Hybrid vs. Virtual Events: The Biggest Differences

by Oct 22, 2021Hybrid Events

Virtual vs. Hybrid Events: The Biggest Differences

Virtual events became the norm during the worst of the pandemic. Now hybrid events are on the rise. What are the differences between hybrid and virtual events?

Many events went all-virtual in 2020 if they weren’t cancelled outright. In 2021 there have still been plenty of virtual events happening, but now there are hybrid events where some participants attend in-person while others attend remotely. But is that the only thing separating these two types of events? Far from it. By understanding the differences between hybrid and virtual events, it will also become clear how much event design and planning needs to go into a successful hybrid event.

What Exactly is a Hybrid Event?

A blend of in-person and virtual participation is what makes a hybrid event. Note that operative word here is participation. If an in-person event is live-streamed and can only be passively watched by remote viewers, then it’s not a true hybrid event. The additional qualification for a hybrid event is that the people attending remotely can engage and participate in the event as much as the in-person attendees. 

Virtual Events in 2020: A Forced March with a Silver Lining

The abrupt switch to virtual events in 2020 wasn’t a choice. Events went virtual because they had to in response to a worldwide public health emergency. There was also an interesting and unexpected silver lining with many of those virtual events. In many cases, attendance skyrocketed, they allowed for a more diverse selection of presenters and content, there were robust digital advertising opportunities for sponsors, and a treasure-trove of data about participants was generated.

Now that in-person events are beginning to come back, there is reluctance to let go of what was surprisingly good about virtual events. Why not get the best of both worlds with a hybrid event combining in-person and virtual participation?

Bridging the Gap Between In-Person and Remote Participation

An all-virtual event doesn’t have to worry about in-person attendees and everything that goes into a running an even in a physical venue. A hybrid event, on the other hand, needs to be crafted to not only handle all the in-person participants, but also integrate all the remote attendees in a meaningful way. It’s one thing to add a virtual setup for the main auditorium’s keynote presentations, but if an event includes simultaneous program tracks all taking place in different rooms of the event venue at the same time, then layering in virtual capabilities for remote attendees to participate must be added to each room used. First attempts often reveal a large gap between the experience of in-person attendees compared to remote attendees. The goal of hybrid event design and planning is to close that gap as much as possible and allow full participation of all attendees, whether remote or in-person.

Are Successful Hybrid Events a Myth?

Bridging the gap between the in-person and remote attendee experience turns out to be quite difficult. In fact, there are some who argue hybrid events are doomed to fail, both in terms of budget and participant experience.

These naysayers are convinced it just doesn’t make sense to force the two kinds of events into one if it leaves both types of participants with an unsatisfying experience. It’s worth noting, however, that hybrid events are still in the early stages of development. Given the technologies and tools available today, it’s simply wrong to assume hybrid events are unable to achieve anything close to parity for in-person and remote attendee experience.

Extending Your Audience with a Hybrid Event

With an in-person event, it must necessarily happen in one physical location. There will inevitably be any number of people who want to attend but can’t, whether because of travel affordability, obligations at home or work, and so on. A hybrid event solves this problem by opening up participation to a much wider audience.

When The Atlantic made its annual festival all-virtual in 2020, they saw a thirteen-fold increase in attendance to an eye-popping 40,000 people. Of course, it also helped that it was free to attend. For 2021, they’re sticking with a virtual event but expanding it from four days to seven, and while still making it free, registration is required for the full experience. There is a powerful rationale for hybrid events because of their potential for making events far more inclusive and diverse, thereby enriching the experience for everyone involved. 

What’s the Budget Impact of a Hybrid Event?

The kind of robust technological setup needed to create satisfying virtual participation in an in-person event can be substantial. But think about the previous point of growing the attendee list many times over. There is no way it be done easily or affordably in a physical venue. By contrast, once you have the virtual pieces of the hybrid event puzzle in place, the marginal cost of growing the virtual audience is negligible. The impact, however, of an exponential increase thanks to virtual attendance is huge in terms of brand awareness, website traffic, and sponsorships. Putting a value on those benefits puts the cost of hybrid events in perspective. In fact, it should be clear a hybrid event has the potential to achieve a better event ROI (return on investment) than either a standalone in-person event or a standalone all-virtual event. 

Is the Future of Events Hybrid?

The way the world turned upside down during 2020 in what felt like the blink of an eye forced the cancellation of many events. In other cases, many events were able to pivot and become virtual events. Those virtual events revealed strong advantages around expanding attendance, inclusion, and diversity.

With or without a global pandemic, the future of events will undoubtedly include hybrid events for many good reasons. Is there work to be done in event design and planning to close the experience gap between in-person and virtual attendees? The answer, of course, is yes. Is there any reason to think it can’t be accomplished? No. When done well, hybrid events can and should allow an event to have the best of both worlds.

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