There’s no question that the world of events has been dramatically changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing concerns about large groups of in-person gatherings. Event marketers have been challenged with how to pivot quickly and keep business going and pipeline numbers up with virtual events for now, and hybrid events in the future, as the pandemic will have a rolling impact on logistics, location, sponsorships and attendance.

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Hybrid events will create some unique hurdles for event marketers who will suddenly be managing two events wrapped into one, with new health, safety and technology considerations, new metrics for success, and new job expertise required. But there is also a great opportunity for events to be more personalized and hyper connected with more immersive experiences and deeper engagement than ever before.

Here are the four things event marketers need to consider when planning hybrid events for 2021 and beyond.

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1. Think Virtual First 

In the next year, we will see a shift from all-virtual events to hybrid events, where people can choose to participate in-person or online. Hybrid events will need to have much more robust online content and experiences than ever before. Event marketers will have to think ‘virtual first’ when planning, like software developers had to think ‘mobile first’ when everyone got an iPhone.

Having a virtual-first mentality means looking at how to use technology to create compelling, personalized experiences. The event for virtual attendees needs to feel like they are valued participants, and not just a back-row live stream where they rank second to in-person attendees. It also needs to feel like it’s one cohesive event, not two separate events.

Event marketers will need to recognize the reality of remote attendees—they won’t have the same attention span as the in-person attendee and so marketers will need to craft content that is tailored to the online attendee with that limited attention span in mind, such as short backstage interviews with speakers, available exclusively online.

Measuring engagement from hybrid events is another challenge for the industry—while marketers look at metrics like registration and check-in for in-person events, they need to understand what engagement will look like from online attendees. This will likely mean metrics on time spent, for instance, how long someone is engaged on a screen during a presentation. For reporting on ROI and metrics that matter for hybrid events, marketers will need to combine both in-person and virtual measurement data to determine the level of true engagement by attendees.

2. Hire Event Technology Managers

One big change that can’t be understated is the impact the hybrid future of events is having on technology roles within marketing teams. Event technologists will play a critical role in companies going forward for planning and implementing the technological strategy of their organization’s events programs.

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Marketers need to recognize that not one platform fits all types of virtual events. With the Cambrian explosion of virtual event and video conferencing platforms during quarantine, marketers now have many best-in-class options to replicate or enhance different types of in-person events: from multitrack conferences to networking roundtables to scheduled sales meetings. Selecting the best virtual and hybrid event platforms for the different goals and engagement strategies of the marketing team will require creating a new role: Event Technology Manager.

Event Tech Managers will have responsibility for ensuring a seamless customer journey across virtual and hybrid experiences  They will unify the customer experience in the virtual and in-person event worlds and deliver actionable engagement data to key teams like sales and systems like the company’s CRM and broader martech stack.

Event Technology Managers will become a must-have team member for marketing teams, enabling marketers to (finally) extract meaningful ROI data and insights from events.

3. Level Up Technical Production Skills 

Many marketing teams previously used external agencies to handle the AV or technical production side of in-person events, especially the staging for live stream and post-event video. According to a survey conducted by industry trade site EventMB, almost two-thirds of event planners acknowledged they had never been involved in planning a virtual event. Now, everyone essentially works on virtual events—everyone needs those greater depth in those skills.

Since the pandemic hit, job postings for in-house virtual event planners have risen 300 percent, according to data from employment site ZipRecruiter. Meanwhile CMOs are shifting resources from external agencies to in-house teams in response to COVID-19 budget cuts, according to Gartner’s 2020 CMO Survey.

In-house marketing teams need more technical production expertise to create compelling virtual and hybrid events. Marketers may still rely on agencies and AV specialists, but they will need to know the limits and possibilities of technical production at the earliest stages of planning hybrid events.

4. Venue Matters

For hybrid events, venue matters. It will not only be important to find a convenient location to easily travel to for the in-person part of the event, but also to take into account new health and safety concerns. This will mean physical distancing requirements, mandatory PPE, hygiene stations, and new one-way navigation inside venues to eliminate crowding. Besides the new physical requirements, venues must also be able to handle the high technical requirements of the virtual aspect of the event.  And that means more than making sure the venue has decent Internet connectivity.

For these hybrid events, event marketers will want to step up their game and provide virtual attendees with an innovative, immersive experience. This could mean screens set up around the venue so people at home feel they are actually there and could even interact with in-person attendees and speakers.

Two companies we’ve seen that have done a great job with hybrid events and pulling off the technology challenges are Apple and Snapchat. Pre COVID-19, when Apple unveiled its iPhone 11 at The Steve Jobs Theater, the Apple production team created a separate experience for virtual attendees with cameras strategically placed around the theater. Virtual attendees had an intimate, close-up view of Tim Cook demonstrating the new iPhone 11.

Another more recent example is SnapChat’s Partner Summit which showcased innovative use of virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual attendees at the Summit got to experience speaker presentations in immersive 3D environments that match the presentation content, like traveling through deep space or a day at the beach. Snapchat also released a new feature enabling users to create augmented reality layers and through the Summit, attendees created their own worlds.

With the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 on the events industry, it is critical for marketers to learn how to pivot quickly and embrace the new, hybrid event model. Looking at how to combine and enhance the in-person and virtual experience for attendees will require marketers to step up their game with event technology  expertise, personalization and more immersive experiences at venues that can handle the latest health/safety and greater technical requirements of hybrid events.

Alex Patriquin is founder and CEO of Circa, formerly known as EventGeek.