Hybrid events: combining in-person and virtual audiences

We may be resuming normal human contact, but the virtual HE open day or careers fair is far from over

What does the future look like for virtual events in HE as we return to in-person events? After the groans of ‘virtual fatigue’ fade and a new enthusiasm emerges for campus events once again it has been interesting to see first-hand how universities now intend to use virtual fairs going forwards.

I don’t think anyone considers we are ‘out of the woods’ with Covid and having seen how quickly the shutters came down with lockdown last time then contingency planning is very much top of the agenda as far as universities are concerned. Many institutions are still delivering semester one lectures online, which is a clear indication of their cautious approach to the situation.

We have not seen any of our clients even hint at significantly downsizing their online activity in terms of recruitment events, they will simply sit alongside the in-person versions, and if Covid rears its head again they are poised to respond with immediacy, better prepared than that first time in March 2020. Universities also have a much-improved understanding of how to deliver successful virtual events, having had their hands forced 17 months ago with no other option except to go digital and learn on the job.

Virtual events existed before Covid, of course, and delivered outstanding success for HE institutions in their recruitment efforts but also for offer holders, clearing and on-boarding events. The one event format where we have seen significant growth in the last three years, which is unaffected by a pandemic, is virtual careers fairs. Students are increasingly looking at how universities can help them transition into work, and careers fairs have been one of the ways to help – however, with employers finding it difficult to attend multiple fairs in person, online careers fairs came as a huge relief for both universities and employers, giving them a much more efficient and flexible way to engage students with companies. These digital fairs have certainly grown in sophistication in the years we have been delivering them and are now much larger affairs with 100+ employers, a full multi-day programme of presentations and even first stage interviews taking place in one-to-one video rooms.

In a recent State of Events 2021 survey conducted by us, 83% of respondents said they will continue to run virtual events. That is across all sectors, not just HE, so virtual seems as if it will live on.

But what about hybrid? Thirty-three per cent of survey respondents said they would include a hybrid element in up to 50% of their events, including many universities keen to explore this new medium, so the evidence is there and it thus warrants a deeper dive in to how this format could potentially deliver value for universities too.

What is a hybrid event, and is it really that new?

Hybrid events are designed to merge both live and virtual event audiences. Two distinct audiences each participating in the same event, brought together through different mediums, designed to provide them with comparable experiences and outcomes.

With the worldwide pandemic ongoing, and mass vaccinations progressing fast, in-person events are returning – but not in the traditional sense, as international travel is still hugely restricted

With the worldwide pandemic ongoing, and mass vaccinations progressing fast, in-person events are returning – but not in the traditional sense as international travel is still hugely restricted, so for those students still unable to travel this option is essential. However, there are notable challenges, for businesses like mine, that need addressing head on – the biggest of which is in the stat below.

“Seventy-one per cent of event organisers say that connecting in-person and virtual audiences is their biggest challenge.”

It may be easier logistically and resource-wise, of course, for universities to run the on-campus days separately to virtual fairs – and maybe the hybrid option will never see the light of day in a uni. But for me, if I was an international student, I think it’d be great fun to meet faculty and other students and participate in a hybrid event as a virtual attendee. Watch this space.

Gavin Newman is CEO of iVent

You might also like: How virtual open days work – a student’s experience

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