Organising Hybrid Events

I co-lead a Tableau User Group and may refer to Tableau or TUGs, however these learnings are applicable for any event independent of subject matter or location.

Slowly but surely more and more countries lift restrictions on in-person gatherings. For us as User Group organisers that means we will need to think about the transition to more physical meetings again. Much like most companies shifted to accept working from home as a standard practice, I think we need to consider organising hybrid events going forward. Even before the pandemic there were events that were streamed online, however I think there is a distinct difference between truly hybrid events and “streamed” events.

Hybrid vs. Streamed

A streamed event is just that, an in-person event that happens to be recorded and made available online. A hybrid event on the other hand is planned and executed with the idea that virtual as well as local attendees have the same (realistically: a similar) experience. For me as an attendee there shouldn’t be a large difference either way, I should be able to listen and participate no matter how I join. Obviously there will be differences, the possibility for networking is limited (although there could be ways around it) and you won’t be able to benefit from snacks and drinks, however the main aspect for me is that you are treated the same. You should have the same possibilities to ask questions or leave comments, to participate in challenges or draws and you shouldn’t feel like a passive observer as you might feel watching a live stream.

Make sure there is demand

Being in New Zealand, we were lucky enough to be largely without restrictions since June 2020 or so, nevertheless we ran virtual event until December and only now picked up hybrid events again. The main reason was that the work culture shifted quite recognisably. The CBD was emptier, organisations supported their employees working from home and many companies were still hesitant to host events. We sent a survey to our members last year to determine the new work patterns and it was clear that we would end up with a much smaller crowd than before the pandemic. For our first hybrid event we had around 20 people in the room and another 10-15 dialed in. In total this is a bit less than what we had pre-covid but I’m confident we can increase that for the next few events.

As a User Group organiser in your city you’ll likely be aware of the general vibe in town and whether people are back in the office or still working from home. I’d encourage you to ask around and possibly send a survey as well to gauge interest and make sure you don’t spend a ton of effort setting up a hybrid event to have only 3 people attend in person.

Make it truly hybrid!

As I said, for me the most important part of a hybrid event is to reduce the difference between attending in-person or virtually as much as possible. There are obvious limits to it but here are some ideas how to do it.

Get a remote speaker

The best way to achieve a hybrid event is by having a mixture of remote and local speakers. It will be the same experience for either type of attendee and with a remote speaker you can be sure you don’t run into problems that virtual attendees cannot hear properly or are not able to attend an activity etc. It also gives you access to a much larger speaker pool, which is a huge advantage especially in a country like New Zealand.

Check your agenda

We usually have two speakers with a break in between for pizza and drinks. We did the same during the event and realised that this creates an awkward silence for virtual participants and a pressure on us to continue which we didn’t have when we could read the room to see if we should continue. For our next events we will likely get the pizza in the beginning or the end and might just have a short break of a few minutes in between.

Consider the room

We tend to organise our events in companies boardrooms so there is usually not a lot of buzz around, however in the early days our TUG was held in a pub, which means there was quite a bit of ambient noise. Together with an awkward room layout, it made the audio even for a 100% in-person event quite bad. Keep that in mind when you chose a venue and if you don’t have a choice (as many of us don’t), think about how you could improve the situation (choose a different day or time, shift equipment around, etc.)

Make it interesting for virtual attendees

Assuming you considered the previous points, you are already halfway there. But think about interactivity. Tools like Kahoot work really well to engage people dialing in remotely as well as locally. You can also be pretty creative with the type of questions and formats. In our last event we had an eLearning voucher to give away and we gave it to the person who answered all questions but got the least amount of points (the winner got a book instead). One other platform that was called out by other hosts (Thanks Fi and everybody else) was Menti. I haven’t personally used it but it seems to support audience participation and instant feedback which can be used for surveys, check-in questions, etc. These platforms are actually quite fun and the experience is the same for local and virtual attendees. Your Tableau contact should be able to provide you with a Kahoot login!

Give aways

Sure we all love SWAG, but keep in mind that you may have people joining from across the globe. I relied heavily on bookdepository.com as they provide free shipping to most parts of the world. Alternative, maybe you can find some virtual give-aways. (Get in touch with your Tableau contact, they may be able to provide eLearning or Tableau store vouchers – just be mindful international shipping from the store is horrendous).

Communicate!

Tell your remote participants what’s happening if it is not obvious. If something interrupts, if there are questions in the audience, if you have a break and before you come back. Tell them what’s happening and assume they cannot hear what anybody without a microphone is saying. This is especially important for questions. Always repeat the question with a microphone before answering it!

Hybrid, but how?

The main reason we never bothered to stream our events pre-covid were the perceived technical requirements to make it happen. Find a platform, organise the necessary hardware, technical setup, etc. What we realised this year was that the only additional piece of equipment that we didn’t use before was a phone.

The setup

What worked really well for us was having the speaker laptop connected to zoom to share the slides and the audio and a phone on a tripod dialed in from the middle of the room to stream the video of the speaker and slides. If you don’t forget to share your screen (wink wink), your virtual attendees will see the presentation in the main screen and the video of the speaker as a little overlay in one of the corners. Depending on presentation style, slide layout and the room, you might even get away with just the video and no shared screen.

Do a tech check!

No really, do a tech check!

If you have organised these kind of events before I am sure you are used to a certain level of improvisation. We all are! Usually our tech checks are limited to plugging our laptops in 15 min before the presentations starts. But while you can work around most issues at an in-person event quite easily (speak louder if the mic doesn’t work), for a hybrid event this might exclude half of your audience. And if that wasn’t annoying enough, imagine somebody got up early or stayed up late to join your event, just to realise that they cannot join anyway.

I visited our venue in the morning, to make sure we had all the cables and adapters but when we did our actual tech check half an hour before the start of the event, we realised that if we connect the PA to our laptop, in order to have better sound in the zoom meeting, we wouldn’t be able to hear anybody online, considering we had a remote speaker, that wasn’t acceptable. There may have been a way around that, but with attendees arriving and only 10 min to go, we weren’t really in the situation to do troubleshooting. In the end the sound from the speakers in the room was picked up through my laptop well enough, but it wasn’t ideal. If we had checked it before we could have worked around that much better.

Virtual support

Have somebody dial in remotely. For us Caroline from Tableau was online for most of the event and called out when she couldn’t hear something or when the screen share stopped. Attendees might not call these things out for various reasons so having one of the organisers dial in is super helpful. They can also keep an eye on the chat and Q&A to make life for you easier.

Dial in with multiple devices

Make use of your phones and dial in with them as well. We had just one person locally dialed in and I think a second one would have been helpful. Between keeping an eye on everything, introducing speakers or moderating questions, it’s really helpful if a second person can check things as well. It also allows you to leave the room to check the online audio and screen share in case you don’t have a remote support.

Seriously, do a tech check!

I understand that there may be limitations on how much you can actually check but do as much as possible. As I said, I went to the venue before and still ended up with problems.

Share your experience!

Our user group is special! As special as any other user group 🙂 What works for us might not be the best solution for you and vice versa. I’d encourage you to share your tips and experiences. Either in the comments below, on Twitter, your blog or anywhere else where the community can read it (happy to have you as a guest author as well!). This will allow all of us to learn from each other and get ideas on how to run better events online and offline.

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