Hybrid events: what does the future hold?

Science communicator Julie De Smedt interviews colleague and researcher Joris Verhulst


After one and a half years of coronavirus crisis, 'hybrid' has become a buzzword in the event world as well. Hybrid events seem to be omnipresent. But what do the data tell us? And how will all this evolve? As science communicator of our centre of expertise, I asked my colleague Joris Verhulst, one of our senior researchers. He is a curious social scientist and a born data expert. Above all, he is a future thinker. He muses about the bigger picture. He enjoys solving difficult problems. Even more so on a sun-drenched terrace with a fresh beer, like today!


Online, offline and hybrid. We know the concepts. But just for the record, what exactly do we mean when we refer to hybrid events?


A hybrid event is an event that simultaneously serves two audiences. One is physically present. Another audience attends the event online while it is taking place. This does not mean that they are just watching a live stream of what is happening at the 'real' location of the event.


A true hybrid event means interactivity, also for the online audience. The online audience are ideally not just spectators but also participants. They should be able to give and ask feedback, and meet and interact with others.


Since the beginning of the corona crisis, our centre of expertise has conducted research on the impact of the crisis on the event sector. What do the research results tell us about hybrid events?


In December 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, more than half of the event organisers set up online and/or hybrid events. And so did one in five suppliers. However, in the months that followed, organisers started planning fewer online and hybrid events and more physical offline events again, especially for events starting in the summer of 2021. Still, remarkably, one in three organisers also planned to organise online and hybrid events in 2022 or later. This shows that, by the end of 2020, they already expected hybrid events to be here to stay.


We even asked them literally. About six organisers out of ten think that online and hybrid events will also continue to exist in the future.


Our barometer research of event visitors shows that not only organisers but also visitors are positive towards hybrid events. During the corona period, 17% of the Flemish population engaged in online culture. One third of them wants to continue doing so post corona and is even willing to even pay for it. That is quite something! Of course, they do expect something more than a tedious live stream.


We often hear that events can be healthy for our societies. They connect people. And they can also bridge differences between certain groups. What societal potential do you think hybrid events have? Can they also have this kind of bridging impact?


In sociology, we talk about 'social capital'. In a nutshell, social capital is the value that your social networks have both for you as an individual, as well as for these networks. By social network we mean the contacts, the values and the trust associated with it.


In the context of events, we very often see 'bonding' social capital at work. Events can mobilise and bring people together who are very similar. They share a certain identity and similar interests, and often share the same set of values and background. That is not so strange. Certainly not for B2B events that often target very specific groups of people.


But there is also such a thing as 'bridging' social capital. This can be created when people who normally do not meet, have the opportunity to meet in a meaningful way. By breaking down those barriers, people not only gain more trust and respect for those other groups. They also discover the similarities and the benefits of ‘hanging out’ together. This way, events can reduce the potential distance between them.


We still see this 'bridging' too little, also at B2C events. And that is a missed opportunity, especially at festivals or sport events. According to the political scientist and one of the key figures of American research on social capital, Robert Putnam, bridging social capital is the way for societies to progress, connect and stimulate inclusion. And he also poses that social and cultural events might be a key to do so. Hybrid mixed forms can provide a stimulus here. For example, by involving groups that would otherwise not participate in a particular event online. Then, at a later stage, you can bring them physically to the event, together.


How do you see hybrid events evolving in the future?


I think they will continue to exist and further develop. Future generations will go both offline, online and hybrid. Just as my 14-year-old son meets his same friends in the park as in online gaming communities. Both worlds, and certainly the many hybrid forms, will become more and more embedded in the event sector.


Also, we should not underestimate the many benefits of hybrid events. Investments in event tech startups have increased explosively worldwide since the coronavirus crisis. It has become a billion-dollar-business. A hybrid or online event is of course also a lot more sustainable. And more time friendly. The corona crisis has taught us that we do not necessarily have to drive from one side of the country to the other for a two-hours meeting. We can just meet online. This awareness will continue to have its effect, also for other and larger events, especially in B2B.


Hybrid events could potentially be more inclusive too. They can reach people who find it difficult to get around, who do not feel comfortable in large crowds or people who have not yet overcome the fear of the virus. I am also thinking, for example, of people who are new to a company or a particular topic, or who are socially rather timid. They can take their first steps more easily via the online gateway.


So hybrid events have some potential. Do we need a more innovative form of hybrid events?


I believe that we are just at the very beginning of online and hybrid events. Where we now often see simple livestreams with Mentimeter polls to add some interactivity, the online event sector will seriously transform. I see great potential in what we are already seeing today in the arts and gaming sector: the use of online avatars, VR technologies and other ways to really engage people. These will only become more mainstream. I expect a lot from the research and creative proofs of concept that are developed, also by other knowledge institutions.


In my opinion, the greatest challenge lies in connecting the two audiences. How do you bring the physical audience into contact with the online audience? How can you offer the online participants an immersive experience? The online participants must be able to feel and experience that connection with the other attendees. They, too, should want to be at that event, so they can say: 'I was there'. This still requires some thought and research.


I hear you: a new issue, a new challenge, a new adventure. Our centre of expertise seems to be the ideal place to explore this further!


More information about the research https://www.publiekeimpact.be/en-impactcoronacrisis