Conference centers in transition to a post-COVID world

Sanitizing at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss.
Sanitizing at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss.

With the increased implementation of COVID-19 vaccines and state and local governments loosening pandemic protocols, conference centers across the South have continued to see hybrid meetings as an in-demand solution in this period of transition. They bring to the table a range of histories and experiences with hybrid events.

“Prior to the pandemic, there were instances of connecting live groups over multiple locations,” said Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC and chairman of the Events Industry Council. “These were mostly for connected training courses or senior leadership of corporate companies who were geographically spread.”

One conference center with experience in simulcasting for meetings and events pre-pandemic is Maritime Conference Center (MCC), located in Linthicum Heights, Md., just outside Baltimore, according to director of sales and marketing Jill Porter.

Prior to the pandemic, some groups at MCC streamed videos of general session speakers onto screens or television monitors in attendee overflow spaces, while other groups incorporated basic video or conference calling technology into in-person meetings, said Porter. “True hybrid events, where a portion of the attendees are virtual and others in person, were not in demand until recently.”

Porter said the pandemic pushed the timeline for hybrid capabilities ahead of schedule at MCC, a facility located on the campus of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies.

MCC’s first true hybrid meetings were designed to bring their East Coast staff and Baltimore-area students together in learning environments with West Coast staff and students in Seattle.

After hosting what Porter called the “first successful hybrid event” in September 2020, MCC staff introduced a ‘hybrid ready room,’ complete with a camera tracking the presenter and a fixed camera for participants. The room’s audio system includes ceiling-mounted speakers and microphones, as well as a lapel mic for the instructor. The built-in projector with screen at the front of the room, and a mounted television monitor at the back of the room, ensure a dynamic learning environment for all involved.

In Oxford, Miss., sales manager Dana Faggert said Oxford Conference Center staff hadn’t experienced a significant demand for hybrid meetings until recently, beyond some conference phone call-ins.

When it came time to start packaging digital and hybrid meetings, things started low key.

“Initially, we utilized basic computer cameras and our audio system to pipe sound into the virtual meeting software while waiting on high-quality equipment to arrive,” Faggert said. “Due to the high demand on virtual meeting equipment, there was a delay due to back order.”

Faggert said the OCC now has “a great system in place, ensuring high-quality sound and imaging for both in-person and virtual attendees. We have high-quality cameras and audio equipment for virtual meetings available for rental. Every event is different, so we customize the A/V to best fit the client’s needs.”

Budgetary considerations

IACC MultiPOD meeting locations.
IACC MultiPOD meeting locations.

Cost effectiveness is a major consideration for any event, and hybrid events are no different. Faggert said hybrid meetings allow clients to save money by renting a smaller meeting space (depending on social distance needs) and ordering less food and beverage.

“However, an additional cost is incurred with the rental of virtual meeting equipment,” she said. “With hybrid meetings, some groups may even need to hire someone to oversee the equipment to ensure smooth transitions on both platforms. Meeting planners should factor in the full expense when determining the registration price for the virtual option to ensure pricing covers the additional expenses.”

Porter said it can be very difficult to decide how to price these options.

“How do you ensure the virtual attendee’s experience is as good as an in-person attendee’s experience?” she said. “Can you price the same for the in-person guest that is receiving meals, etc. to the virtual attendee?”

Porter said understanding each client’s key performance indicators for each specific meeting is helpful in deciding if a hybrid model will be a good fit going forward. “For example, if face-to-face networking, live exhibitor experience, a hands-on demo, or experiential learning, etc. are important, it is difficult to duplicate online. The expense of the virtual environment is also something to consider,” she said. “You can do a meeting on a budget or create an entire experience.”

The format most popular with IACC, said Cooper, is their MultiPOD framework. IACC’s official description of a MultiPOD setup is “one meeting, with in-person groupings of participants in two or more different locations. Each location is referred to as a POD. Each POD is a proper meeting at the same time, interconnected with the other PODs, allowing for full collaboration.”

Citing the big-picture cost effectiveness of the MultiPOD model, Cooper said, “If you compare one element only, like the technology cost, it will be more expensive than running single location live events. However, when you consider it as a total cost to stage per attendee, including associated expenses such as travel, lodging, and impact on the environment, then the figures stack up to achieving greater return on investment. Other considerations include getting more bang for your buck on the quality/cost of a keynote, who no longer needs to travel in and out of a remote conference location far away. They can travel to the local POD or easily be a virtual keynote—and it’s much less expensive.”

A meeting room at Oxford Conference Center.
A meeting room at Oxford Conference Center.

Faggert said the OCC will continue to offer hybrid meeting package options as long as there is demand. As for in-person events, the facility will continue to have strict sanitizing and social distancing protocols in place and will follow all guidelines set forth by the CDC and state and local governments.

Porter said MCC has seen virtual and hybrid meetings still in demand, but many are excited for the return of purely in-person meetings. “There is something magical that happens when people meet in person, and many of our customers are excited about safely capturing the learning environment, networking, and energy of live in-person events again,” she said.

One approach Porter suggested is to record speakers during a face-to-face event and then release the recordings to the virtual audience only after the conference has concluded. “The hope is this will encourage those able to attend in person to do so,” she said.

The other trend Porter has seen is physically distancing in-person attendees, either by simulcasting speakers into separate meeting spaces, or by staggering smaller groups of attendees through the same educational experience.

Hybrid events boost accessibility

Cooper said he believes any method to make attending a business event more accessible is a good thing.

“Multi-location events reduce the required travel time for attendees, [as well as] associated travel costs,” Cooper said. “The technology framework used for MultiPOD meetings also makes adding a virtual attendee very easy, increasing attendance further. We now feel becoming a virtual participant is not a replacement necessarily to attending live. It can be viewed as an important way to introduce a new attendee, who then strives to attend in person next time.”

Cooper added that he believes meetings models and attendee behaviors have changed for good in a post-vaccine world. Even with the increased desire to return to fully in-person events, keeping options on the table for hybrid events makes conferences more regional and accessible, which he said will be a long-term transformation that is good for the person, the organization, and the planet.

“The format and approach to facilitating a multi-location meeting of any kind has to be different. If you approach it in the context of fitting your past event format into this new model, it will likely fail,” Cooper said. “The same is true for hybrid events. You need to adapt your format and engagement methods. Facilitation and content delivery changes have the potential to make your events impactful, and that’s what makes this whole concept very exciting for the future of meetings.”

Christopher Jennings is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, La. His most frequent topics are arts, culture, and nightlife. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Loyola University New Orleans and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University.

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