Embracing a Hybrid and Virtual Meetings Future
A wave of in-person events have returned, but tech needs endure
By Chris Davis
The corporate meetings industry at the end of 2022 has turned back the clock. For many, it’s pretty close to 2019 again: live, in-person meetings have returned. Most locations outside of Asia have dropped any and all Covid-19 restrictions, and many organizations have restarted their live event engines. Networking, luncheons and schmoozing on the trade show floor are in; masks, social distancing and staying at home are out, more or less.
But like most embraces of the past, this nostalgic reboot, however welcomed, isn’t quite the same as it was. First, the willingness to travel to in-person meetings isn’t yet universal: A September poll of travel buyers by the Global Business Travel Association showed 84 percent of respondents considered their organization’s employees “willing” to travel for business, a significant majority but not unanimous.
And organizations also must consider whether and how to apply the technological lessons learned during the pandemic shutdowns to a world of permitted in-person meetings of eager attendees. Most companies in 2020 forbade travel for internal business and canceled all planned live events, replacing them with remote conferencing technologies from simple Zoom calls to elaborate broadcast-quality audiovisual platforms, all in an attempt to replicate the marketing, education and camaraderie that in-person meeting can provide.
Those options worked, for some meetings. Most employees have become accustomed to holding small, short meetings over Zoom or Teams or another such platform. But opinions differ on whether larger events—trade shows, citywides, annual meetings—could be replicated virtually in any constructive way.
Employers, certainly, have noticed the cost savings that virtual events could offer from their live counterparts—at least theoretically, because that cost difference has turned out for many to be smaller than anticipated. And employees concerned about the carbon footprint of their meetings travel can look to virtual as an earth-friendlier alternative than a flight to a meetings venue.
These tech options, once positioned as the future of meetings, aren’t going away now that in-person meetings have returned. It will be up to every organization to determine how best to employ virtual and hybrid meetings technology to complement live events. And as yesterday’s future blends with today’s past, BTN set out to assess how companies have approached the use and deployment of meetings technology, the ways it fits in with their live meeting plans, the skills their meeting managers might need to learn to manage these events effectively and what this all might mean for the future.
To that end, BTN surveyed corporate travel and meeting buyers and found what generally could be described as a tentative embrace of hybrid and virtual meetings technology. Two years of pandemic meeting have helped bring some technological warts to light: especially large-scale hybrid and virtual events can be difficult and expensive to manage. But though the pace of technological adoption this year has slowed, organizations continue to look for opportunities to limit travel and meeting expenses and emissions through remote conferencing.
Live and In-Person
BTN’s respondents, surveyed in October, were clear that they had moved past pandemic-era restrictions on in-person meetings. About 83 percent of respondents indicated their organizations already had returned to hosting live events, while only 14 percent said their organizations hadn’t.
Similarly, only 26 percent of respondents indicated their companies still have policies that require stakeholders to hold virtual events instead of in-person meetings; of them, about 15 percent expect those policies to melt away by March 2023.
That’s quite different than the past two years. Fully 56 percent of respondents said their organizations in some situations required virtual events but no longer do.
“In-person has come back extremely strongly; it is the bedrock of the events industry, but virtual is going to remain a mainstream option,” Patrick Smith, SVP and chief marketing officer of venue sourcing and meetings technology company Cvent, told BTN. “A lot of organizations are going to continue to do virtual, not for every event but certainly for the big marquee events especially in the tech sector.”
Cvent offers virtual and hybrid meetings management services alongside its live event services, and Smith suggested that the strong return to in-person events in 2022, a phenomenon demonstrated through request-for-proposals data via Cvent’s Supplier Network, doesn’t thwart organizations’ desire to employ a hybrid element to attract as much attention as possible.
“People really want to go hybrid because they realize that is the superior model,” Smith said. “It comes back to all the blood, sweat, tears and time it takes to create a great event. You want to show that to as many people as possible.”
That prospect did attract some of BTN’s respondents. About 46 percent of those surveyed expect their organizations to stage at least one hybrid event in 2023, and another 22 percent weren’t sure. Less than one-third of respondents didn’t project any.
Smith cited Cvent data to further support the interest in hybrid.
“In our recent planner sourcing surveys, hybrid support was the third biggest influence on a planner’s decision to submit an RFP to a hotel,” he said. “They are thinking about hybrid up front and are not adding it on in the back. In the same report, 42 percent said they expect hotels to offer event space designed for streaming.”
Keeping hybrid elements at the forefront of meeting planning and procurement requires an organizational commitment to the concept. Given the cost and technological requirements of hybrid production, organizations need a clear-eyed strategy to ensure an effective process.
BTN asked respondents to rate their organizations’ commitment to integrating technology for virtual or hybrid meetings on an ascending scale from one to five. About 17 percent rated their organizations’ commitment a five, the highest score, and the average score was a 3.57, generally demonstrating something short of an impenetrable commitment to the concept but still demonstrating appeal. About 16 percent of respondents scored their organizations’ commitment a one or two, indicating disinterest.
Searching and Buying
The roster of tech companies that developed and brought hybrid and virtual solutions to the market during the pandemic proliferated, and many of BTN’s respondents availed themselves of those services. About 46 percent of those surveyed indicated their organizations purchased or otherwise incorporated external hybrid or virtual tech after 2019, and another one-third indicated their companies had done so beforehand.
Kevin Iwamoto, chief customer officer for meetings technology company Bizly, said virtual and hybrid technology would endure in corporate programs.
“The hybrid and virtual format is not going to go away,” said Iwamoto, once a travel buyer with Hewlett-Packard. “It might come down a little but nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting. People still want to get together.”
The maturation of meetings tech tools has helped them solidify their standing within corporate programs, he said.
“Adding a virtual component has become the norm, and you now have a multitude of excellent tools. I think the breakthrough has been the reliability of the technology,” Iwamoto said. “I have seen some amazing data [for] annual conferences that used to attract 10,000 people, and those numbers have doubled. When companies see that attending a conference is not as disruptive and cost-prohibitive as it used to be, they will keep that option.”
Iwamoto sees platforms like Teams and Zoom as “daily, utilitarian tools” but that even these have been used effectively in larger-scale meetings.
“But there are other technology companies that specialize in that more refined, targeted environment where the camera quality and speed is top-notch, and it is almost like being live—you can definitely feel the production value improvement.”
Streaming capability and live broadcasting capability, in fact, were the virtual and hybrid technologies most frequently adopted or endorsed by BTN’s respondents. About 53 percent of those surveyed indicated their organizations have adopted streaming capability, with 51 percent who have done so for live broadcasting capability, and another 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively, plan to do so within the next six months.
Other technological products that more than 40 percent of respondents indicated their organizations have adopted include meetings app creation and deployment tools and video production tech.
Broadcasting and video in particular can be pricey, especially considering attendees expect a level of production quality that doesn’t always come cheap. Still, Iwamoto said, companies are willing to balance those high costs at times when the situation calls for it.
“Companies are trying to find a happy medium,” Iwamoto said. “That more enhanced technology is not cheap … yet. Right now, the higher-quality technology is used for doing main sessions or plenaries. As those price points come down, it will open it up for a bigger audience.”
Strap on Your Headsets
The future of corporate meetings technology doesn’t end at virtual and hybrid events, and the horizon holds the promise of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and other potentially landscape-altering platforms. Among them is the Metaverse, the immersive, headset-requiring platform in which meeting attendees’ avatars could one day collaborate. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s development of and investment in the Metaverse has drawn some Silicon Valley snickers, but Zuckerberg might have the last laugh: BTN’s respondents collectively rated the potential value of the Metaverse to meetings at 3.33 on an ascending one-to-five scale. That’s not bad for technology that doesn’t yet practically exist.
You’ve Got Skills
All of this technological development and deployment has had a notable downstream effect on the meetings professionals who have been tasked with executing these events. Virtual and hybrid meeting production and assessment requires a level of technical proficiency that might not have been part of many meeting managers’ education and training.
Still, 59 percent of BTN survey respondents indicated they personally felt comfortable assessing the technological requirements of a hybrid event. About 37 percent said they did not. Several respondents detailed how they felt about the new demands of their profession and they skills they felt they needed to succeed.
“It required additional collaboration with and training from our IT team for our program, services and events teammates to become comfortable with using the new applications,” wrote one.
“Our event planning team needs to be proficient in technology and have someone on the event team to manage the technology aspect of the meeting,” wrote another.
“I doubled what I knew before,” wrote still another. “Many planners still are behind in knowing all requirements.”
Several respondents noted their organizations had outsourced some of the technical requirements of their hybrid and virtual meetings—“It is something we outsource and currently have little capacity internally to learn,” wrote one—and some noted the necessity of working with other departments in their organizations, particularly IT. Others, though, welcomed the changes.
Wrote one: “I actually think there are fewer places to hide for workers who don’t come properly prepared.”
Mark Frary contributed to this report.