The Three Tiers of Virtual Events
It's mid-2022, and we have now spent more than 2 years dealing with COVID. Working remotely may end up being a permanent thing for many companies that have realized they don’t need to pay for large corporate offices, expensive cubicles, and equipment if people can be just as productive at home. Meanwhile, employees have enjoyed not needing to waste time commuting to work and getting settled in before being productive. Many have also realized additional productivity as they are able to do some home tasks while “at work.”
Despite all this, companies still have a need to gather people to share information. Face-to-face collaboration still works better than Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Industries still need to gather companies at conferences and events to introduce new products, services, showcases, and more. Being hands-on with the press and customers works much better than a video because each reporter has a take that is different from the one corporate view.
Zoom and other conferencing platforms can never replicate face-to-face meetings and conferences, but they’ve improved their feature sets and functionality significantly in the last 2 years.
So, whether it’s a quarterly meeting, an annual marketing show, or an industry event like CES or the International Auto Show, we still need in-person events. But how these events recognize and incorporate remote presenters and remote audiences will have to change from what was done pre-COVID. The future of events is hybrid, although these hybrid events will take different forms, depending on the event size, budget, and nature and complexity of the off-site elements. There are what I call “Three Tiers of Hybrid,” which represent three different ways to bring local and remote presenters and attendees together.
The companies and services mentioned here are based on my working experiences the past 2 years. There is no connection between any company or service mentioned here and me or this article.
The High-Level Hybrid Event
During the last 2 years, I’ve produced completely remote productions with my own tools and cloud-based ones. I’ve taken feeds from and produced shows into various cloud applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and more. I’ve also produced fully hybrid event with on-site production that combined local presenters and a local audience with remote presenters and a remote audience. In these fully hybrid events, anyone participating remotely—whether presenter or attendee—needs to be able to speak into the room with the local audience and presenters. Any audience member needs to be able to stand up and be recognized, either in the local auditorium or by the remote audience, and be seen and heard by all.
In addition, the cloud-based events I have produced have been more than just meetings or seminars; they have been complete virtual events, where the doors to get in aren’t unlocked until 8 a.m. Everyone can come into the virtual space, look around, and mingle with others at tables in the lobby. Instant person-to-person, face-to-face conversations can happen at these tables. It could be two, three, five, or eight people around that table. Everyone is free to move from table to table just like in a real lobby. You’re able to read the “Hello My Name Is” tag on whoever is at the table before you even sit down with them.
These events also have a separate exhibits area where vendors can rent booths. The vendors have their own tables for face-to-face mingling, answering questions, and demonstrating their products. They can have their own scheduled demonstrations and seminars, as well as literature on their products and services that attendees can click on and “take home.” The seminars can be one track or multitrack. Attendees can build their own schedule or sign up for certain sessions in advance—just as they would at a real, in-person event.
This virtual event lacks only the immersive VR that the “metaverse” portends to offer us. It happens on the computer screen and, at its most basic, is a web browser for watching videos and seminars and chatting with others such as on Zoom. There are sidebars for text chat as well as Q&A, polls, and more interactive elements.
It takes a lot of people to manage a fully hybrid event. It requires handling registration and staffing the “ticket booth” for those who registered with a different email than they are trying to use to get in, among other issues. There are backstage personnel operating the cloud platform to start and stop sessions, bring speakers on stage, and even elevate any of the audience onto the stage to speak (and, if necessary, take them off when they’ve said enough).
If there’s local production, there is a need for on-site producers like me who switch between multiple cameras, replace backgrounds, and incorporate videos, stills, slides, and other media into the “broadcast” that goes into the cloud platform either as Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) or as a virtual camera. This detail depends on whether the local presenter would need to stand on stage next to someone who is remote. This is only possible with virtual camera ingest. We use digital voice back channels that tie the local and remote crews together.
We make announcements over the event’s virtual PA system—pop-up alerts that appear on attendees’ screens, such as “Session 101 is starting,” “The exhibit hall is now open,” “Join us in the Arena to mingle with the leadership team at 3,” etc. We have a run of show with separate columns for the local stage, what’s on IMAG locally, what’s being broadcast to the cloud event platform, what announcements get posted to the whole event, what announcements get posted in each session, what gets posted and pinned in the session chat, and more.
If a high-level hybrid event sounds like it takes a lot of people, in that respect, it’s no different from a big, in-person event, which also takes a lot of people—and a lot of organization—to come together properly. But going hybrid adds the wrinkle of combining two events, a cloud event and an in-person event, simultaneously.
Full virtual event platforms like Hopin, which recently acquired StreamYard, offer a wide range of features that include multiple stages, breakout rooms, “PA announcements,” and virtual exhibit halls.
I’ve worked on several of these high-end hybrid events, and they’ve been very successful in reaching audiences that would not have attended the in-person event due to time, cost, location, or other reasons. Moreover, hybrid events can leverage top talent to speak and interact with the audience (through polls, chat, and more) in ways they couldn’t do if they were just onstage in person. Plus, with no travel, hotel, and food costs or other expenses (on top of the speaking fee), the cost of bringing in premium speakers for just an hour is greatly reduced.
So, this is the top tier. It’s the hardest to produce, but also the most immersive for speakers, sponsors, and attendees.
The Mid-Level Hybrid Event
Let’s step back from the “It takes a village” approach. Take away the lobby. Take away the exhibits area. Take away the opportunity to bump into people that a real event offers, and strip it down to a more straightforward event.
If we make it so anyone local or remote can connect into our production tools, produce the content that gets delivered to the audience, and limit the audience to chat and Q&A on the platform, we arrive at an event that’s much simpler to produce. There are fewer impromptu technical challenges, such as bringing random audience members onto the stage in front of everyone. Instead, attendees are directed to use chat and text to provide their feedback and contributions.
Like most virtual events and meetings platforms, Webex has undergone significant changes in the last 2 years. In 2022, it renamed its Webinars offering to Webex Events and added new features.
The producers are still able to deliver a highly engaging presentation. It could be on a nice big virtual stage, with graphics and information rendered in 3D, much like what Apple does with its keynotes or what FOX Sports does with its NFL commentators during the pregame. This content is scripted, well-planned, and highly developed and creates an engaging experience for the attendees.
By bringing the key players into a production platform, the producers can integrate them with all kinds of media however they see fit—greenscreen; virtual environments; virtual objects; real-time, data-driven displays; and canned presentations and videos. Even though the mid-level hybrid is more of a one-way experience than a high-level hybrid, it still enables attendees to text chat with each other and push some content back to those who are on stage.
I’ve produced several of these where we’ve used various production platforms and environments to deliver our live-produced and prerecorded content to audiences. Sometimes delivering prerecorded “look-live” content is even better because it can be made very dynamic through editing, and the presenters are simultaneously available to comment and reply to the audience in the text chat, meaning they can directly answer questions, which they would not have been able to if they were live and focused on making the presentation.
The mid-level is not as immersive as the high-level hybrid, not as costly, and not as staffing-intensive, but it is still quite engaging and can deliver very successful events.
Zixi's Eric Bolten and Gigcasters' Casey Charvet discuss how the pandemic hastened the inevitable transition to virtualized production in live streaming in this clip from their "Future of Live Streaming" panel at Streaming Media Connect 2021.
Stream4us' Anthony Burokas explains how to use "virtual audio cables" from vb-audio.com to connect multiple audio sources when using a laptop for live streaming production with multiple remote guests.
After virtual events became the only game in town, and event producers recalibrated to a streaming-only approach, high participation got them rethinking their approach in ways that could have longterm effects on in-person events. 090 Media's Alex Lindsay discusses the surprising success of virtual events in the COVID era and how it might affect events, their producers, and their attendees in this clip from Streaming Media East Connect 2020.