Welcome to the era of the hybrid meeting. While meetings may still emanate from within a function room, they are increasingly extending far beyond the four walls to draw in audiences not subject to physical boundaries.
Whether through personal mobile devices or sophisticated virtual meeting suites, technology is revolutionizing the way meetings content is communicated—both in and out of the meeting room. Not only are people outside the room drawn in, but those within the room have access to a heightened degree of interaction.
While it once was considered taboo for attendees to check their cell phones during a keynote address, today it is expected that delegates tweet away, thereby personally participating in what is called the speech’s "backchannel discussion."
Corbin Ball, meetings technology guru and CEO of Corbin Ball and Associates, observes that the tweeting phenomenon is part and parcel of the two biggest technology trends in recent memory.
"The two hottest trends that are happening right now are mobile technology and social media," he says. "In the 30 years I’ve spent watching technology, those are the two most explosive booms I’ve ever seen."
Starting with social media, Ball says the advent of Facebook has changed the face of meetings, if just from a marketing standpoint.
"I believe in the golden rule of marketing: Market where people already are," he says. "One in 14 people on this planet are on Facebook. The site is becoming the new inbox for many in the under 35 crowd. For meetings, it is about engaging people before events and making announcements."
According to Ball, mobile technology has completely changed the face of meetings.
"A mobile phone is morphing into a mini computer," he says. "Before, when you were at a meeting, you couldn’t carry around a computer with you, but now mobile phones can do everything from networking and lead exchanging to audience surveys and course notes. The technology affects nearly every aspect of the meeting planning process."
Understanding these new technologies is vital if meeting planners want to speak the language of their up-and-coming attendees, says Andrea Driessen, whose title at Seattle-based No More Boring Meetings is chief boredom buster.
"When we look at what Millennials and Gen-Yers want in a meeting, they are so used to being integral in creating their lives and connecting with people, that you have to integrate that into a meeting," she says. "If you were to place a Millennial in a traditional meeting where they can’t participate, they are going to check out."
Driessen says it is becoming commonplace for meeting participants to use mobile devices to create content with a speaker, such as answering survey questions.
"Audience responses get tabulated in real time and shown on the screen," she says. "The event then becomes a conversation instead of a one-way dictation."
Increasingly, planners are taking note of the efficiency of virtual meetings technology, much of it new and improved over years past, and using it to offer hybrid or blended meetings.
"A hybrid meeting is one that has a real-time, face-to-face component as well as a virtual component," says Driessen, adding that such meetings could include a webinar with an in-person presentation, or an event speech broadcasted on the Web to attendees who couldn’t make the meeting.
According to Midori Connolly, CEO of San Diego-based Pulse Staging and Events, hybrid meetings are all the rage.
"The hybrid meeting format has become really popular; it is almost becoming the standard," she says. "A lot of larger events are being streamed live with backchannel conversations on platforms such as Twitter."
How big are hybrid meetings likely to become in the future?
"Right now, they have not been widely used, but that growth is going to explode," Ball predicts. "It will be considered commonplace. The video component is where it is really going to take off."
For example, Skype, an Internet video conferring service, is coming out with a version in high definition (HD) that is free, Ball notes.
"With this new technology, people will be able to do HD videoconferencing from their desktop and anywhere," he says. "Most of our computers these days have a built-in webcam. As long as you can bring in a speaker, it is as simple as making sure you have an Internet connection."
Hybrid meetings may be taking off in popularity, but what kinds of events lend themselves best to a virtual component?
"When there is an information transfer that needs to happen and you don’t need to get people to buy into it emotionally, that is grounds for a virtual meting," Driessen says. "If they need to connect on a heart-to-heart level, a 100 percent virtual meeting will fall flat."
According to Betsy Bondurant, CMP, CMM, president of Coronado, Calif.-based Bondurant Consulting, virtual meetings can be advantageous for organizations.
"It can help with cost because you aren’t flying people," she says. "It is also a green way to have a meeting because more and more people are getting concerned about carbon emissions. Many companies are trying to reduce their carbon footprint and this type of meeting helps to support those initiatives."
With the explosion of virtual technology, are face-to-face meetings a thing of the past?
"I am convinced that face-to-face meetings aren’t going anywhere," Driessen says. "We all know in our gut that face-to-face meetings are more powerful than virtual meetings. It is important for us as meeting professionals to view hybrid meetings not as a threat to face-to-face, but as an opportunity to raise the bar on our profession. A hybrid meeting forces us to become better, more relevant and more engaging."
In-person meetings are more likely to grab an attendee’s complete attention, Driessen says.
"An important statistic is that 62 percent of people multitask during webinars," she says. "If you want people’s undivided attention, webinars aren’t the way to go."
According to Bondurant, face-to-face meetings are not only here to stay, they are made stronger with hybrid components.
"There is still a huge need for face-to-face meetings," she says. "The beauty of a hybrid meeting is that it can extend the life of a meeting. Attendees can go online and check in weekly, monthly and yearly. If they can’t attend live, they can virtually."
Katie Morell is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Meetings Media editor.