around the globe. We will have hubs, like in Singapore or Germany, or the U.K. or Latin America. This is just going to be a fact of life."
PCMA elected to make Singapore its broadcast hub for the event, an acknowledgment that the Asia-Pacific region was farther along than most in the pandemic-recovery process. The organization also encouraged members around the world to gather in small regional hubs, but the ever-changing restrictions on international gatherings ended up limiting that ambitious plan: The European hubs were ultimately nixed due to soaring infection rates and new lockdowns, and there were fewer North American gatherings than planned.
Still, Convening Leaders drew its largest global audience ever, with more than 3,500 people tuning in to the virtual program during peak periods, representing more than 46 countries across five continents. About 300 people attended the Singapore event in person, including Northstar Meetings Group's executive vice president and group publisher David Blansfield.
Becoming Multichannel Masters
As a case study, Convening Leaders shows how organizations must define their priorities, which will inform the decisions on how to weave together various channels of communication and content. Groups also must differentiate a basic single-venue hybrid event — where content is broadcast from one location with some in-person attendees — from a true multichannel one marrying a variety of locations worldwide with an online audience.
"We were truly in multichannel mode in creating this experience and the engagement," said Tonya Almond, CMP, PCMA's vice president of knowledge and experience design. "With the content that was created and the speakers we had, there was a lot more diversity — the audience was getting the perspective from what was happening in Europe, what was happening in Asia Pacific and other parts of the world, outside of just North America, where we've always had a larger audience and therefore have drawn from more speakers."
This involved fusing a variety of channels and geographical locations. "Our global emcee was headquartered in Melbourne [Australia], in a studio," noted Almond. "We had another local emcee in Singapore. We had the broadcast center in Singapore, where that material was being delivered live to an in-person audience. Some of that content was created just for the Marina Bay Sands audience and it hasn't been offered on-demand; everything was created with a specific audience in mind, but now we can go back and say, 'let's make that one available for general on-demand.'"
Crafting different strategies and content for the various audiences formed the framework for PCMA's omnichannel approach. "So it was a combination of having little pockets of the face-to-face, giving everybody a glimpse of what that looks like, along with trying to build that engaging experience for the digital audience and maybe even create a little of that FOMO when watching the Singapore broadcast," Almond explained.
PCMA had made a conscious, digital-first decision for the overall content, always keeping the needs of the remote audience front and center. So for many of the Singapore sessions and some others that were co-created with partners who hosted small in-person groups, the initial session broadcast was followed by a live, remote-audience Q&A for about 10 minutes.
As for the possibility of allowing those in-person and remote audiences to interact, PCMA had to make some difficult production decisions — and ultimately elected not to create engagement between those distinct audiences. "Partly it was because we had so many other moving parts," Almond explained. "For a 10-minute Q&A, if we were to take questions from both the virtual and in-person audiences, we would need to have somebody moderating on the ground in both places. And then be able to take questions from both audiences."
And while cameras were capturing the in-person event audiences, that footage was used for a highlight reel that played as the event closed — not to give all attendees a moment-to-moment sense of what it looked like in the room where the sessions played out.
What Should We Expect from Omnichannel?
During Convening Leaders, it became clear that a lot of people weren't sure just what kind of engagement an omnichannel event should promise.
"Can someone here tell me exactly what a hybrid event is?" asked John Horchner, founder of site-selection and software RFP platform Travmar and MeetingSource.com, in one of the Conversation Starter meet-ups about the future of meetings. "I haven't really interacted with people who are gathered somewhere, or 'touched' anyone."
This was a frequent topic of conversation among attendees, who wondered how to distinguish an omnichannel meeting from a virtual one — from the perspective of the remote audience. What do you need for an event to be truly hybrid — and successful — in the eyes of all attendees? We can see the potential, Horchner explained in a follow-up conversation, but in most cases we're not really experiencing it yet.
"With some work, show organizers will find ways to bring people and experiences together with a sense of place, improving both the virtual and the event itself," he said.
During the same meet-up, Steve Donlin agreed. "We're always talking about this buzzword of 'engagement,' but maybe we should be talking more about 'interaction,'" he said. "We should be looking for ways to increase the sense that audiences are interacting." Donlin, a regional sales director with Encore, an event-experience and production company, suggested that even something like showing the in-person audience during a live session would have helped to create that sense of place.
To be fair, an audience of event professionals who have been unable to travel and connect is going to be particularly tuned in to that need to feel a sense of place. Accomplishing that remains a major challenge — even for those who did meet in person.
Northstar's Blansfield attended Convening Leaders broadcast hub in-person, traveling to Singapore. While he was thrilled to get out and gave PCMA high marks for the ambitious program, he recognized the challenges inherent in providing attendees with a true sense of connection. Current gathering restrictions dictated that the in-person audience was divided into zones of 50 people, with attendees unable to interact with anyone outside their zones.
They also were isolated from the remote audience. "The Singapore in-person gathering wasn’t really integrated into the larger event," said Blansfield. "It was its own bubble, from my perspective. The main emcee kept referring to a chat function for connecting with other attendees from around the world, but no instructions were given for using that and no attendee commentary was featured in the program at all — no tweet boards or running commentary screens, for example."
No doubt time zones would have factored into this decision; still, the remote attendees participating from the Asia Pacific, and some from Europe, could have interacted more with the Singapore audience.
Defining Omnichannel and Managing Expectations
Much of the content presented at Convening Leaders — and really, the longstanding ethos of the show — encourages event professionals to assess how emerging or evolving formats are being presented and to develop best practices collectively. But it's becoming increasingly clear just how much variance there can be in the definition of "omnichannel."
"Hybrid in definition could just be a stream from a live event, right?" asked Michael O'Brien, business development vice president with event-experience giant Freeman, and a participant in a Convening Leaders Conversation Starter about hybrid events. "Any client who wants to do a hybrid event, we need to ask, 'What does that mean to you? What do you want to accomplish?' I think that in the industry as a whole, we're struggling to define what those ideal content strategies are for the respective platforms."
Managing audience expectations is as important as defining the terms. The experience of a hybrid meeting, and the perception of the event, is going to be very different for the in-person attendee, the remote attendee and the organizer. As omnichannel events evolve, each organizer must understand the needs of each sector of their audience, decide where to focus engagement efforts, and then communicate clearly to the various participants what they should expect. In the future, bringing together remote and in-person audiences for collaboration and engagement might be considered essential. Meanwhile, as we work out the complexities of these new formats, a virutal audience that isn’t expecting a defined sense of place is less likely to miss it.