In the past few weeks alone, some of the biggest tech companies (Apple, Google, Meta) have confirmed their return to office dates. Many of them have opted for a hybrid schedule for now. What does this mean for events? Nobody knows.
With some travel restrictions and local regulations still in place, along with all the fears, anxieties and social awkwardness caused by COVID-19, fully online events persist, though they have long since lost their novelty. In-person communication feels electric, until the threat of infecting an immunocompromised colleague arises. And when so many people have poured their hard-earned cash into the ideal gadgets for their work-from-home setup, it can be hard to convince them to set aside time and attend 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 woo VCs, and trends like Web3 and the Metaverse are set. Those connections are still important — but just as the pandemic has forever changed the way we work, so too is networking undergoing a transformation.
Even though many big tech companies are returning to the office, event organizers should still be able to efficiently host gatherings in three formats: online, hybrid, and in-person.
“There have been so many different waves of this pandemic where it seems to be constantly changing,” said David Polgar, founder of industry group All Tech is Human. Organizers can no longer rely on the innate novelty of a livestream, or the catering and schwag during an in-person conference, he said. Creating an effective event, regardless of format, comes down to “the actual content and how it can fit right into someone’s life.”
Go social in a shared Google Doc
Online events have been cool for a while. People from all over 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. Video calling software stocks soared and live conferencing seemed like the wave of the future.
That is, until a large number of participants realize that they would rather listen to a recording of this conference after the fact at double the speed.
“The ability to hold someone’s attention is a huge, huge struggle online, because our typical use of these online tools is usually multitasking. I open a YouTube video, reply to an email and check Twitter,” Polgar said. “The main problem with online events is that attendees view them as a background rather than something front and center.”
Using Hopin helps, Polgar said. The online conferencing platform has more touchpoints for engagement than Zoom, going beyond breakout rooms and side chats. Hopin also allows conference hosts to run multiple speakers or panels at once, and this 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 Lauren Sommers, Vice President of Corporate Marketing at Hopin.
Polgar enjoys using Hopin for online events.
Polgar is also creating 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 was worth it, because having a shared notes document provides an easy-to-use opportunity for non-hierarchical interaction and makes all participants feel they have a responsibility to keep an eye.
Even so, online events are limited by design. Polgar said he expects hardware that incorporates 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 tried to facilitate a combination of online and in-person meetings knows how infuriating hybrid events can be. Virtual participants fade into the background while those gathered in person, trying to communicate via a shared Zoom screen, are often too distracted by technology to relay useful information.
The difference in experience between in-person and online attendees is the biggest hurdle of hybrid events. Online attendees should feel as included as those attending in person, which is easier said than done. Otherwise, watching a live stream of an event is little more than an impractical version of watching a YouTube video, Polgar said.
But he thinks live streaming an event is still important. Polgar recommends that organizers appoint specific people whose sole job is to provide technical support and engage with attendees online. “Live streaming needs to be less of an add-on and more treated as an equal part of the event,” Polgar said. “There must be a person or two who exploit the online part and integrate their questions.”
Nabeel Ahmed, co-founder of event company Phantom Phood, also suggests keeping online attendees to a minimum. The company, which was founded during the pandemic and brings together small groups of entrepreneurs and investors over catered dinners, has mastered the art of pandemic partying. One of Phantom Phood’s best hybrid events, Ahmed said, was with a company whose overseas CEO was unable to attend at the last minute due to 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 talk directly to people trying it as if he were physically there. Hybrid events are even more effective, Ahmed said, if the few online participants are clearly crucial to the conversation.
“It all depends on how you control the variables: that means people coming in and out, a car honking or anything else that will be disruptive. We are very aware of testing this,” Ahmed said. “The hybrid events we’ve run have had a maximum of eight people, mostly in-person, with only two or three virtual. This is the environment in which you can still really foster connection.
Meat space, no metaverse
For special occasions, at least, the mood has changed. Many professionals are willing to meet in person to cultivate more genuine connections with their new colleagues, the investors they hope to woo, or the mentors they are especially eager to learn from. “When you really want to make an impact, when you really want to form partnerships, when you really want to showcase something new, it has to be face-to-face,” Ahmed said.
But that doesn’t mean event planners have to hold in-person events the same way they did before the pandemic. Customers are stepping out of their comfort zone, adopting the ritual of wearing work clothes (top and bottom) and moving around and, for the first time in a long time, are not multitasking. In-person events, Ahmed said, need to reflect that level of intentionality.
To do this, he suggests focusing on the “why” of the event. The food served, the setting of the event and the people present should all coordinate for a purpose. For example, a bonding event for a team of marketers might make sense in a setting with movable seating, whiteboards for brainstorming, and snacks to share. A founder hoping to woo 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.
Along with the in-person events, “this is the bigger story,” Ahmed explained. “Think about how food, drink and location create an experience on a subconscious and implicit level. How does it all fit together to make people feel excited and open to having the kind of conversations you want ? ”
If done correctly, a small, tailored in-person event can have an even bigger impact on attendees than it did before the pandemic. Professionals are more aware of the rarity of the situation, Polgar said, and that can make conversations more memorable and valuable. “If you go to a physical event, there’s a bit of this feeling of exclusivity. Not in elite terms, but you have a shared experience,” he says. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Wow, I u’ met at this event, then we stayed in touch, then we had coffee. The connection is stronger.
In short, networking in 2022 might take a little more work. But if you use the particularity of the moment to your advantage, be more considerate, and make sure the content really speaks to people, the resulting event can be effective.
“When much of our work is done remotely, the human experience when it happens — periodically rather than all the time — is much more important,” Ahmed said. “Now when we create an event there is a lot more impact.”