The Three Tiers of Virtual Event Production

8 min

Virtual events are here to stay, from basic one-way webinars to highly produced, interactive simulations of the in-person experience.

It's 2022, and we have now spent more than 2 years dealing with COVID. Working remotely may end up being a permanent thing for many companies that have realized they don't need to pay for large corporate offices, expensive cubicles, and equipment if people can be just as productive at home. Meanwhile, employees have enjoyed not needing to waste time commuting to work and getting settled in before being productive. Many have also realized additional productivity as they are able to do some home tasks while "at work."

Despite all this, companies still have a need to gather people to share information. Face-to-face collaboration still works better than Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Industries still need to gather companies at conferences and events to introduce new products, services, showcases, and more. Being hands-on with the press and customers works much better than a video because each reporter has a take that is different from the one corporate view.

So, whether it's a quarterly meeting, an annual marketing show, or an industry event like CES or the International Auto Show, we still need in-person events. But how these events recognize and incorporate remote presenters and remote audiences will have to change from what was done pre-COVID. The future of events is hybrid, although these hybrid events will take different forms, depending on the event size, budget, and nature and complexity of the off-site elements. There are what I call "Three Tiers of Hybrid," which represent three different ways to bring local and remote presenters and attendees together.

The companies and services mentioned here are based on my working experiences the past 2 years. There is no connection between any company or service mentioned here and me or this article.

The High-Level Hybrid Event

During the last 2 years, I've produced completely remote productions with my own tools and cloud-based ones. I've taken feeds from and produced shows into various cloud applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and more. I've also produced fully hybrid events with on-site production that combined local presenters and a local audience with remote presenters and a remote audience. In these fully hybrid events, anyone participating remotely—whether presenter or attendee—needs to be able to speak into the room with the local audience and presenters. Any audience member needs to be able to stand up and be recognized, either in the local auditorium or by the remote audience, and be seen and heard by all.

In addition, the cloud-based events I have produced have been more than just meetings or seminars; they have been complete virtual events, where the doors to get in aren't unlocked until 8 a.m. Everyone can come into the virtual space, look around, and mingle with others at tables in the lobby. Instant person-to-person, face-to-face conversations can happen at these tables. It could be two, three, five, or eight people around that table. Everyone is free to move from table to table just like in a real lobby. You're able to read the "Hello My Name Is" tag on whoever is at the table before you even sit down with them.

These events also have a separate exhibits area where vendors can rent booths. The vendors have their own tables for face-to-face mingling, answering questions, and demonstrating their products. They can have their own scheduled demonstrations and seminars, as well as literature on their products and services that attendees can click on and "take home." The seminars can be one track or multitrack. Attendees can build their own schedule or sign up for certain sessions in advance-just as they would at a real, in-person event.

This virtual event lacks only the immersive VR that the "metaverse" portends to offer us. It happens on the computer screen and, at its most basic, is a web browser for watching videos and seminars and chatting with others such as on Zoom. There are sidebars for text chat as well as Q&A, polls, and more interactive elements.

It takes a lot of people to manage a fully hybrid event. It requires handling registration and staffing the "ticket booth" for those who registered with a different email than they are trying to use to get in, among other issues. There are backstage personnel operating the cloud platform to start and stop sessions, bring speakers on stage, and even elevate any of the audience onto the stage to speak (and, if necessary, take them off when they've said enough).

If there's local production, there is a need for on-site producers like me who switch between multiple cameras, replace backgrounds, and incorporate videos, stills, slides, and other media into the "broadcast" that goes into the cloud platform either as Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) or as a virtual camera. This detail depends on whether the local presenter would need to stand on stage next to someone who is remote. This is only possible with virtual camera ingest. We use digital voice back channels that tie the local and remote crews together.

We make announcements over the event's virtual PA system-pop-up alerts that appear on attendees' screens, such as "Session 101 is starting," "The exhibit hall is now open," "Join us in the Arena to mingle with the leadership team at 3," etc. We have a run of show with separate columns for the local stage, what's on IMAG locally, what's being broadcast to the cloud event platform, what announcements get posted to the whole event, what announcements get posted in each session, what gets posted and pinned in the session chat, and more.

If a high-level hybrid event sounds like it takes a lot of people, in that respect, it's no different from a big, in-person event, which also takes a lot of people-and a lot of organization-to come together properly. But going hybrid adds the wrinkle of combining two events, a cloud event and an in-person event, simultaneously.

I've worked on several of these high-end hybrid events, and they've been very successful in reaching audiences that would not have attended the in-person event due to time, cost, location, or other reasons. Moreover, hybrid events can leverage top talent to speak and interact with the audience (through polls, chat, and more) in ways they couldn't do if they were just onstage in person. Plus, with no travel, hotel, and food costs or other expenses (on top of the speaking fee), the cost of bringing in premium speakers for just an hour is greatly reduced.

So, this is the top tier. It's the hardest to produce, but also the most immersive for speakers, sponsors, and attendees.

The Mid-Level Hybrid Event

Let's step back from the "It takes a village" approach. Take away the lobby. Take away the exhibits area. Take away the opportunity to bump into people that a real event offers, and strip it down to a more straightforward event.

If we make it so anyone local or remote can connect into our production tools, produce the content that gets delivered to the audience, and limit the audience to chat and Q&A on the platform, we arrive at an event that's much simpler to produce. There are fewer impromptu technical challenges, such as bringing random audience members onto the stage in front of everyone. Instead, attendees are directed to use chat and text to provide their feedback and contributions.

The producers are still able to deliver a highly engaging presentation. It could be on a nice big virtual stage, with graphics and information rendered in 3D, much like what Apple does with its keynotes or what FOX Sports does with its NFL commentators during the pre-game. This content is scripted, well-planned, and highly developed and creates an engaging experience for the attendees.

By bringing the key players into a production platform, the producers can integrate them with all kinds of media however they see fit—greenscreen; virtual environments; virtual objects; real-time, data-driven displays; and canned presentations and videos. Even though the mid-level hybrid is more of a one-way experience than a high-level hybrid, it still enables attendees to text chat with each other and push some content back to those who are on stage.

I've produced several of these where we've used various production platforms and environments to deliver our live-produced and prerecorded content to audiences. Sometimes delivering prerecorded "look-live" content is even better because it can be made very dynamic through editing, and the presenters are simultaneously available to comment and reply to the audience in the text chat, meaning they can directly answer questions, which they would not have been able to if they were live and focused on making the presentation. The mid-level is not as immersive as the high-level hybrid, not as costly, and not as staffing-intensive, but it is still quite engaging and can deliver very successful events.

Low-Level Hybrid Events

Let me be clear that I'm not disparaging this level of hybrid event: By "low" I'm referring to the resources required to make it happen. Generally, the low-level hybrid leverages a business chat application, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and the entire event happens in this platform.

Streaming Media's own Connect events are an example of how this can be used very effectively to run weeklong events with dozens and dozens of presenters and huge worldwide audiences-and with just a few producers clicking the buttons.

These events do not have the same onscreen effects as the mid- or high-level hybrid productions, but at the same time, they can be produced faster, and the information delivered is essentially very much the same as you would have received at an in-person event with a single person standing on stage.

While they may be low-level, these events can still be very successful in reaching audiences that might not have attended the in-person event due to time, cost, location, or other reasons. Moreover, these events can still leverage top talent to speak live and to interact with the audience in ways they couldn't do just on stage. And again, the cost to bring in such high-level speakers is greatly reduced.

Seldom do these low-level events try to integrate both local and remote presenters or audiences, but instead work within the functions of the platform for everyone involved—producer, presenter, or audience. The "level" of the show does not determine the value that an attendee will receive. In fact, the inverse can be true. The potential is that through reduced production costs of "putting it all on the screen," as it were, reallocated hotel and event space costs can be used to bring in top-caliber speakers. This can give the biggest value back to the attendee compared to a splashy hotel lobby with a decadent food spread.

Upgrades Over Time

When I started producing hybrid events in the spring of 2020 after every in-person event was canceled, I had to use production tools to make these shows look good because there was little or no other way to effectively produce the shows we wanted to present. This meant creating and delivering composite images with picture-in-picture, side by side with a presentation, multiple people on-screen in various views, etc.

Technology evolves fast when there is a demand, and there's a planet filled with people with money who are all stuck at home and looking for more—more capability, more features, more functionality, more panache. I can safely say that every online tool is very different in the spring of 2022 than it was 2 years ago. Even basic business chat apps now can pin multiple people side by side, share long videos from the desktop with audio, and better handle audiences and breakout rooms, all while managing who comes on stage when and with what privileges.

Things that simply were not possible with Microsoft Teams in the spring of 2020 are now being done regularly in Teams in 2022. The low-level platforms have elevated their game because their customers have demanded it. Companies are well aware that their paying customers can switch to a competing platform if they don't improve their products, fix bugs, and start giving customers what they clamor for. The platforms are investing and evolving rapidly.

Similarly, the high-end event tools have also improved, providing more interactivity, more functionality, and more user-demanded features that have helped to elevate these products. The entire hybrid event platform industry is making huge strides right now, trying to leapfrog each other by adding features and services that will pull back customers who have left. Event platform Hopin bought Stream-Yard to add integrated production. Business chat app Zoom and streaming platform Vimeo have both added new events layers to their offerings to reconnect with customers who went to event platforms that provide a wider scope of services.

In addition, new solutions are appearing every month. Some are nipping at the heels of established platforms, and others, like evmux, are jumping in with expansive feature sets that immediately set themselves apart from what is currently out there.

I hope my overview of the three tiers of hybrid events has helped you understand the scope of what is currently being done and what can be done. As you have seen, a "hybrid event" is a wide-open description. With this understanding, we can better communicate what we are looking to do when we work together.

Anthony Burokas is a 20-plus-year broadcast TV video producer currently based in Dallas. He has produced an extensive body of event, corporate, and broadcast TV.

 

This article was written by Anthony Burokas from Streaming Media Magazine and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.