I was a virtual attendee at the Global Meetings Industry Day hybrid event hosted at the Conrad New York Downtown, the New York Chapter of PCMA, Greater New York Chapter of MPI, Eventfluence, and SITE Northeast USA. After a State of the Industry and Meetings Mean Business Update with Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., the panel discussion on Meet Safe Hybrid Meetings got underway.
On the panel: Derrick M. Johnson II, CMP, DES, chief diversity officer and director of event strategy, Talley Management Group Inc.; Hope Holm, regional sales director, Encore; Stacey Courtney, DES, assistant director of convention and events, Modern Language Association; and Zena Phillips, CMP, CPCE, senior director of catering and events, Americas sales operations, Hilton. Joining virtually on the panel was Koleen Roach, director, meetings and conference management, Securian Financial Group, and moderating virtually was Eva Saha, professional host, emcee, and moderator, represented by Gotham Artists.
The virtual event was hosted on Encore’s Chime Live platform, which was easy to navigate. I was able to watch the live video either in a small window or full screen, which I toggled between at different points of the event. Also included on the GMID event platform was a resource section, which included several helpful documents including a hybrid event checklist, an RFP questionnaire template, and a contingency communications plan template.
Saha did a masterful job of emceeing and moderating the panel without actually being on stage, from my perspective as a virtual participant, and skillfully engaged both audiences. While all the panel participants provided valuable insights, Roach seemed not to get as much air time by virtue of the fact that she wasn’t sitting on the stage in the Hilton ballroom. That seems like a challenge common to hybrid events — making sure those who aren’t physically in the room have an equal “presence.”
According to an instant poll taken early in the session, not surprisingly, the biggest concern among in-person and virtual participants when it comes to hybrid events is cost — respondents to Convene’s monthly Dashboard surveys also cite that as their biggest financial challenge.
When asked by Saha to address that issue, the panelists all agreed that it’s absolutely essential to develop your hybrid strategy around your goals and audiences’ experience and that it’s not always necessary to include all the bells and whistles. Johnson suggested taking a “freemium” approach to “get people in the door.” A tiered registration system would make certain sessions available for free online, and participants would pay to have a better experience in person — “there’s something magic about being in person,” he added. Even among in-person attendees, there could be tiered pricing with some VIP experiences. With this kind of ecosystem, he said, your goal is to get digital attendees to experience FOMO so that they will want to attend your next event in person.
The “biggest misconception” among planners, Johnson said, is that hybrid events are out of their reach.
Holm said planners’ biggest challenge with hybrid events is time. Everyone agreed that you need to start earlier when planning a hybrid event because you are essentially planning two events at the same time. Roach even suggested splitting your events team into two — one group dedicated to the in-person event and the other to the digital.
From my perspective, I am not sure that I had an inferior experience compared to those on-site. That is, until I heard from my colleague Barbara (her in-person account follows), that champagne and dessert was served — I felt a twinge of the FOMO Johnson spoke of. —Michelle Russell
The GMID hybrid meeting was the first industry event that I attended in person for more than a year — on March 10, 2020, I reluctantly sent my regrets for a scheduled hard-hat tour of the Javits Center expansion as the scope of the city’s COVID-19 infection rate was becoming clear. I would have found it impossible that day to comprehend that within weeks, that same convention center would be turned into a field hospital as the pandemic brought New York City to its knees or that scarcely a year later, Javits would become a massive dispensing site for the vaccines that hold the promise of leading us out of this global nightmare.
Fully vaccinated, I was excited but still nervous about going to an event in person. Happily, the invitation that I received from the GMID NY Planning Committee more than anticipated and answered all of my questions — complete with a video that illustrated the Conrad New York Downtown’s cleaning and disinfectant protocols. It also told me exactly which entrance I should use, described social distancing and mask requirements, and outlined the agenda down to the minute.
The event sponsors were on top of their game, but I have gotten a little out of practice navigating my way from my home in Brooklyn into Manhattan — I didn’t anticipate that there would be no cabs at all on a street where they once were a sure bet. It took a few minutes for a car service I called to arrive, and then more time when a blocked-off entrance to the Battery Tunnel forced us to reroute.
I realized that there wasn’t much I could do about the delay — and also that Michelle would be attending online, so there was no chance that Convene would miss the event altogether. As I admired the view of the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge, the driver wanted to talk. He’d made a practice, he told me, of asking his passengers what it had been like for them living through the pandemic in New York. He had stayed at home, not working, for seven months, he said, because he had a wife and small children, and didn’t want to risk making them ill. It had been terrifying and awful, and we were glad that part was over, we agreed.
I finally arrived, a bit late, to a gleaming Conrad, where staff had affixed white arrows on the stairs that led to the ballroom level. I was grateful that someone had remained stationed in the prefunction area, helping latecomers like me print a badge by scanning a QR code. After a spritz of hand sanitizer, I entered the ballroom, which ordinarily holds 156 people and was set for 48, and took a seat in the back row.
It was great to be there, and two big screens flanking the stage made sure I didn’t miss any of the video presentations or the online conversation. I soon found myself reflecting on how familiar it felt to be there, but also how things still felt a little off. Sitting masked, in pin-straight rows, careful not to get too close to one another, seemed to drain some of our individuality and conviviality away. At the same time, I was surprised at how happy it made me to hear the sound of the audience breaking into applause and to hear the conversational hum that filled the room at the event’s end — things I had long taken for granted at in-person events.
Toward the end of the program, hotel staff brought in trays of champagne and desserts, gracefully distributed in an evenly spaced ballet. I toasted the return of events to New York City with the rest of the group but didn’t stay to talk — I felt afraid of pushing my luck.
Outside, the evening had turned golden. A pathway along the Hudson River carried a steady stream of people and I stood and listened for a minute to a busker playing an electric guitar. Here in lower Manhattan, I easily got a cab, which was a good sign, I thought, of life coming back into the city. All of New York must be starved for conversation — the cabdriver who took me back to Brooklyn also was a talker. From the front seat, he showed me pictures on his phone of architecture that he admired in Queens, where he lived, and shared his plan to study literature when he stopped driving a cab.
As much as the elegant ballroom and insights from the panel, those moments were what stuck with me — serendipitous encounters that allow you the privilege of seeing for a moment how other people experience the world. It feels good to know that after a year of COVID, more of them are on their way to something better. — Barbara Palmer
Global Meetings Industry Day New York
Moderating virtually, Eva Saha closes the GMID hybrid event at the Conrad New York Downtown.