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Virtual and Hybrid Meetings: Challenges and Opportunities

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

After face-to-face meetings ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies pivoted to virtual events. According to a weekly meeting planner survey conducted by i-Meet, as of August 9, 84 percent of respondents indicated in-person meetings would not resume until 2021. Further, the vast majority said some or all of their future live meetings would include a virtual component. BTN editorial director Elizabeth West in late June moderated a webinar on these meeting types with Bondurant Consulting president Betsy Bondurant, Anthem director of travel and events Cindy Heston, American Express Meetings & Events VP global operations and shared services Linda McNairy, and Takeda Pharmaceuticals head of global meetings and events strategy and solutions Rawya Tullgren as panelists.

BTN: Hybrid and virtual meetings are not new. Why hadn't they been fully embraced before?

Betsy Bondurant: I have painful memories of doing clunky satellite feeds into nine ballrooms for a product launch about a month after 9/11. Now we have wonderful technologies out there. As an industry, we [previously] didn't embrace anything other than face-to-face. But the last couple of months we've had to do virtual or nothing, so virtual has really come into its own. And we're finding it's a great way to amplify attendance. Event marketers are finding that their events are attracting two to three times [the audience] they had anticipated. Some of the benchmarking I've been doing with many different companies has [shown] that without a doubt, hybrid meetings will be here to stay.

BTN: I love the talk show idea as people are logging in. Are there any best practices that may already be emerging? 

Bondurant: If you are not looking at virtual or hybrid—or, using the example Linda had of people circumventing the SMM program and doing their own virtual work in marketing—you really need to be pulling all that together so you can have a comprehensive, holistic view of all the meetings that are taking place, then be able to provide the playbooks and recommendations for folks. You're not going to take a three-day sales meeting and lift it into a virtual platform. But what we are finding is that people don't have the skill sets. They need to upskill and work with suppliers to do that. Looking at best practices, the past few months [of virtual meetings], people have been forgiving if the technology wasn't working properly or if there wasn't much engagement. But people will have a lower tolerance for things that don't go right. Take the time to understand how to produce these meetings and events … so there is a lot more engagement and people find it to be fun and educational.

BTN: Will the proliferation of virtual and hybrid meetings force us to get better data from our in-person meetings?

Bondurant: We've all struggled with proving the return on investment of our meetings and events. Now, with the hybrid and virtual opportunity, there is wonderful data. What we can do is identify if we are delivering information in the right method. And we also [can] determine if we should not be doing some of the meetings we've always done in the past. I'm finding people who are doing a rubric for face-to-face versus virtual versus what is the quality of life for our people. [Companies] also are looking at sustainability. We see some of the data now that the carbon footprint for meetings has dropped 95 percent because no one is on airplanes. [Also] there are still some people who cannot travel to a meeting because of illness or what have you. Now we can be more inclusive. … You can still participate 100 percent because of the virtual environments involved. To be able to take all that great information and integrate that with CRM tools on the back end is rich information for people who are on the front end, [who can] put all the dots together and come out with some great metrics.

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