Flipping the Switch on Omnichannel Events
Curating content for an in-person and remote audience is too much for one person.
The technology and methodology for producing omnichannel events is not new. In fact, you've witnessed it on an everyday basis for most, if not all, of your life.
Each nightly news broadcast is essentially an omnichannel event. It contains a live element, a host presenting information, and cuts to pre-recorded packages filed by reporters from across the world. Behind the curtain is a person with enough courage, brains and heart to bring it all together: a producer, who in another industry (ahem, ours) would be called an event organizer.
The same urgency planners feel about maintaining a remote audience is amplified with television broadcasts, just as is the pressure to capture a live audience versus on-demand viewership. And, of course, there are sponsors to please.
If Walter Cronkite could pull off an omnichannel event in 1963, you can, too.
Event planners in all industries will need to be ready to present to in-person and virtual attendees simultaneously for the foreseeable future, predicts Katie Bohrer, CMP, vice president of meeting design and experience for Associated Luxury Hotels International.
"This is going to be our life for a while," says Bohrer. "Companies are going to have to commit to providing both experiences."
AHLI has been offering omnichannel (aka hybrid) events since summer 2020. The pandemic has limited in-person audiences thus far, but there is reason to believe it will be sooner rather than later that the mix of virtual and in-person attendees will even out.
What has been learned in the almost all-virtual environment will not be lost. Yes, the value of face-to-face events has been reinforced, but planners have had to push out of their comfort zones to create new ways to engage and educate attendees.
Innovation and creativity can't be a bad thing, even if it was thrust upon professionals by a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Hybrid events were the talk of the future for at least a decade. Now that the future is here, the term is out of date. A "hybrid" or omnichannel event is often associated with a simulcast in which a live conference is also broadcast to audiences at home.
In today's world, that isn't enough considering all of the options available. There's social media to consider, interactive features housed on event apps and other avenues to distribute content after-the-fact.
A learning curve is to be expected, but attendees won't be forgiving if the final product is static-filled.
Bohrer says one thing she's learned is she can't do it all. That acknowledgement is in lockstep with the realization that an effective omnichannel conference is more than one final product.
There's no way to bring the feel and scent of an ocean breeze to remote attendees. But given virtual audiences will outnumber in-person groups for some time, planners have to compensate for the missing ingredients with content specifically designed for those at home.
"There can't be one run-of-show," says Sarah Soliman Daudin, DES, president and CEO of Soliman Productions, Inc.
When adding distribution channels, planners also need to expand staff. The first hire should be someone with a background in production who understands how conference content translates to the small screen.
Daudin is an example of a production pro who shifted her company's focus to fill this need early in the pandemic. In doing so, she transformed herself into a virtual event producer who works hand-in-hand with an organization's planner.
"You have to curate an experience that's a little more unique and tailored to online folks." Sarah Soliman Daudin
After hiring that producer, the next step might be the hardest for conference planners: they are going to have to trust the digital producer to take the in-person blueprint and adjust it to meet an online audience's needs. That also means allowing the producer to make judgment calls on-site at a moment's notice.
The virtual arm of an omnichannel conference "is scheduled, but it also have to be fluid to have some flexibility," Daudin says.
For instance, at ALHI's Back to Business Experiential Forum in August, Daudin was able to grant virtual attendees' requests in real time to see F&B setup and how traffic flowed through Omni Dallas Hotel (the on-site host venue). Daudin credits Bohrer for giving her the green light to trust her instincts and grab the content attendees were asking for.
If nothing else, 2020 has taught event organizers to be nimble; many virtual-only events have come together in a matter of weeks. Omnichannel events do require more lead time, but Bohrer notes planning too content too far ahead may not be beneficial given all the changes we've experienced so far this year, and those changes yet to come.
Bohrer reports that attendees only asked coronavirus-focused questions to a leadership panel in July and August. But by the fall, the same panel was fielding more forward-thinking questions looking beyond the pandemic.
To keep up with the times, Bohrer advises sending pre-event surveys to attendees asking what they'd like to discuss. While an event's entire education package cannot be left fully open, a planner can address the latest topics by keeping one or two sessions available until closer to event time.
Ultimately, the starting point for an omnichannel event is the same as any conference for planners. That on-site experience should remain the priority and the digital content should feed off of that, Daudin says. Technology must be thought of in the same way: planners will need to work with hotel and venue partners to add enough bandwidth to cover all that's going to need to be covered.
Think of it like The Oscars. Most movie fans would love to be in the same room as George Clooney or Brad Pitt as they pick up a golden statue and eat Wolfgang Puck's culinary creations. For those thousands of attendees, that's an exclusive experience. The vast majority of people, though, are going to watch on television and see behind-the-scenes action the privileged few in Hollywood won't see until the show is over.
"You want to create exclusivity for both groups." Katie Bohrer
Digital-specific content can include exclusive interviews with presenters, company management, or other notable attendees. Also, the manner in which a session can be viewed can be quite different (more on that later).
"You want FOMO on both sides," says Daudin.