January 19, 2023
My company, Leading Edge Training Solutions (LETS), has often found itself at the “bleeding edge” of virtual events. With the gradual but incomplete relaxation of Covid travel restrictions, we are increasingly faced with the challenges of hybrid events. These are particularly acute in the pharma and medical device arenas where LETS frequently operates. Not only does the event’s content need to be accurately conveyed, but the needs of on-site and virtual participants must also be met equitably—despite vast differences in distance and connection quality.
Such events pose unique challenges, not only in the use of virtual event technology, but also in the realms of human behavior and etiquette. As I pointed out in a previous article, all participants in a hybrid event are live. No matter how they attend, they are all entitled to the same learning benefits.
Recently, LETS was retained to produce a hybrid event for a medical device company. Fifteen presenters (six on-site and eight virtual) would demonstrate and explain new technologies and ideas to make the company more efficient, promote safety, or propose new services and/or products to a live but mixed audience of about 35 on-site and 500 virtual attendees. The presentations would be judged and rated by a six-member expert panel, one of whom was participating virtually.
Since the objective was primarily for all panelists and participants to see and hear each presentation clearly and secondarily to see and hear the panelists’ responses, a unique configuration was needed, as shown here. A fixed or static camera kept the on-site panelists in full view, while a manually controlled camera was used to zoom in on an individual panelist or presenter at the podium. Two 52-inch monitors gave the on-site panelists an equal view of each presenter and their presentation.
Achieving parity between several groups of on-site and virtual participants was complicated at times. The two large monitors required by the panel blocked the view of the on-site attendees, so a large projection screen was used for the on-site participants to view the presenters and panelists. Virtual presenters and attendees did so via Zoom. The overall sound quality was affected by room conditions (e.g., large windows and an adjoining hallway) but was largely compensated for with window shades and precision microphones (not shown).
The event succeeded on multiple levels, including making on-site and virtual participants feel at ease during the presentations. The judges could ask questions of each of the fifteen presenters, regardless of how they participated. LETS producers handled the camera feeds, content display, networking, and sound-related issues, making sure the virtual participants had full access. In one case, when a virtual presenter’s screen sharing was not functioning correctly, we used a backup version of the presentation. At the end of the two-day event, the top five winning presentations were all by virtual participants.
This many-to-many exercise put our AV2 (audio, video, and venue) model to the test. Because it was a new, untried location, we did an intensive advance scouting, using a pair of networked Vuzix smart glasses (equipped with a camera, microphone, and audio) to explore the location with our disbursed LETS team. During setup and testing, we mitigated the audio issues caused by the large space and made sure the video angles met the needs of presenters, panelists, and attendees, regardless of their physical location.
This event did not need some of the techniques we use for large, “mainstage” events. One such technique for reminding presenters of their virtual audience is to place monitors in the presenter’s field of view—without blocking the sightlines of on-site participants of course. On these displays are the rows of virtual attendees, enabling the speaker to read the virtual audience the same way they would their on-site audience. Another technique is to identify virtual attendees as such when reading their questions in the Q&A session.
Clearly, the art of successful hybrid events is in its infancy. Success in achieving parity between on-site and virtual attendees will be a mix of human behavior, mastery of ever-changing events technology, and even reimagining the physical space we use for these events.
Achieving such parity is well within our grasp. As our workforce and work habits undergo radical change, it will be a journey well worth taking.
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions, a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also the co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and directly from Amplify Publishing.