Hybrid Conferences: The future, or a passing fad?

The Director of the Researcher to Reader Conference, Mark Carden, discusses his recent experience running a fully interactive hybrid (physical & online) conference. Mark is also a Managing Consultant at publishing recruitment firm Mosaic Search, and has worked in the publishing and library sectors for over 20 years, including holding senior positions at Ingenta, Ingram and Dynix.

Has the suspension of physical conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the partial success of their online substitutes changed the meeting landscape forever? Is the future pine-for-physical, onward-to-online or hypothesise-about-hybrid? We tested this in February with a hybrid version of the Researcher to Reader (R2R) conference, an annual scholarly communications meeting of researchers, editors, librarians and publishers.

With the pandemic, online events replaced the physical conferences that were no longer possible. These took one of two formats: broadcast webinars and online conferences. The vast majority were broadcast webinars (although often billed as conferences) with minimal delegate interaction. Such events had the advantage of being inexpensive to both deliver and attend, but were deeply disappointing for those delegates who craved interaction and conversation. Some 2021 event organisers added some collaborative elements to their broadcast webinars, such as the EASE virtual outdoor reception, or the (little-used) UKSG virtual networking rooms, but very few events were designed to be an actual online conference – a meeting where delegates would interact with speakers and each other throughout the event, through thoughtful design and innovative technology.

Researcher to Reader

R2R offered a real online conference in February 2021, with almost three hours of fully-interactive workshops and a similar amount of in-event online networking. This full-priced online conference had similar attendance levels to the previous physical years (around 150-200 people) and satisfaction ratings of over 98%. It was challenging and expensive to run, however, and not affordable for many potential attendees who had seen their conference budgets slashed to match cheaper webinar rates.
For 2022, we were determined to offer the same real conference experience in a fully hybrid environment. This ambition was partly driven by an anticipation that the pandemic might not allow full physical participation, with some still unwilling or unable to attend in person. But we were also motivated by a desire to continue the improved accessibility that online offers for those with limited travel budgets, disabilities, caring responsibilities or other challenges. Online has offered increased equity and inclusivity, and hybrid has the potential to do even more.
We aimed to use what we had learned in the production of an online event to deliver, in hybrid form, the four main components of a typical R2R conference timetable: plenary sessions, workshops, lightning talks and networking.

Plenary Communication

Our plenary sessions include panels, presentations and our debate. It is possible to deliver this sort of plenary programming online via Zoom or a similar platform for very little money. In a fully hybrid environment, however, where any moderator or speaker can be online or on the physical stage, and where any member of the audience who has a question can also be anywhere, you need to invest in more technology and skilled audio-visual (AV) production resources. Audio mixing is particularly challenging, as you need to deliver good quality sound into both the room and the broadcast, without feedback or distortion. We worked with an AV production company, Giggabox, who are based near Milton Keynes in the UK, to manage this for us. They set up sound and vision mixing desks at our venue, together with two camera operators to capture both speakers and audience. Meanwhile, two staff at their HQ managed the online component, preparing speakers in the ‘green room’ and handing them over to the live production ’studio’. This team ensured that the online and physical contributors were fully integrated for online and physical audiences, and allowed us to invite live questions from both. The final product was delivered to the ‘big screen’ at our physical venue at BMA House in London and also online (as a Zoom-like feed) embedded in our online platform OnAIR.

Our participants told us (on the day and in our feedback survey) that this all worked very well. There were plenty of dramas ‘behind the scenes’, with both technology and people. Most technical glitches were rapidly fixed, and our moderators and speakers gradually grew to ‘trust the tech’ as the conference progressed, with a noticeable reduction in microphone tapping and “Am I live yet?” questioning by day two. Several contributors, perhaps lulled by frequent in-house Zoom meetings, didn’t grasp the professional standards we aspired to, and the preparation time we had requested: one online speaker arrived ‘in the studio’ with under a minute to spare, causing consternation for the production team – yet the audience saw only the slickness of another on-time session.

It was also a challenge to get the audience to interact with the sessions as actively as they would in physical events. The text chat on our online platform was not as busy as we hoped, and while we had a good number of live questions from physical participants, we found that coaxing online participants to pop into the ‘green room’ to prepare to ask their question live proved harder than anticipated.

The online platform was very little used by physical participants, although they had been provided with log-in links and guidance. We thought that people at the venue might use the online platform (on laptops or smartphones) to check the schedule, use text chat and connect with online participants, but this was very rare. Several physical and online participants were, however quite active on Twitter, which may have been a more familiar medium, as well as generating attention beyond the conference participants.

We were surprised by how many of our moderators and speakers were online, with quite a few switching from physical plans to online reality. Some were only able to contribute to our programme at all because we were offering a fully flexible hybrid approach – they cited timing conflicts, organisational travel bans, budget constraints, wellbeing concerns, last-minute positive COVID tests and Storm Eunice travel delays – but several were based in London or the South East and simply chose the convenience of online. For a community-oriented hybrid event, it was ideal that the audience was 50:50 hybrid, but disappointing that the podium was more like 80% online.

Workshop Collaboration

Our workshops were designed to be fully hybrid, with people able to interact across the online-physical boundary. This was delivered using an online networking platform called Spatial Chat, which had proved popular in the 2021 online-only conference. This platform enables people to move a live video image of themselves around a virtual room and to talk with others online. This is intuitive and works well for online interaction, but is not designed for a hybrid environment. Consequently we had to devise an approach that combined this excellent online collaboration platform with the more traditional in-room conversation. We projected live video of the virtual room on a big screen in the physical room, and embedded a live video feed from the physical room into the virtual room. In addition, we gave workshop facilitators the ability to share a live image of collaborative materials (such as a Google Doc or Miro Board) within the virtual room, which was then also projected into the physical room.

The workshop facilitators (some of whom were online and some at the venue) needed to actively engage both physical and online participants, to ensure a high level of ‘cross-boundary’ collaboration. They also had to carefully manage the audio, so the right people were heard and there was no audio feedback.

In practice this all worked well, with most of our six parallel workshop groups quickly developing an effective hybrid working methodology during the three sequential one-hour meetings that each group undertook over two days. Preparing the facilitators in advance to use the solution we had designed was very challenging (and largely unsuccessful), but what seemed, at first, to be impossibly complicated was reported to be ‘so easy’ by the end.

Lightning Talk Interaction

The lightning talks, which took place in two parallel tracks during breaks in the main programme, were designed on the same hybrid basis. There was an initial focus on the speaker, but both online and physical audience members could engage in hybrid and interactive question-and-answer exchanges.
Unfortunately the audience participation was lower than expected, mainly because so many presenters used up their whole 10-minute time allowance to speak, rather than opt for our suggested balance of 50% speaking and 50% interaction. In future, we would probably plan to use our plenary session setup for lightning talks.

Networking Conversation

For networking, we enabled conversations amongst both physical and online participants. We chose not to support live interaction between a physical participant and an online participant, other than a physical participant simply ‘going online’, as this would have been technically challenging and (probably) little used. We could call this a semi-hybrid offering.
The people at the venue were very happy to be back in a physical conference environment, chatting face-to-face while enjoying the delicious food provided by our venue. Meanwhile many online participants networked using the Spatial Chat virtual rooms, although many others were distracted by work or home concerns.
Our levels of active networking were also somewhat reduced because we ran the lightning talks in parallel with the breaks, and many people were drawn out of networking and into the lightning talks.
Overall, we learned a few things:

  • It’s not really a conference unless it is a live and highly interactive meeting.
  • It’s not really hybrid unless everyone can choose whether to participate online or physically.
  • It’s not really hybrid unless people can communicate across the physical-online boundary.
  • It takes additional design, technology and services to communicate across the boundary.
  • If you make it possible for speakers to be hybrid, a surprisingly high number will be online.

We also learned that to design and deliver a real conference, which is really hybrid, is extremely challenging (and expensive). As one team member said, “We prepared twice as much as last year, and we were half as prepared as we needed to be!” But our participants tell us it was worth the effort, and we already have ambitious plans for 2023.

Written by: Mark Carden

Researcher to Reader, Conference Director