At BlueJeans we get excited seeing the many ways in which customers are using our Events platform to help shape the way the events industry produces in-person, hybrid, and virtual events, but we also recognize the importance of looking outward and hearing other perspectives on what’s working (and not).
To get insight into how experts in the industry view event technology, what they believe the future will look like for hybrid events, and what they wish to see more of, we recently interviewed Joan Eisenstodt, Principal of Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a Washington, DC-based meetings consultancy. Here’s an edited version of what we discussed with Joan on the shifting tides of the event industry and the future of events.
Q: Joan, with your more than 50 years of experience in the events and meetings industry, what do you think are the biggest shifts you’ve seen since COVID-19?
A: First, nobody even knew how to react when we first learned that it was likely that travel and meetings would be curtailed as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic. Meeting and event planners plan ahead. There are timelines and though we must remain flexible, this kind of flexibility is far from the norm. The biggest change was that we all had to rethink everything we were going to do, including deciding whether to go forward with physical (“in-person” events), city/country mandates-permitting, or move to a digital platform, then learning what platforms to even use.
When I teach basic meeting planning, I always say, first, look at your demographics, second, meeting goals and objectives, and gain an understanding of what will feed people’s curiosity, intellect, and their need for participating in meetings and events. We had to rethink delivery methods that would incorporate all we had known! Everything previously presented online was flat and delivered in webinar format with little interaction. Now we needed to ask other questions: how do we bring people together? How do we create a way for them to interact? What will be their tolerance level for sitting at a screen to watch and participate? I think the biggest shift was how we operate, what we need in terms of technologies, staffing, ideas, delivery, and how to deliver differently, virtually.
Q: Now the industry is shifting again, moving towards what many call “hybrid” events. What would you define as a hybrid event? And how do you see that definition changing in the future?
A: I'm laughing because I cannot get anyone to define hybrid! I think what most people consider hybrid is that you have a physical audience and a virtual audience and you bring them together. A lot of us had done this years ago: we brought speakers in virtually to present to a physical audience or a number of physical audiences. We began to understand it needed to be far more.
We haven’t done a good job of defining hybrid yet. We’re struggling with, first of all, how to define it which for many, depends on the audience and meeting. Secondly, whatever becomes how we meet, we want people to be able to interact serendipitously as they do at physical meetings – those wonderful hallway conversations or as Harrison Owen coined it when he referred to “Open Space Meetings”, the conversations at breaks. It’s very tough to do virtually. If it's a hybrid meeting where you’re attending virtually, you get to watch, and yet, how can you interact with others who are physically together and you’re not there? You can't lean over to someone and communicate what you’d just heard in a session was really interesting; ask what they thought of what they had experienced. You don't have refreshment breaks or even just the act of exiting a meeting space to interact with others. I think what we now call hybrid has a long way to go before being truly defined by the industry.
I've feared that hybrid events will take on the shape of physical locations with bad room sets like before, and the virtual part is going to be like a webinar or a chat room - not any different or innovative.
Q: So that instead of creating something new, we're literally just taking, the simplest definition and not adding any nuance to it?
A: I think that there are some tweaks people are making that they think are outstanding, I think that they believe that there will be a wonderful solution, and everybody will jump to it. We need a really good way of coming back together that satisfies the physical presence and the virtual presence. John Chen has written a wonderful book about changing the virtual interaction, “Engaging Virtual Meetings.” John and this book have provided ways to move virtually forward more creatively.
Q: Part of changing the virtual interaction is understanding the needs of the audience including visuals. Can you expand on this a bit?
A: One of the things that events have never done is to be fully inclusive of people with disabilities, whether they are physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, hearing, sight, or language. And as I talk about the event experience and about visuals, it's acknowledging that we need to do things differently.
When it comes to events, hybrid or in-person (“physical”) or virtual, I’m searching for an experience that gives me a different feel. We would describe a lot of cities we used to go to for in-person events as ‘any convention cities’, where you literally have no idea where you are because so much looks and feels alike – including all the same chain restaurants. I think that we aren't opening people's experiences through more than the delivery of material and that’s something we haven’t taken advantage of for virtual events. Especially if we are doing hybrid events, in whichever way it’s defined, meaning some people physically participating, some people virtually, we need to bring in the physical experience to the virtual audience.
Q: Can you share an experience of a serendipitous moment at an in-person event we should try and capture in hybrid?
A: Yes! I attended a conference at which I knew few people. At the first session of the day – scheduled for all day – they packed people in, unsafely. (I teach contingency planning too and was appalled.)
From a learner’s point of view it was miserable – sightlines were impossible; if you’d needed to use the restroom or leave the room for any reason, you’d have to wait for a break or have everyone rise to let you out. It was in the first five minutes I knew I couldn't live through the session.
Looking around, I saw similar looks on other’s faces. We passed notes to each other asking: how is this for you? what do you want to do? There must have been 25 of us, who, at the first break, left and went to the hotel lobby. There, we moved furniture into a big circle. We assured the hotel we’d re-arrange it back when we finished. Instead of being in a crowded room not designed for learning, we exchanged unbelievable ideas on the subject and had an experience that met our needs! The official session was so structured, so formal, and the serendipitous moment made the conference worthwhile. We need to be able to have that kind of differentiator in all meetings and certainly in virtual and whatever we determine are hybrid events.
Q: Engagement! I think that’s the key to hybrid events. What features do you hope to see from event technologies that will improve all manner of virtual experiences?
A: I think, for me, the key is to do a better job of including people – introverts who might not engage, people with disabilities, people whose language skills and understanding are different than the presenters. We need all forms of communication available that will engage and include the audience/s. We have to continue to ask people what they need to fully participate.
That’s just the beginning. We need to go back to basics and create events where event planners and, if different people, content creators, know their audience and understander their audience's ability to use technology. Not everybody is comfortable with or even has the appropriate technology to use. We must ensure all can access and then help them be comfortable and be able to access without angst!
Event technologies need to be both intuitive or simple. Each person accessing needs to be able to connect in multiple ways with others including the speakers, exhibitors at trade shows, and those who ask questions.
Technology companies can be the guides to better hybrid events, better virtual experiences and to be far more inclusive of all people regardless of languages spoken or different abilities, to participate. Event technology companies need to understand adult learning and use it to guide clients and users to create content that can be delivered smartly.
Meetings, regardless of platform, will continue to evolve. We need to constantly use the wonderful improvisation technique of “yes, and” to continue to build on what is and question what can be. In all conversations, “tell me more” (another facilitation technique) can be used to explore more fully while we continue to move learning through meetings forward.
Great insight from a true event industry veteran. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Joan!