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The Next Big Thing Isn’t

Hybrid events are a transition to something better.

During the deepest days of the pandemic, we learned that the Number One search query on our Freeman website was “hybrid.” This term had become shorthand for the sort of stop-gap live/virtual event format favored by the industry as it regrouped following pandemic-driven event cancellations. In March of 2020, the term hybrid wasn’t really a thing in the live business events industry. But over the intervening months, we have all become experts in producing events that include both live in-person and live virtual components. In fact, we’ve compiled some tips on how to design and produce hybrid events and shared them on the Freeman website.

That said, I am urging colleagues and clients to move on from hybrid terminology. I am proud of our response and the work we’ve done. The technology for delivering proprietary content is expanding and improving every day. Freeman was quick to build and equip dedicated broadcast studios (including a 38-foot soundstage) with A/V technology that was unimaginable ten years ago. But even with this amazing virtual technology, we know that it is but one weapon in a vast arsenal. Corporations, trade associations, and event organizers need to apply what we’ve learned during the pandemic as part of broader, future-focused goals.

I believe the “next big thing” will actually be a galaxy of smaller things. It’s time to stop thinking about a single event solution and consider the opportunity to reach discreet audiences where, when, and how they will be most receptive to the message. Event strategies should move beyond a hybrid plan to comprehend a fully integrated event plan that plays out over the course of the year. 

We are well underway in working with customers who are excited to return to their annual, live-and-in-person events. But it doesn’t need to stop and start there. Now that we’ve had to reboot the system, let’s use the opportunity to consider all our options.

For example, many organizations will be better served by designing their live event to serve a smaller, targeted audience of the key leaders and decision makers — those who will most benefit from networking and face-to-face sales opportunities. Then, they can use this event to anchor the core message and provide a platform for the content that surrounds it. In this scenario, annual or bi-annual shows could be shared as a live-streaming event to extend the reach more broadly. This could take the form of invitation-only screening parties for live in-person audiences. Or they could be hosted as virtual screening parties with enhanced interactivity. There could be several satellite events, with a smaller footprint, that feature video highlights of the anchor event but promote exclusive in-person content specific to the needs of the local audience. It could become a touring event that ties in with other regional happenings, supported by a virtual platform where all members can share their regional experiences. 

There are limitless opportunities to reimagine how “LIVE” unfolds through time and across a multi-channel communication plan.

For example, the anchor event could be supported by year-round TV-style live broadcast programming, offered only to stakeholders. And this high-end video production could be complemented by user-generated content, livestream video, or any combination of publicly shared media. The point is, it isn’t any one thing. It’s everything that makes it easier to engage the right people with useful content, delivered when and how they need it. We need to make sure our event plans have a value proposition that works for exhibitors, sponsors, and participants. It must offer content that is data-driven in a way that addresses stakeholders’ needs for education, lead-generation, commerce, and entertainment. Our integrated event plan must be carefully orchestrated as a series of experiences that carry a relevant and authentic narrative. 

I’m pretty passionate about this fully integrated event strategy approach. When events are constructed so that proprietary content is delivered through multiple channels, offering infinite variety and touchpoints, other benefits emerge. For starters, we are engaging with more people and building a diverse network for meaningful interaction. This means better lead generation, expanded membership opportunities, and broader sponsorship appeal. 

Perhaps most important, the built-in, multi-channel distribution provides ultimate flexibility for dealing with new opportunities — or unexpected challenges. In other words, individual event planners and the industry at large will be better positioned to respond when the next major disruption hits — the one we haven’t imagined yet. Live-and-in-person will always be my experience of choice. But if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s how to leverage the very real benefits of expanding our reach with digitally delivered content. 

We opened that door out of necessity. I’m sure you remember the adage about necessity. Let’s not close the door on invention moving forward.