Creating the WiT Experience Singapore 2021 Hybrid Event

How to execute a global hybrid conference amid ever-changing rules and restrictions

WiT Experience Singapore 2021 Panels
WiT founder Yeoh Siew Hoon interviews remote presenters for the recent hybrid event in Singapore. Photo Credit: WiT

I recall once having to host a conference in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, and when we arrived at the venue – which was a government’s meeting hall – we realized there was no projector screen to be found.

We were apparently the first industry conference to be held at the venue – this was circa 2000 – and were pretty much left to our own devices to figure it out. So we borrowed white bed sheets from the hotel at which we were staying, and we spent a good couple of hours ironing the sheets, stretching them out and fitting them into some sort of frame so they could serve as a makeshift screen.

The event went very well – we did not burn a hole in the sheets – and the Laotian government was appreciative of our efforts to showcase their ancient capital as a meetings destination.

Twenty years on, I found myself at our recent Wit Experience Singapore 2021 — in the Grand Sands Ballroom, the largest of the meeting spaces at Marina Bay Sands, where bed sheets had been replaced by giant, drop-down LED panels used to display our remote presenters.

At first sight, those panels looked a little terrifying; but when deployed effectively and timed well, they make a dramatic statement in bridging the physical and virtual worlds, by allowing remote speakers to literally “hang out” next to their physical counterparts.

In addition to those giant panels, the ballroom is encircled with screens. When you walk into the room — which, at 82,581 square feet is Southeast Asia's largest ballroom — the full effect is immediately noticeable. In addition to the super massive LED wall on the main stage, there are six other screens that event organizers can experiment with. 

Grand Sands Ballroom Screens
The perimeter of the Grand Sands Ballroom is replete with large LED screens. Photo Credit: WiT

In normal times, that’s what organizing events is like – venues are physical spaces for event producers, designers and organizers to play with and to fill with the content they create for the community they wish to bring together.

The screens are the canvas on which to paint and create your vision of the experience you want to create for your customers. They can be as rudimentary as our bed sheets in Luang Prabang or as sophisticated as the high-tech panels in Marina Bay Sands; it’s what you do with them that matters.

In our new hybrid-event era, screens take many forms and our canvas has been expanded almost to infinity. The physical space now extends into the virtual, and that world knows no limitations – other than bandwidth or budget, of course.

It is both a frightening and liberating thought. The key is how you balance the fear and freedom, to create a unified experience for your customers. That was how we approached organizing this year's WiT Experience Singapore, which took place October 19-20. 

Evolution of the WiT Conference

The WiT Conference is a travel technology meeting that we have held in Singapore every October since 2005; in 2019, before the pandemic, we hosted close to 600 participants at the (smaller) Heliconia Ballroom at Marina Bay Sands. About 70 percent of the attendees came from outside Singapore.

In October 2020, the first year of the pandemic, we were the first travel conference to hold a hybrid event, which capped out at 50 local delegates, at the Marina Bay Sands Hybrid Broadcast Studio. We kept it fairly simple that time, with seven hours of programming and a blend of in-person and remote speakers. We linked the virtual and physical experience through the Gevme platform.

This year, we knew we had to dial it up; but we didn’t know if we would actually be allowed to get back into full physical mode. In July 2021, we could see the U.S. and Europe returning to full physical events and yet we in Asia remained stuck in the war against Covid, with almost every country facing restrictions on movements and gatherings, as well as cross-border travel.

So we kept our plans modest. We planned for a physical audience of no more than 250 – it seemed the right number to pluck out of the air, given that no international delegates would be able to attend and we would have to rely on local industry support. And we planned a virtual footprint, which had become our default for the last 20 months.

Wanting to Get Physical

In March 2020, we had to unlearn everything we knew about physical events and learn everything about virtual, and now, for October 2021, we had to relearn physical but with a twist: We had to run physical alongside virtual at a time when we desperately wanted to return to full programming mode, rather than with bite-sized, made-for-virtual content. We wanted it to feel like a full conference experience, and not like a series of webinars.

Prepandemic, the WiT Conference was a three-day affair. We reduced it to two days – but still it was full on, two full days of programming – 18 hours of content, more than 70 speakers (half virtual, half physical) and more than 900 autocues for the production team.

Nate Blecharzyk, cofounder of Airbnb, in conversation with Yeoh Siew Hoon.
Nate Blecharzyk, cofounder of Airbnb, in conversation with Yeoh Siew Hoon. Photo Credit: WiT

That’s a lot of content for virtual, but we decided we needed to make the physical gathering count. After all, it’d been 20 months since the travel industry in Asia Pacific had come together as one force; so much had happened that we needed to cover as much ground as we could. And for the physical delegates in Singapore, it’d be the first time they would be able to gather with industry friends since the pandemic struck.

Sometime in September, we were given the green light that we would be placed under the Singapore Tourism Board pilot scheme – which meant we could go ahead and plan the physical component of the event.

We had two new spaces to play with – the Sands Grand Ballroom, the biggest space for the smallest audience we’ve ever had, and Marina Bay Sands’ new Virtual Meeting Place, launched five days before our event opened.

We faced a multitude of challenges, among them the mandated strict Safety Management Measures in place that would restrict networking. Those traditional lunch and coffee breaks, where the most networking happened, were not possible anymore – delegates had to be seated at tables and could not mingle without masks on.

We knew that we had to make the content sparkle more than usual. When one leg is taken away, you strengthen the other leg. So we threw everything we had into the content.

Hybrid meant we could reach as far and as wide as possible for speakers: CEOs who’d never have found the time to travel to Singapore for a 20-minute conversation were suddenly available to us. We just had to juggle time zones. In the end, we had speakers from close to 20 countries, including top execs from Airbnb, Expedia Group and Certares.

Integrating the Physical and Virtual

Having the new Marina Bay Sands Virtual Meeting Place to play with also meant we could now create a unified experience. The new platform uses the resort's iconic architecture as the visual interface, and the 3D look makes you feel like you’re actually at the venue. With four days to move in, our team and Gevme's worked speedily to upload content and assets. The platform allows full customization so it’s up to you to decide what you want to place where.

To balance physical and virtual, we triggered polls on the Virtual Meeting Place, which both physical and virtual delegates could take part in. For questions, we actively encouraged our audience to use a WhatsApp number to query the in-person speakers.

The idea behind the Virtual Meeting Place is interesting. For organizers holding their events physically at Marina Bay Sands, it means they can create a unified experience as we did, so that physical and virtual audiences can share a similar sense of place. The Virtual Meeting Place can also become a “forever” home for event organizers to house their content and have year-long engagement with their customers. Think of it as a digital, living library with a marketplace.

Marina Bay Sands Virtual Meeting Place
The Marina Bay Sands Virtual Meeting Place Photo Credit: WiT

"We realized that it is entirely possible to have speakers present physically as well as speakers joining remotely on the same panel," said Gevme CEO Veemal Gungadin following the event. "It still feels very natural for the speakers and it remains highly engaging for the audience. This will have significant implications in terms of the diversity of voices that we’ll get to hear from for future events."

Agility, ingenuity and creativity have always mattered in the events world. That means being able to turn bed sheets into projector screens if you have to — or running hybrid events with a series of valued partners if the situation calls for it.