Plan the Best Hybrid Zoom Event
Blended in-person/virtual meetings, weddings, birthday parties, whisky tastings, and more
Over the last year, we’ve all become Zoom experts. My four-year-old knows to shout “Unmute yourself!” at people he can’t hear on video calls. Much of daily life has gone virtual, from meetings and conferences to weddings, happy hours — even, for better or worse, court appearances.
Now that more people are vaccinated, Covid-19 case rates are dropping, and the world is beginning to open back up, though, all that is changing. According to TechRepublic, 2021 will be the year of the “hybrid event.” Hybrid events blend a virtual and an in-person component, attempting to preserve the positive elements of virtual events while also creating opportunities for in-person connection.
Hybrid events aren’t just for businesses. People are holding hybrid weddings, hybrid bar and bat mitzvahs, hybrid happy hours, and much more. Basically, any event which would have been held in person can now be done as a hybrid.
Over the last year, I’ve planned and attended a wide variety of hybrid events, held by or for my family, my community, and my colleagues. Here are my shortcuts for holding a great hybrid event — whether that’s a kid’s birthday party for a few family members, a worship service or social event for 20 people, or a professional meeting for hundreds of attendees. I’ll also share some things to avoid at all costs.
Simplify your tech
With most hybrid events, the in-person event is the main attraction. As an organizer, your goal is to find a way to loop virtual guests into your in-person festivities.
There are two primary ways to do this. The first — and the simplest — is to treat your event like a broadcast. With this approach, your in-person event proceeds as normal (or as normal as possible, given that your guests are hopefully wearing masks and observing social distancing), and you provide a video and audio feed of the event to remote guests on Zoom, so they can tune in and watch it live. This is the approach most people use for weddings, musical performances, and other events where the virtual guests don’t need to interact directly with the in-person ones.
With this approach — and really with any hybrid event — it helps to choose the simplest possible tech setup. In advance of your event, it’s easy to imagine that you’ll be able to integrate multiple cameras, audio sources, and other complex tech elements into your broadcast. But I’ve found that it’s best to avoid this — in practice, even AV pros often struggle to run both the in-person tech (microphones, speakers, etc.) and a remote broadcast simultaneously. Unless the tech for your virtual broadcast is super simple, it quickly becomes unmanageable.
One easy solution is to place a laptop running Zoom in your event space and to pair it with a webcam with a built-in microphone. I like the Logitech C920x ($69.99), which delivers crisp HD video even in challenging lighting conditions, has a built-in stereo mic, and works with Windows, Mac OS, and Chrome OS. Before your event begins, your AV person can position the webcam so it can see the event taking place, and fire up Zoom on the laptop. Your remote guests can then join your Zoom meeting to watch your event live.
Don’t be afraid to consider even easier, simpler ways to add a virtual component to your event. An iPhone running the Zoom app, held up by a desktop tripod like Aureday’s 62-inch model and placed on a chair or table in your event space, may be perfectly sufficient to broadcast a basic personal event. I used this approach during a hybrid whisky tasting that my wife held for my birthday. Several groups of friends from around the country used their tablets and phones to join a Zoom meeting, and we brought in a real mixologist from a distillery in Tennessee. She led our tasting and even took us on a tour of the distillery by walking around with her iPhone. Even if you’re doing a bigger and more formal event, it’s helpful to have a phone and tripod handy as a backup in case your main tech setup fails.
If you need multiple cameras or higher quality audio or video, I recommend pairing your laptop with an ATEM Mini video switcher ($295) from Blackmagic. The tiny switcher is easy to take on-site and includes inputs for up to four HDMI feeds from DSLR or other professional cameras, as well as two professional microphone inputs. The ATEM Mini’s chunky, backlit buttons make it easy for an AV person to quickly switch between cameras and mics with a single press, even in a darkened room or during a nighttime outdoor event.
The Mini outputs its feed via USB as a virtual webcam, which makes it simple to connect to Zoom — just select it in the Zoom app like you would a traditional webcam. When paired with a pro camera, the device’s video quality is far better than a webcam’s. And once it’s configured, the ATEM Mini is so easy to use that a presenter can operate it even while delivering a talk. I routinely use my ATEM Mini to live-produce webinars and instructional webcasts even if I’m simultaneously presenting.
These solutions all provide a one-way broadcast of your event for your virtual guests. The other way to hold a hybrid event is to add interactivity, so that virtual guests can actively participate. That gets more complex — but potentially more rewarding.
Have two moderators
When you give virtual guests the ability to actively participate in your event, you’re effectively running two events simultaneously — an in-person one and a virtual one. For that reason, it often makes sense to have two moderators or hosts — one dedicated to your virtual guests, and one dedicated to your in-person ones.
My synagogue, Temple Isaiah, has been at the forefront of hybrid worship services and has used this dual-moderator approach well. Two rabbis attend each hybrid worship service. One leads the service on-site with a small group of congregants, while another sits at a computer in an adjacent room and connects with virtual congregants, who tune in to the service on Zoom via a live video feed.
This approach allows the in-person rabbi to interact with physical attendees in a natural way, without the distraction of fiddling with a computer. Simultaneously, the second rabbi can greet virtual attendees, help them troubleshoot tech issues, and answer their questions about the service. The dual-moderator approach ensures that both the virtual and the in-person aspects of the service feel inclusive and engaging. And because the second rabbi is on-site even if they’re joining the event virtually, they can always walk over to the physical service and make tweaks or adjustments if there’s a tech issue.
This format works well for religious services, but I could also see it working well for a networking event or meeting, or even a special event like a hybrid wedding, where a designated virtual usher could welcome and situate remote attendees.
Give virtual guests a physical presence
Whenever possible, it helps to give your virtual guests a physical presence at your event. This makes the virtual guests feel included and reminds the in-person guests of who is joining them virtually.
The best way to do this is to show the gallery view from your event’s Zoom meeting on a monitor at the event or to project it on a wall or screen. A flat-screen TV connected to your Zoom laptop with an HDMI cable works well. To project your virtual guests on a screen or surface, I recommend the Epson EX5260 ($629). At 3,600 lumens, it’s bright enough to project video outside (where many events take place these days) in partial shade, and it has both HDMI and traditional VGA inputs so it can connect to most laptops.
I used my Epson projector to project virtual guests on the wall of my home during a hybrid birthday party for my son. We gathered in person with a small group of family members who were in our bubble, and my son’s friends joined us virtually. Each kid had received an art project in advance, and they did the projects together remotely. Covering the wall with friendly faces was a nice way to make it feel like some of his friends were there with us.
There are even easier ways to give virtual guests a physical presence, too. I’ve seen a hybrid bar mitzvah where the hosts placed a laptop with a Zoom meeting open on a reception table during a party and encouraged remote guests to “drop in” to the meeting. In-person guests could then wander up to the table, see who was there on Zoom, and have an informal chat with them. For a small event, you can even pull up Zoom on a tablet and pass your virtual guests around the room.
Another approach that works well is to have your moderator or MC start your event by announcing the names of everyone attending and noting whether they’re there virtually or in person. This opening shoutout makes both sides more aware of each other’s presence and makes everyone feel like they’re attending the same event.
Keep audio one-way
It’s tempting to try to loop audio from your virtual guests into your in-person event, so they can make remarks, give toasts, and the like. But I recommend avoiding this because it’s very hard to pull off.
Zoom is notorious for its audio-related challenges (again, there’s a reason that “unmute yourself" has become a cliché). And even if your remote guests’ audio works fine, the delays and lags associated with Zoom can make it hard to patch in remote audio in a natural way.
If a remote guest is going to give a long presentation (like if you’re having a remote panelist give a 15-minute conference session), then it may be worth weathering the lag and delays associated with patching in their live audio. But if your guests will just be making short remarks, I recommend having them prerecord their statements in advance and then showing them to your in-person guests as a static video. That gives you control over the pacing of the event and avoids last-minute audio glitches (and the danger of an embarrassing hot mic).
Divide the group for discussions
In-person discussions are wonderful. And after a year of practice, most people are pretty good at following the new social norms of Zoom, and can have a productive virtual discussion on the platform. But when you combine virtual and in-person discussions, both generally suffer. If your event involves a discussion component, it’s often better to divide your guests and hold separate in-person and virtual discussions.
Suppose you’re having a meeting that involves an in-person presentation followed by a discussion. First, broadcast the presentation to your virtual attendees so that they’ve seen the same content as the in-person attendees. Then, have them discuss the presentation virtually, while your in-person attendees discuss it IRL. This strategy works well paired with the dual moderator approach — your virtual moderator can lead the virtual discussion, while your in-person moderator leads the physical one.
If you want everyone to ultimately come together (and you have the capacity for two-way audio), you can always designate one virtual attendee who can unmute themselves and summarize the virtual discussion for the in-person attendees, and one in-person attendee who can do the same for your virtual guests. This way, both sides at least hear the points their counterparts found most salient in their separate discussions.
If it’s crucial that everyone participates in the same discussion — or if you’ve lacking two-way audio — another good approach is to have virtual guests type their questions or comments into Zoom’s chat box, and then have a designated person read the comments out loud at the in-person event. Because your designated reader is physically present at your event, they can judge how best to surface questions without disrupting the event’s flow. This approach has the additional advantages of allowing your remote guests to be heard and to join in, without the technical complexity of a two-way audio feed.
This is a good format for hybrid meetings, but I’ve also seen it used at prayer groups, and it would work well for a book club, too.
Zoom can be exhausting. But there are benefits to virtual events. When they’re done well, they can open up social and business opportunities to the homebound and those with disabilities, increasing accessibility. Because they don’t require travel, they can bring together colleagues or family members from far-flung places. Virtual events are often easier to record, too, letting you transform your event into a valuable piece of content for your organization or a priceless memory for your family.
Hybrid events are exciting because they offer the possibility of preserving these benefits of virtual events (many of which weren’t fully clear until the pandemic forced everyone online) while adding back in the joy (and efficiency) of actual human interaction. Imagine a wedding that loops in virtual family members who could never afford to travel for the physical event, worship services that include sick or homebound congregants, or a meeting or conference which unites colleagues from around the world without the expense of travel.
All these things are possible with hybrid events — if they’re executed well. Try out my shortcuts if you’re ever tasked with organizing a hybrid event. And whatever else you do, remember to unmute yourself.