The much-anticipated return to face to face events this past fall was complicated by several factors, not the least of which was an ongoing pandemic. But after so many months of mastering virtual technology in order to stay connected with event attendees, we have also realized the benefits. The choice of event formats became more than just in-person versus virtual; it now included a third option: hybrid. For this blog post, we asked event planners around campus about their experiences with this new format, the challenges they encountered and the lessons they have already learned about hybrid event production.

We began by asking, “Why hybrid?” The response usually had to do with maximizing participation from the intended audience. In this period of transition with the pandemic, many event attendees are still not comfortable travelling or being in large indoor gatherings. Offering a virtual format afforded those participants a choice. A smaller in person audience also allowed for better social distancing and a safer experience.

Even when the virtual technology is successful, the in-person audience enjoyed other advantages over the virtual experience. The audience gets direct access to live speakers, and the speakers feed off of the energy of the live audience. In-person attendees can connect over informal “water cooler” conversations, structured networking and after-program receptions. Several planners explained that despite the success of virtual programs in delivering content, they just could not replace the experience of building community that their event attendees missed over the last two years.

Some planners have begun to think differently about audience and event goals when considering hybrid events. The American Grand Strategy (AGS) Program has embraced the opportunity to share their programs with a virtual audience, but they have also recognized that a strong in-person event audience serves important goals. “Our distinguished guests travel to Duke from around the world to speak to our students and we want the venue to be as full as possible. This gives our speakers confidence, upholds Duke’s reputation of having an engaged student body and provides students with the experience of speaking in person with world-renowned experts in their field.” As a result, the AGS hybrid format is a straightforward livestream of the in-person event, and virtual chat and Q&A are disabled. Time, talent and resources are focused on the in-person experience.

Thorough preparation and strong teamwork enabled the Duke Alumni Regional Engagement team to manage the hurdles that a hybrid format presented during a recent Caste book discussion in Baltimore with alumni and Professor Patrick Smith.  “Looking back, there is not a strong enough reason for the added expense needed to support a hybrid event.” Feedback after the event indicated that virtual attendees felt they didn’t have enough opportunity to participate, in contrast to the in-person alumni who “felt like they were back in a Duke classroom!”

Nonetheless, hybrid remains a tempting option, and for those choosing to take up the challenge, here are some best practices for optimizing the virtual attendee experience. Consider these questions and recommendations from our colleagues at the Nicholas Institute, the Precision Genomics Collaboratory and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, as well as the Sanford School of Public Policy and Alumni Engagement and Development.

Basic Logistics

Can the virtual audience see the speaker well? If the event is a board meeting, is it important for the virtual participants to see the in-person participants? How well can the speaker see the virtual audience?

If you ask these questions early enough, your answers may inform the size of the venue you choose for your in-person event, as well as the placement of the Zoom cart or the video camera.

Can the virtual audience hear everything well?

Test your video elements in advance to be sure both virtual audio and in-room audio work. Provide microphones for audience Q&A and remind the audience to use them (Seriously: use the mic!).

Does your venue have the appropriate equipment, reliable internet and offer tech support trained in virtual and hybrid technology?

Are you prepared to make the financial investment for a successful virtual experience?

Prepare for the event as if it is entirely virtual: confirm all AV needs in advance, and collect and test all the media files.

We have learned to accommodate speakers who walk into a venue with last minute AV needs, but with the hybrid format, AV surprises rarely translate into virtual success.

Prepare Your Speaker

Coach the speaker about staying within camera frame.

Many presenters wander away from the podium as they speak, and unless you have a live camera operator, they may disappear from view of the virtual audience.

Instruct the speaker or the moderator to always repeat the question.

Even an in-person audience sometimes has trouble hearing the questions if mics are not used.

Have the master of ceremonies acknowledge both the in-person audience AND the virtual audience.

Going the Extra Mile

Will you be ready to start on time?

Open the venue to the in-person audience in advance and invite them to be there early, so that everyone is seated and you are ready to begin the program on time. Open the Zoom or virtual technology before the program actually begins, in case there are any connectivity issues.

Can you keep the virtual audience actively engaged?

It is easy for the in-person audience to command the attention of the speaker, especially during Q&A. Designate staff to monitor the virtual chat and Q&A features and act as the Virtual MC to ensure that questions from the virtual audience are addressed.

What about event swag?

While it might not be practical to ship gifts to all virtual attendees, why not offer a special amenity to the first twenty registrants, virtual or in-person?

For more tips and tricks, you can also watch the February SEPC Educational Program, Virtual Events from a Planner’s Perspective, presented by Stephanie Lowd, Director of Strategic Events, Duke Health Development & Alumni Affairs. With each hybrid event, you will likely face new challenges and learn something new, but you will expand the access to your events.

Special thanks to our colleagues for sharing their expertise:

Ann-Louise Aguiar, Senior Director, Regional Engagement
Colleen Bauer, Program Coordinator, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
David Bjorkback, Project Coordinator, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Beth O’Brien, Program Assistant, American Grand Strategy
Erin Rhodes, Staff Assistant, Precision Genomics Collaboratory


Edited by Kathy Wright and Kaitlin Briggs