Hosting Virtual and Hybrid Meetings
in the Midst of a Pandemic

In the span of just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the operating landscape of the global meetings industry.

In June 2020, Mathias Posch, president of Vancouver-based International Conferences Services (ICS) -- a core PCO and forerunner in online conferences, education and hybrid events -- spoke with JNTO

about the challenges and opportunities of transitioning to virtual and hybrid formats during the current crisis and beyond.

1. COVID-19: What's different?

An international events veteran of nearly 20 years, Mathias Posch has weathered his share of crises, from SARS and H1N1 to political upheavals, financial meltdowns and natural catastrophes. Nothing compares with COVID-19. Whereas previous crises convulsed different regions at different times, the current pandemic affects all people, in all regions, all at the same time -- and all on an intensely personal level.

"This is not necessarily a bad thing," Posch reflects. "Nobody comes out of it with an advantage." As yet, there is no end to the tunnel, making planning ahead impossible in any line of work. PCOs may talk about returning to "meetings as usual," but prioritizing business objectives during these uncertain times is likely to come across as tone-deaf and reckless.

"The biggest difficulty is balancing economic and public health issues," Posch notes. Compared with past crises, this time "it is a much more sensitive matter."

"Nobody comes out of it with an advantage."

2. Reinforcing online skills and know-how

Like its PCO counterparts in Japan, ICS had expected 2020 to be a banner year for all five of its business divisions -- conferences, association management, meetings and events, trade shows and virtual events. As it turned out, ICS hosted just three events, including the 51st IAPCO General Assembly and Annual Meeting in Vancouver in February 2020. "That was our last hurrah," Posch says ruefully. By mid-March, all ICS physical events for the year had been canceled or postponed -- in total, 35 events affecting 80,000 delegates.

Dire as this sounds, ICS seized the moment to double down on the only business still standing: virtual events. Before 2020, the core ICS online team had comprised just 15 members, including 2 technical staff, 3 graphic designers, and a few "emcees" to direct the shows.

The rest were customer service representatives who focused on sales and delegate engagement, whether online or offline. Starting in March 2020, ICS retrained its entire 100-member staff in all of these areas -- empowering each employee with the skills and know-how to run virtual events. This is not to say that everyone at ICS is now busily writing code.

"When we focus on online events, we also focus on marketing and graphics," Posch explains. "People need an extra push to attend online events, so the marketing has to be really refined." Unlike some in the industry, Posch does not see "digital event managers" emerging as a separate niche profession. "Niches are limiting," he feels. "A professional PCO has to be someone who embraces both offline and online events."

"A professional PCO has to be someone who embraces both offline and online events."

3. Boosting online engagement

While virtual conferences can never replicate the awesome energy of thousands of professionals converging, networking and debating face-to-face, Posch says there are plenty of ways to make online sessions and webinars compelling in their own right.

  1. (1)Take advantage of online tools
    "Japanese conferences are still mostly 'old-school,' consisting of 60 minutes of lecture followed by just 10 minutes of Q&A," Posch observes.

    Interactive online tools can really shake things up. "We have chat boxes and question boxes to show what other participants are thinking and asking. We can insert polls during or after a discussion. We can pull quotes from sessions and post these to Facebook or Twitter to encourage others to chime in. We can add subtitles so the sessions are easier to translate."

    As an afterthought, Posch notes: "Many of our speakers have very poor headsets." It occurs to him that giving complimentary headsets to all speakers would be a nice gesture, and also contribute to a more seamless, engaging event.
  2. (2)Train speakers
    Before any online event, ICS coaches every single speaker in basic public speaking do's and don'ts, such as when to pause, where to look, how to operate the online tools. Considering that some conferences feature over 200 speakers, coaching requires a huge investment of time and energy. However, Posch insists it is worth it to ensure that all speakers feel comfortable online. "The worst webinars are those with nervous, fumbling speakers," he recalls. Also, while speakers are always encouraged to present breakthrough material, they are understandably wary about unpublished data being disseminated online. "Protecting proprietary data is a perennial problem even at offline meetings," Posch says. For its part, ICS is careful to remove any sensitive data from event recordings upon request. "New data is presented during the live webinar, but it won't be available in the recording later," he affirms.
  3. (3)Stretch out conferences
    Posch sees no logic or benefit in cramming online conferences into just a few days since, unlike offline events, there are no physical venues involved. "Our general philosophy is to hold international online conferences for 3 hours a day over 4 or 5 weeks," Posch says. This way, recorded sessions can be repeated at different times and on different days, maximizing accessibility for all participants in their respective time zones. Live sessions are also spaced out to accommodate at least two major time zones each, so nobody needs to get up in the middle of the night to catch a live session. "Everyone should be able to attend at least 40 percent of all live and recorded sessions at any time," says Posch.
  4. (4)Include social activities
    Between the three hours of daily conference sessions, ICS schedules fun and stimulating interactive social events. These can be as simple as trivia questions and photo sharing, or as ambitious as ballroom dancing lessons. The social program varies from day to day, so there is something for everyone.

    Posch describes some tentative activities for an upcoming international online conference: "We have yoga on Mondays; virtual museum tours on Wednesdays; BYOB happy hour on Fridays, and so on." Over the course of the five-week event, everybody should have ample time and opportunity to network and socialize. It takes a lot of planning, but "it can be done," says Posch.
"Everyone should be able to attend at least 40 percent
of all live and recorded sessions at any time."

4.Taking hybrid events mainstream

In a hybrid event, a number of people may be present at a physical venue while a wider audience attends the event remotely. The format has yet to take root in Japan, where sponsors continue to balk at the complicated logistics and added expense of setting up both physical and digital infrastructures at the same time.

On his side, Posch is "100-percent sure" that hybrid is here to stay. In fact, with COVID-19, "it's now the only way to do conferences." According to Posch, around 80 percent of people attending physical meetings now expect to have sessions available online. "The important thing is that hybrid events get delegates" -- especially at critical junctures, like now, when travel is restricted.

Hybrid meetings can also motivate online participants to attend face-to-face meetings, and generate additional revenue streams from the recorded online sessions. Posch concludes, "It may cost more at the outset, but hybrid provides greater value and ROI over the long run."

"Hybrid provides greater value and ROI over the long run."

5. Rethinking the criteria for site selection

Thanks to COVID-19, the checklist for venue selection has been overhauled, possibly permanently, to focus on anshin anzen (safety and security). PCOs now have to prioritize cleanliness and hygiene standards as never before, to the extent that some industry professionals are proposing a system of accreditation to verify compliance. Room layouts must allow for comfortable social distancing. Meals and coffee breaks may have to be staggered. Virtual site inspections may become the norm. And of course, superior AV capabilities will be pivotal.

According to Posch, some PCOs are even looking to spread events out over several venues as a safety measure. "Instead of one 2,000-person meeting, we can do four smaller ones for 500 in different regions," he says.

"Roadshows work well, too." Above all, Posch feels that now is the time for venues to show flexibility and empathy. As long as social distancing ordinances are in effect, room occupancy will remain at half capacity, if even that.

Charging extra for space under these circumstances is short-sighted and likely to backfire. "Clients lose money; you lose clients; and you might end up bankrupting each other," he cautions.

"At ICS, we just try to be fair. If we cancel a venue, we will aim to bring the event back in 2022 or 2023. We have to be careful that all of us get out of this."

"We have to be careful that all of us get out of this."

6. Adding value to the "Japan Experience"

With hygiene issues dominating all conversations, Posch foresees that Japan will emerge from the pandemic in an exceptionally advantageous position.

It is, after all, a country where face masks are routine year-round; where even construction sites are swept clean at day's end; and where taxi drivers cover seats in impeccable white linen and wear equally impeccable white gloves -- just because. Although these small, familiar aspects of daily life are taken for granted, they are intrinsic to the "Japan experience" and a strength that could be promoted in the future, alongside the iconic shrines and cherry blossoms.

Posch is confident that meetings will return to Japan, but when they do, Japan has to be prepared with a different value proposition. Data is no longer the main driver for international conferences anywhere. Participants will be far more interested in the networking opportunities, professional interaction and value-added experiences -- experiences specific to their fields of expertise that they cannot find online.

"You have to give people a reason to spend 5,000 dollars to fly here," he explains. For this reason, Posch welcomes the choice of Sendai for 17WCEE (17th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering). Sendai is not a destination foreigners would normally visit on their own, so it would be doubly rewarding to attend the conference with someone who can also show them the "real" Sendai behind the scenes, including a field trip to witness what was devastated in March 2011, and what was rebuilt. "I would come just for that one field trip," he says.

Posch feels that, as a meetings destination, "Japan has always been punching below its weight." There should be far more international conferences here, but the complex and often inflexible business processes are extremely daunting for non-Japanese PCOs. COVID-19 is changing that. The crisis has forced people to think outside their comfort zones and embrace new ideas. As difficult as the business climate is in Japan at the moment, Posch exudes confidence about being here. "Now is the best time, so we can be part of a new beginning."

"You have to give people a reason to spend 5,000 dollars to fly here."