Beyond Zoom: What's the future of hybrid networking events?

Events are online, hybrid and in-person, and organizers are expected to master all three types.

A person holds a tray of food

"If done correctly, a small, tailored in-person event can have an even greater impact on attendees than they did pre-pandemic," says Nabeel Ahmed, co-founder of the events company Phantom Phood.

Photo: Phantom Phood

Just in the past few weeks, some of the biggest tech companies (Apple, Google, Meta) have solidified their back-to-office dates. Many of them have settled on a hybrid schedule for now. What does that mean for events? Nobody knows.

With some travel restrictions and local regulations still in place, plus all the fears, anxieties and social awkwardness brought on by COVID-19, fully online events still linger, despite having lost their novelty long ago. In-person communication feels electric, until the threat of infecting an immune-compromised colleague creeps in. And when so many people have invested their hard-earned dollars in the ideal gadgets for their work-from-home setup, it can be difficult to convince them to set aside the time and commute to an in-person event they don’t consider essential.

But professionals know that face-to-face connection with peers in the field is essential for innovation. It’s how co-founders meet, entrepreneurs court VCs and trends like Web3 and the metaverse are defined. Those connections are still important — but just as the pandemic has forever changed the way we work, networking too is undergoing a transformation.

Even as many big tech companies head back to the office, event organizers are still expected to be able to effectively host gatherings in three formats: online, hybrid and in person.

“There’s been so many different waves of this pandemic where it seems to constantly change,” said David Polgar, founder of the industry group All Tech is Human. Organizers can no longer rely on the innate novelty of a livestream, or catering and schwag at an in-person conference, he said. Creating an effective event, in any format, comes down to “the actual content, and how it can weave directly into somebody’s life.”

Getting social in a shared Google Doc

Online events were cool for a moment. People all around the world could participate in the conversation. Each of us could attend more events, and expand our minds, with all the extra time we had on our hands. Stocks for video-calling software soared, and livestreamed conferences seemed like the wave of the future.

That is, until a whole lot of attendees realized they’d rather listen to a recording of that conference after the fact at double the speed.

“The ability to hold somebody’s attention is a huge, huge struggle with online because our typical use of these online tools is usually done in a multitasking fashion. I open up a YouTube video, I answer an email and I check Twitter,” said Polgar. “The main problem with online events is that attendees view it as background rather than something front and center.”

Using Hopin helps, said Polgar. The online conferencing platform has more touchpoints for engagement than Zoom, going beyond breakout rooms and sidebar chats. Hopin also allows conference hosts to run multiple speakers or panels at once, and that multitasking potential helps keep users engaged.

“Determining when and how to use breakout rooms or one-on-one networking, for example, are the details that can make or break an event no matter how many attendees you have,” said Hopin VP of Corporate Marketing Lauren Sommers.

Hopin product image Polgar likes to use Hopin as part of online events. Image: Hopin

Polgar also creates a Google Doc where event attendees can collaborate on note taking — something that only works with a dedicated, pre-selected group, given the obvious opportunity for malicious actors. However, Polgar said the risk is worth the reward, because having a shared notes document offers an easy-to-use opportunity for interaction that is nonhierarchical and makes all attendees feel like they have some responsibility to keep tabs.

Even so, online events are limited by design. Polgar said he’s awaiting hardware that integrates more physically interactive features, like haptic feedback, for online events (working in the Metaverse, anyone?).

More than an inconvenient version of watching a YouTube video

Anyone who’s attempted to facilitate a combination online and in-person meeting has an idea how infuriating hybrid events can be. Virtual attendees fade to the background while those who are gathered in person, trying to communicate through a shared Zoom screen, are often too distracted by the tech to relay any helpful information.

The difference in experience between in-person and online attendees is the biggest obstacle with hybrid events. Online attendees need to feel as included as those who are attending in person, which is easier said than done. Otherwise, watching a livestream of an event is little more than an inconvenient version of watching a YouTube video, said Polgar.

But he thinks livestreaming an event is still important. Polgar recommends that organizers appoint specific people whose sole job is to provide tech support to and engage with online attendees. “Livestreaming needs to be less of an add-on and treated more as a co-equal part of the event,” Polgar said. “There needs to be a person or two who are operating the online part, and incorporating their questions.”

Nabeel Ahmed, co-founder of the events company Phantom Phood, also suggests keeping online attendees to a minimum. The company, which was founded during the pandemic and gathers small groups of entrepreneurs and investors around catered dinners, has mastered the art of pandemic partying. One of the best hybrid events Phantom Phood has hosted, Ahmed said, was with a company whose overseas CEO couldn’t attend last-minute because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. The event was a catered dinner, and a computer was placed at the head of the table so the CEO could Zoom in, see the food and speak directly to people trying it as though he were physically there. Hybrid events are even more effective, Ahmed said, if the few online attendees are clearly crucial to the conversation.

“It’s all about how you control variables: that means people walking in and out, a car honking its horn or anything else that will be disruptive. We’re very cognizant of testing that,” said Ahmed. “The hybrid events that we’ve done have been eight people max, most of the people in person, with just two or three virtual. That’s the environment where you can still really foster connection.”

Meatspace, not metaverse

For special occasions, at least, the vibe has shifted. Many professionals are willing to meet in person to cultivate more genuine connections with their new co-workers, investors they’re hoping to court or mentors they’re particularly eager to learn from. “When you really want to drive impact, when you really want to form partnerships, when you really want to showcase something new, that has to be done face-to-face,” said Ahmed.

But that doesn’t mean that event planners should throw in-person events in the same ways they did pre-pandemic. Guests are going outside of their comfort zone, taking on the ritual of wearing work clothes (on the top and the bottom) and commuting and, for the first time in a long time, not multitasking. In-person events, Ahmed said, need to mirror that level of intentionality.

To do this, he suggests focusing on the “why” behind the event. The food served, the event setting and the people in attendance should all coordinate with a designated purpose. For example, a bonding event for a team of marketers might make sense in a setting with movable seating, whiteboards for brainstorming and shareable snacks. A founder hoping to court investors for a food tech product, on the other hand, would benefit more from a private dinner, where a chef can demonstrate all the different ways the item can be served.

With in-person events, “it’s about the bigger story,” Ahmed explained. “Think about how the food, drink and location create an experience from a subconscious, implicit level. How does everything coordinate to make people feel excited and open to have the certain type of conversations you want?”

If done correctly, a small, tailored in-person event can have an even greater impact on attendees than it did pre-pandemic. Professionals are more cognizant of the rarity of the situation, Polgar said, and this can make the conversations more memorable and valuable. “If you go to a physical event, there’s a little bit of this feeling of being exclusive. Not in elitist terms, but you have a shared experience,” he says. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Wow, I met you at this event, and then we stayed in touch, and then we had coffee.’ The connection is stronger.”

In short, networking in 2022 might require a little bit more work. But if you use the peculiarity of the moment to your advantage, are more considerate and make sure the content really speaks to people, the resulting event can be effective.

“When a lot of our work is done remotely, the human experience, when it comes in — periodically, rather than all the time — is a lot more important,” said Ahmed. “Now, when we do create an event, there’s a lot more impact.”

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