Virtual, Hybrid, or In-Person: Business Leaders Weigh In on the Future of Events

In 2019, Microsoft hosted their annual Ignite event in Orlando for one week. It was the most successful Ignite they’d ever had, with well over 27,000 attendees.

That is, until the fall of 2021 — when they hosted over 270,000 attendees in a virtual version of the same event.

A couple of years ago, the majority of businesses hosted in-person trade shows and conferences. Virtual conferences were a rarity.

But, post-pandemic, we’re seeing a major shift towards virtual or hybrid events. In fact, HubSpot Blog Research found roughly 40% of marketers plan to increase their investments in virtual events, webinars, and conferences in 2022, followed by 39% who plan to spend the same amount as they did in 2021. A mere 16% plan on decreasing their investment.

Bob Bejan, Microsoft’s Vice President of Global Events, is unsurprised by this shift towards virtual, and believes it was always destined to be the future of events.

He told me, “The pandemic is really just an accelerator of something that was going to be inevitable anyway, but probably would have taken five or six years instead of just two.”

Here, I spoke with experts across industries to learn more about the surprising future of events — and whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid will become the norm. Plus, what it could mean for your business.

Let’s dive in.

The Future of Events, According to Experts

The Case for Virtual

We all remember the challenges of in-person events: Shuffling from conference room to conference room, running to catch the last bus back to your hotel, feeling overstimulated by exhibition spaces full of businesses competing for your attention.

Simply put, in-person events can be incredibly stressful and frustrating experiences for attendees — particularly with larger gatherings.

As Microsoft’s Bejan puts it, “The dirty little secret of in-person events is you’re all competing for the biggest number — but the bigger the number, the worse the experience for the attendees.”

Bejan adds, “The power and effectiveness of virtual events is just so convincing from a data perspective that it’s hard to imagine they’re ever going away. Virtual events at every dimension are so much more effective than in-person events.”

Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a business leader who doesn’t recognize the benefits of virtual events.

Among other things, virtual events can:

Lower the price of admission, which can increase attendee count and enable businesses with smaller budgets to take part in your conference and offer unique insights.
Lower the costs your business would typically pay for conference space, on-hand staff, catering, security, and more.
Enable people across the globe to interact without needing to spend money on flights and hotels.
Attract high-demand speakers who might not have the time to attend your event in-person, but are happy to share insights via video call or pre-recorded presentation.
Provide you with the opportunity to create a product (recordings from your conference) that you can repurpose for future lead generation offerings.

And, as we saw in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the pandemic: Sometimes, virtual events are the only option, when unforeseen circumstances makes in-person events impossible.

Virtual events are incredibly powerful opportunities to reach new audiences and increase brand awareness. In fact, 80% of marketers are able to reach wider audiences and increase their ROI by hosting virtual events.

Virtual events have also come a long way since the early days of webinars. Nowadays, brands are upping the game by offering incredibly unique, immersive virtual experiences.

For instance, consider INBOUND 2021, which enabled attendees to network at virtual meetups, interact in real-time with attendees and speakers, and learn from renowned speakers like Oprah and Spike Lee — all from the comfort of their own homes.

For many brands, virtual events will be the only practical option for events well into the future. As Bejan posits, “If you’re a small or medium-sized business and you’re trying to reach people and deliver impressive experiences, our feeling is that there’s no better way to spend your money than in the digital space.”

However, if you’re wary of virtual-only experiences, you’re not alone. Many business leaders are unsure whether it’s a wise idea to take away the in-person component entirely, particularly when so many attendees learn and network best in-person.

Enter: The hybrid event.

Why Hybrid Is a Powerful Alternative

Picture this: You’re sitting on a beanbag chair, an iced coffee at your side, and you’re looking up at a row of huge, circular screens with a variety of sessions happening concurrently.

You put your headphones on and dial into one session, while the person beside you — with whom you connected earlier, at the food station, and traded business cards — sits and listens to a different one.

While it might sound futuristic, it’s not.

Prior to the pandemic, Bejan and his team worked on shifting Microsoft’s event strategy towards one in which the primary offerings were always digital — known as the “digital core”.

“And then,” Bejan told me, “rather than making destinations — which is the way we used to do events — we would distribute that digital core, and simultaneously activate events around that digital core locally and regionally, so that we can deliver those special and unique things that you can only do in-person.”

These spaces, known as ‘hang spaces’, were exactly as described in the example above. People would sit together in a rented conference space, watch Microsoft’s pre-recorded or live digital sessions, and experience the very networking they craved.

If, alternatively, someone wanted to watch from home, they could do that, too.

This is one hybrid example, but there are many in various forms. Consider, for instance, Social Media Marketing World, an annual conference for social media managers.

As of 2022, the conference is now offered in-person at the San Diego Convention Center, or via remote live stream. If you want to attend the three day event in-person, you’ll need to pay upwards of $1,700 (depending on whether you want an extra day and access to live stream, as well). Alternatively, the on-demand conference costs between $597 and $797.

With a hybrid strategy, you’re solving the needs of two different subsets of people — those who actively seek out in-person experiences, and those who’d prefer to learn remotely. Ultimately, a hybrid strategy is a compelling option if you find your audiences’ preferences are split between in-person and remote.

As ON24’s VP of Strategy & Research Cheri Hulse puts it, Hybrid has presented itself as a good midway point for marketers as they try to navigate global and regional regulations, audience preferences, and contractual obligations with venues.”

Hulse adds, “Hybrid allows marketers to feel their bases are covered for delivering an event — no matter what is thrown at them leading up to the big day.”

Penny Elmslie, Xero’s GM for Brand & Community, told me that hybrid is an option that excites her as we enter a new era for events.

Elmslie says, “The beauty of a hybrid model is it allows our events to scale, while enabling us to connect with those who for physical, financial, or medical reasons may not be able to attend in person.”

Elmslie adds, “In creating the right experience, we also purposefully make the hybrid delivery shorter and sharper to what you’d expect live, ensuring we respect our audience’s time in front of screens.”

Elmslie continues, “We’ve found the current environment has changed people’s expectations, challenging us to ensure we’re providing enough flexibility in our model to cater to all audiences. Fortunately, advancements in event technology and production skills have enabled us to continue to surprise and delight our audiences in new ways — even when they can’t physically be with us.”

Sarika Abraham, Media & PR Manager at Hexnode, is working on putting together her first hybrid event this year, Hexcon 22.

For her, the biggest challenges include the project management skills required to combine an in-person and virtual event into one seamless experience.

Abraham told me, “With twice the benefits comes twice the labor. Hybrid events are complex and require intricate management of both a physical platform and a virtual stream. I believe that managing the increased complexity, cost, and risks associated with integrating different platforms, tools, and technologies is the pivot of successfully conducting a hybrid event.”

If you’re interested in planning a hybrid event in 2022, you’re in luck. Hulse shared her tips for marketers looking to plan their first hybrid event.

She told me, “My one tip for marketers planning hybrid events is to remain flexible and listen to feedback. When ON24 planned a hybrid event last year, we offered lots of options for attendees to select how they wanted to consume the experience: in-person or virtually.”

Hulse adds, “This was critical as we saw attendees change their mind as the date neared and their situations changed. Ultimately, the success of the event was based on audiences consuming content and engaging with the experience — and we left it up to them to decide how they would do that.”

Reachdesk’s Global VP of Marketing Christy Steward also shared some key takeaways for marketers looking to plan hybrid events in 2022.

Steward told me, “The one piece of advice that I’d suggest for any business running their first hybrid event would be to make sure that you pay equal amounts of attention to both in-person and remote attendees. Although both groups will technically be at the same event, they’ll be having very different experiences, so keep this in mind when planning.”

Steward adds, “A smart gifting strategy can help create an equally memorable experience for every attendee. For example, if you’re providing snacks and refreshments for in-person attendees, make sure you send virtual attendees a coffee voucher before the event or even better a box of coffee beans and something to nibble on during the event.”

Additionally, to ensure your in-person and remote attendees feel equally included, consider how you might leverage unique tools. 

For instance, Airmeet’s VP of Product, Vikas Reddy, told me, “Plan for opportunities that will make sure your virtual attendees feel heard through polls, bringing them on the stage, etc. Facilitate networking between in-person and virtual attendees through curated sessions like speed networking, breakouts, and 1-1 meetings.”

Reddy adds, “Also, double down on mobile capabilities that will offer your in-person attendees a digital pocket guide, taking care of everything from navigation to networking. Make sure you capture data for both the set of audiences across all the above mentioned touchpoints. This can contribute valuable insights into what matters to each audience segment and thereby lay down the strategy for future hybrid events.”

All of that is well and good … but what about the people who simply crave in-person experiences?

Let’s explore the future of in-person events, next.  

For Some Brands, In-Person is Still Most Effective

Over the next couple years (and depending, of course, on health and public safety regulations), we’ll begin to see some businesses return to hosting fully in-person events. And, for certain industries, in-person will always be the most effective.

Brittani Dinsmore, Head of Marketing at Moz, believes the reason 16% of marketers plan on decreasing their investment in virtual events in 2022 comes down to the need for in-person interactions.

Dinsmore says, “​​I think we’re seeing a shift away from virtual events because there’s a growing demand to return to face-to-face interactions. Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Many individuals are burnt out from conducting professional and personal meetings through a screen.”

Dinsmore adds, “People can’t experience the full scope of some events, like networking or a convention, from their living room. Live events, in particular, have a certain energy that can’t be replicated virtually.”

For instance, while MozCon, Moz’s annual marketing conference, has been held online for the past two years, Dinsmore told me her team is tentatively planning on hosting MozCon 2022 in person again (as long as restrictions subside).

Along with the benefit of face-to-face connection, Dinsmore makes the point that it’s often easier to generate meaningful leads and attract new sponsors in-person compared to virtual.

There’s also real science behind the importance of in-person interactions. Consider, for instance, how 55% of the impact of our communication comes from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and just 7% from the words themselves.

In a virtual world, it can be difficult to pick up on nuances in body language and tone through a computer screen. Which means some meaningful connection will be lost in a world primarily focused on virtual interactions.

“The move back to in-person events will be gradual,” Dinsmore says, “As new COVID variants pop up, companies will continue to hold hybrid events to serve the groups who feel comfortable meeting in-person and those who prefer attending functions from home.”

Dinsmore continues, “But I think companies should consider sponsoring or engaging in smaller networking groups rather than hybrid events to ease back into things. Once the pandemic subsides, I foresee many planning a grand return to in-person events.”

So … What’s right for you?

Ultimately, the choice of in-person, virtual, or hybrid is largely yours. As Hulse points out, “In the future, I expect to see a mix of event types in the B2B space. Between hybrid, physical, and digital events, it will be up to marketing leaders to calibrate the right mix of the three based on audiences needs and preferences, budget, and marketing priorities.”

And if you do lean towards virtual or hybrid events in the future, consider how you might innovate on what’s already been done. There’s unlimited potential in the virtual and hybrid event space — and we’re really just getting started.

As Bejan told me, “We had one big epiphany when we delivered a streaming version of our Las Vegas show, and found that the largest audience of people watching our keynotes watched from their hotel rooms. So that was an insight for us: As long as you make good, interactive television, you’ll find success.”

“And,” Bejan adds, “in my almost 30 years of business … This is the most compelling work I’ve done in my career. It’s really, really fun.”