PR Pros as Event Planners: How to plan successful virtual, hybrid events

The Greater Cleveland Chapter of PRSA recently hosted an insightful virtual webinar focused on the role PR pros may take on as event planners. This has become more and more common since COVID-19 first hit our society, as practitioners have had to master hosting virtual events and will likely be tackling an increased number of hybrid events in the near future as things begin to return to some semblance of our pre-pandemic normal.

The virtual webinar from the Greater Cleveland Chapter of PRSA featured an expert panel, which comprised the planning and special effects team at Impact Communications. The panelists included:

  • Bob MacDonald, President, Impact Communications
  • Jody Wolf, Director, Meetings & Events, Impact Communications
  • Irene Majer, Vice President, Creative Services, Impact Communications
  • Bob Foley, Technical Director, Impact Communications
  • Kristy Somerlot, Vice President, Client Services, Impact Communications

The discussion covered a wide range of info, including how practitioners can most effectively plan virtual events, considerations to keep in mind for hybrid events, and some of the data around how consumers feel about returning to in-person events.

Keeping Virtual Events Engaging

“I don’t think the term Zoom fatigue existed prior to 2020,” said MacDonald. “But now, it’s over used.”

A major focus of keeping virtual audiences engaged during virtual meetings, MacDonald said, is exactly that: engagement. By keeping the audience on-task, the audience will more effectively receive the messages being sent. By engaging the audience, attendees become participants and not just spectators.

It’s also important to utilize visuals including photos, videos and other elements that help keep the attendees’ attention, and make the presentation entertaining. As hybrid events become more and more the norm, it will continue to be important to incorporate all of these elements when creating valuable experiences for those who attend.

Hybrid Event Best Practices

In hybrid events, we aim to satisfy the in-person audience just as much as those who are remotely attending. Teachers are some of the professionals who have already had to master this type of programming, as they have had to engage both in-person and remotely attending students.

Citing a February 2021 survey from Meeting Professionals International (MPI), Jody walked through some of the data on how consumers feel about returning to in-person events. Meeting organizers are betting on COVID-19 vaccines being key to getting back to in-person meetings, Jody said. One of the challenges is the fact that guidelines and mandates vary from state to state, and even from county to county sometimes. With this in-mind, event planners must be up-to-date on all of the requirements in the area of the event.

Another consideration for anyone hosting hybrid or in-person events to consider is their event insurance. These practitioners should check with their insurance provider to be sure the terms and conditions of their policy are clear and understood given the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented.

For hybrid events in 2021, the MPI study reported 79% of people plan to attend virtually instead of in-person, Jody said.

It’s important to adjust budgets to accommodate for hybrid events, including costs like ensuring you have a strong enough data connection to accommodate remote engagement and other elements of technical event production.

So, how can someone create an engaging, exciting and entertaining hybrid event? It’s going to take a robust emphasis and investment in I.T., virtual infrastructure and technology.

“We have to make sure there’s extra technology in each space so people can see remote attendees, and extra technology in the backbone of the presentation platform,” Foley said. “Connecting those together is something that has to be strategized by your team of producers and technical producers… You’ll have to have space for remote presenters who can see one another on stage, extra cameras in the space so the remote attendees can see all the live attendees, and vice versa.”

Event planners must be sure remote attendees have all the same opportunities as in-person attendees, including with Q&A. This also includes the networking lounges, Foley said. There should be virtual infrastructure in place to facilitate the merging of in-person and virtual attendees that allows them to converse and network with one another.

The New Normal

Hybrid events are likely here to stay, especially in the short term, MacDonald said.

“According to McKinsey, the airline industry doesn’t expect to recover to 2019 levels until 2024,” said MacDonald. “Based on their data, business travel will take the longest to recover. Also, many businesses are more focused today on concepts around corporate social responsibility and employee experiences than ever before. The idea that business travel will be mandated, and particularly that rooming with fellow employees who are not from the same household will be mandated, seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.”

Organizations can use the trend towards virtual and hybrid events to engage a wider audience. With these formats, people are able to attend virtually from almost anywhere. The cost of travel and lodging are not as significant for hybrid events, and could be non-existent for entirely virtual events.

“The path to success is by driving value, it’s like everything you’ve done before,” MacDonald said. “Pre-event marketing has to be enticing. It has to demonstrate what’s in it for the participant. It has to be inclusive, so that both audiences perceive they are going to get comparable value, whether they are attending in-person or virtually.”

Jeff Adkins is a senior public relations specialist with Henry Ford Health System and a PRSA Detroit board member/programming committee chair.