Multi-Hub Meetings Combine Convenience of Digital, Camaraderie of Face-to-Face

Author: David McMillin       

Belgium-based ABBIT Meeting Innovators uses multi-hub meetings to tackle attendance challenges for busy health-care professionals.

We tend to treat digital and in-person meetings as an either/or dynamic—an attendee participates in one or the other. But an emerging model aims to combine the convenience of digital with the camaraderie of a face-to-face environment.

Maarten Vanneste, CMM, CMA, president and CEO of Belgium-based ABBIT Meeting Innovators, has focused on tackling attendance challenges for health-care professionals—whose busy schedules can make a live conference experience a luxury—with a concept called a multi-hub meeting. Instead of boarding planes for a traditional three-day conference, groups of attendees gather in their own hospitals to con-verse with colleagues around the world.

“The limited travel component is a huge piece of what makes this so attractive,” Vanneste said. “Some of these physicians are performing multiple life-saving procedures each day. Asking them to leave their care settings is impossible.”


Under the multi-hub model, attendees are scattered across continents and time zones, with a conference chair at the center of it all to manage the flow. “Each meeting relies on having a strong chairperson who can keep the conversation moving,” Vanneste said.

“It must be someone who is comfortable interrupting speakers in other locations to make sure that every attendee has a chance to contribute.”

At a recent multi-hub meeting for oncology professionals, 75 surgeons, chemotherapists, and radiologists gathered in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and Seoul, while the chair facilitated from a hospital in London. A speaker in each location offered a 30-minute presentation, and the chair moderated a discussion after each session while keeping the meeting running on time. Attendees voted on questions using an audience response system. In addition, a text-based discussion system allowed for virtual conversation among attendees, designed to mimic typical breakout sessions with one difference: Attendees could choose to submit comments anonymously. The chair also contributed to the discussion, monitoring activity and prompting the audience with questions.

ABBIT organizes about 20 of these multi-hub meetings a year for pharmaceutical and medical-device clients. Two technicians travel to each host venue, while a primary technical director sets up wherever the conference chair is located. The audiovisual requirements are limited, and so are the baggage fees. In fact, Vanneste said that most of his technicians travel with one carry-on suitcase and one checked bag. While the needs vary based on each meeting, the luggage always includes two HD video cameras, a camera con-troller, lights, a video connection, a clicker for speakers to advance slides, a voting system for participants, and 12 push-to-talk microphones. All that equipment has an impact: Ninety percent of attendees at the oncology meet-ing said they would recommend the experience to their colleagues.

More than 1,000 people logged on to watch the first-ever [CTRL] + [ALT] + [DEL] online conference on the future of events.

But adding a face-to-face component to a digital program doesn’t always mean hiring a team of experts or even investing that many additional dollars. With free or inexpensive tools like Skype, GoToMeeting, and Zoom now widely available, online attendees can organize their own complementary in-person events. In fact, a group of meeting professionals recently took the initiative to turn the first-ever [CTRL] + [ALT] + [DEL]—an online conference on the future of events—into an around-the-world, in-person experience.

Held on Aug. 23, the six-hour, live-streamed program included speakers from Marriott, Social Tables, and BizBash, with each one using GoToMeeting to deliver a 20-minute presentation on topics such as diversity at events, marketing automation, and digital engagement. More than 1,000 people logged on to watch—but some of them wanted to do more than that.

“After we announced the sessions, it was clear that attendees wanted a chance to get together and talk about the education rather than keep the discussion confined to social media,” said Dahlia El Gazzar, DES, a self-described event-technology evangelist and one of the summit’s organizers. “Our inboxes were flooded with requests to arrange face-to-face meet-ups.”

One of those offers came from Rachel Stephan, president of Montreal-based sensov/ event marketing, who saw [CTRL] + [ALT] + [DEL] as a chance to show her clients and colleagues the power of digital technology. Stephan had initially planned to host the group in a small boardroom at her office. How-ever, she found an even more convenient location that was already outfitted with plenty of tech tools for a theater-like environment: the Montreal offices of FMAV, a Canadian audiovisual and event-technology company. Twenty-five attendees participated, and Stephan moderated discussions about the trends and issues on the agenda.

Other meet-up groups had their own conversations in Amsterdam, Cape Town, New York, and 12 other cities. During breaks, each location used GoToMeeting to create a face-to-face connection among all the remote locations. The technical sophistication varied among venues, but the objective wasn’t to deliver high production values.

“We wanted to bridge the gap across the world,” Stephan said. “It felt like a real community came together.”

As more organizations offer some type of digital education, Stephan believes that organizing local face-to-face events will be key to enhancing those learning opportunities. “When watching a webinar or a live event by yourself, you’re easily distracted with emails or phone calls,” Stephan said.

“Coming together with your peers feels like extra motivation to focus. Even though the program is virtual, you’re part of something more. You can really immerse yourself in the experience.”

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.