COP26: A Coming of Age Moment for Hybrid Events

Panellists at a live-streamed event in Glasgow

Much has been written about COP26, the 2021 United Nations conference billed as the last chance to get runaway climate change under control.  Rightly, the focus was firmly on the sometimes terse negotiations between the nearly 200 countries in attendance. In its aftermath, most onlookers are still reeling over the outcome document known as the Glasgow Climate Pact. But communications professionals across the world are already dissecting another element of the conference – its role as a coming of age moment for hybrid events.

Like many event organisers over the past twenty months, those tasked with planning COP26 were forced to go back to the drawing board when the event was postponed. It was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020. However, in May 2020, the COP Bureau decided to postpone the event by one year. At that time, they announced that: “In light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of COVID-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible.” 

After the postponement, Christiana Figueres, a key architect of the Paris Agreement, urged COP26 organisers to embrace a hybrid approach and find the ‘sweet spot’ between physical and virtual to allow for safe and efficient negotiations. And while the Glasgow Climate Pact is arguably weaker than many had hoped for, there is no doubt that the organisers pulled off one of the biggest hybrid events the world has ever seen. They facilitated collaboration on a global scale with over 3,000 meetings taking place, connecting more than 25,000 participants across the globe to in-person attendees stationed in Glasgow.

Not only did the organisers maintain the spirit of the conference through carefully selected technology that allowed experts, policymakers, and government leaders to stay digitally connected and participate, they highlighted that adopting a hybrid approach can reduce an events’ environmental impact. Event management choices can have a huge impact on the environment. A report published in 2019 just before the pandemic revealed that the UK events industry used an estimated 380m litres of diesel every year, contributing 1.2bn kilograms of CO2e emissions annually, approximately the same as the country of Malta.*  On top of this, attendees generally use air travel to get to conferences. Standard in-person events also create a lot of waste – anyone who has ever been to a large scale conference before has most likely acquired countless badges, drawstring bags, pamphlets, branded pens, USB drives and travel mugs that end up in the bin. In keeping with the mission of COP26, a hybrid approach ensured the event was as sustainable as possible and didn’t smack of hypocrisy. In fact, it complemented the messaging behind the global climate summit.

Overall, COP26 showed what is possible when it comes to hybrid events. It was sustainable, inclusive and the hybrid element increased accessibility to the event. And while the scale of it was inspiring, brands of all sizes can draw from this feat of logistics when planning their own hybrid events. Because one thing is for sure, with cases of Covid-19 back on the rise, there is a continued need for blended experiences. With the help of communications professionals and event organisers, brands should consider three key areas when planning a hybrid experience for their target stakeholders:

  1. Audience Engagement: When organising a hybrid event, it is crucial to remember that you are catering to two audiences. It can be easy for speakers to only interact with the audience sitting right in front of them at a hybrid event, but then they risk ignoring the majority of attendees and having them feel short changed. Be it a virtual or in-person audience, engagement is always the key measurement of an event’s success. One way to ensure engagement is to invest in two separate hosts – one emcee dedicated to catering to the in-person crowd, and another whose sole purpose is to interact with the virtual audience.  Both should coordinate, so each attendee member feels seen regardless of whether they’re sat inside the venue or on an armchair at home. It is imperative that messaging is consistent for both sets of attendees. Other tools such as live polling systems, and the innovative use of social media, will also help engage both audiences.
  2. Networking: Let’s face it, networking in-person is much easier. In-person audiences can rely on random encounters and coffee breaks, but it is much less natural for virtual attendees who can’t rely on catching someone’s eye. Nonetheless, event organisers must ensure virtual attendees can also connect with others in a meaningful way. In fact, it is important to consider how both groups can be brought together to network with each other throughout the day. To do this, organisers must schedule ‘facilitated networking’ – in other words, there should be breakout discussions and activities that bring both audiences together. Some hybrid events even go so far as to provide a ‘facilitated matchmaking’ service where attendees with experience of most relevance to one another can have short, facilitated chats.
  3. Keep the tech as simple as possible: When choosing a virtual event platform, remember it isn’t about replicating the literal experience of walking through the event. What attendees want to do is engage with the event content in a way that makes sense, learn something new and grow their network. A virtual 3D experience isn’t necessary to achieving these goals. In fact, elaborate designs will often create an unnecessary layer of complexity that can scare off less tech-savvy attendees. Stick with hybrid event platforms that focus on simplicity and are user intuitive.

*The report was put together by Hope Solutions and power management specialists ZAP Concepts, using data from A Greener Festival, Julie’s Bicycle, Powerful Thinking.