Technological advances are transforming face-to-face meetings into online experiences.

The business world has already embraced videoconferencing and webcasts as a way to unite people in different locations. Now, such technology is expected to trickle down to conventions, conferences and other meetings, allowing attendees from around the globe to participate without ever getting on a plane.

If the term "hybrid event" brings to mind a gathering of Prius and Insight owners, think again. It's the term used to characterize all manner of events-meetings, conferences, seminars and the like-that link physical attendees with "virtual" participants. While hybrid events are just starting to make inroads in Central Ohio, they already are popular in larger metropolitan areas such as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Although the Central Ohio business community has yet to fully embrace the concept of hybrid meetings-some facilities C.E.O. contacted hadn't yet hosted such an event-they are expected to become the norm here, too.

"Hybrid events are becoming a trend. In three to four years, most events or meetings, whether they are B2B or possibly even consumer events, will have a virtual component to them," predicts Michael Westcott, vice president of marketing for InXpo, a business-to-business event organizer.

In 2009, Chicago-based InXpo orchestrated a fundraiser for Cincinnati's Procter & Gamble that included both virtual and live attendees. The event spearheaded P&G fundraising efforts for the United Way, Westcott says.

Scott Dring, executive director of the Dublin Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees that hybrid events are becoming a trend in the industry. Simply put, they are "a new way for corporations to communicate," he says.

Hybrid Basics

Hybrid meetings are designed to appeal to both in-person attendees and those who participate remotely via some type of advanced technology (think: webcasting, videoconferencing and Skype). Can't afford the time or travel costs necessary to attend the annual meeting of your biggest client? Not long ago, the only ways to find out what you missed were to watch a videotape of the program, listen to an audiocassette or perhaps read a written summary.

However, today's technology allows off-site attendees to glean many of the same benefits as physical participants. It also broadens the potential attendance pool for such gatherings, something that's particularly important since the recession has once again tightened corporate travel budgets.

"Hybrid events are a great tool to reach those who can't make it to meetings personally. It saves money on travel, but the employee can still benefit from the event," says Jennifer Seymour, a local franchisee of Plan Ahead Events. The Florida company bills itself as the world's largest full-service meeting and event management firm.

Meeting planners who have experience with such blended events say they reap the benefits of both in-person and virtual ventures. "The beauty of the hybrid event is that it combines face-to-face interactions with online attendees," says Seymour. Since a hybrid intertwines in-person participants with those online, "It meets everyone's needs."

The way Westcott sees it, hybrid meetings are here to stay. "What we're doing is nothing short of transforming the World Wide Web from pages and links and tools to events and destinations," he says.

Pros and Cons

Event planners tout numerous benefits to hybrid meetings. For one, they allow event hosts to be more efficient in the information and materials they're disseminating. Exposing products and services to both in-person and virtual attendees expands their market potential exponentially, Westcott says. In essence, he says, companies are "making content work a lot harder."

Westcott cautions organizers not to overlook the importance of virtual attendees. Just because they're not in the same room doesn't mean they're second-class guests. "It's a great way to build community virtually," he says, by forging relationships between online participants and other attendees. If today's remote participant felt truly included in the meeting, he may make it a point to be there in person next year.

Opening an event, meeting or conference to both in-person and online participants is an excellent way to boost the bottom line, too. Westcott says presenting information to two audiences develops "new revenue streams, perhaps with sponsorship opportunities and through extending the life of the event via educational and pay-per-view."

Lastly, Westcott posits hybrid events may be "greener" than standard meetings: Fewer in-person attendees burning up fossil fuels and generating trash results in a decreased carbon footprint.

A word of caution: Those considering a blended event should make sure the format really fits their organization. Even though hybrid meetings can reach more people, they're not necessarily always the best choice. For example, a marketing firm that relies on face time with potential and current clients might not benefit from permitting virtual attendees to join in. "You can't build the trust which leads to sales and referrals," Seymour says.

Tim Haynes, vice president of member services and marketing at TechColumbus, agrees. "If you're trying to teach and create an interactive environment, [a hybrid event] is more challenging," he says.

Some organizations may try to really cut event costs by going all-virtual. But there is a downside. "Virtual alone greatly lessens the interactive nature of an event, one of the advantages of a hybrid offering," Seymour says. Online-only events can be successful in some circumstances, such as a promotional products company seeking to sell its wares. A virtual event eliminates the need for a big trade show, saving the company rent, travel and other expenses, Seymour says.

Recent statistics bear that out. According to a recent joint survey by George P. Johnson and the Event Marketing Institute, 76 percent of brand marketers now expect trade shows to integrate virtual components. And 49 percent of marketers plan to integrate a virtual component to expand the reach of an existing event.

Details, Details

Coordinating a hybrid event can be complicated since there are two distinct audiences compared with an event that's either exclusively in-person or virtual.

Despite the complexity, it can be done. "There are a lot of little details. I think everybody can handle planning a hybrid event, but it takes a lot of time," says Renee Belbeck, co-founder and CEO of the National Association of W.O.M.E.N. (Women, Owners, Moms, Entrepreneurs & Networkers), a networking organization headquartered in Columbus.

The Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus, which boasts the most guestrooms in the city as well as 70,000 square feet of meeting space, can accommodate hybrid meetings should the need arise. General manager Tim Dant says the Hyatt has in-house PSAV, or Presentation Services Audio Visual, along with "a plethora of equipment" to blend an in-person experience with a virtual one.

All that hardware and gadgetry doesn't come cheap, of course. As a result, hybrid events are more likely to be sponsored by a deep-pocketed corporation than a locally owned small business, Seymour says. Audiovisual setups, cameras, a high-speed Internet connection and kiosks equipped with laptops are among the technological amenities needed for a meeting to go hybrid.

According to Dublin's Dring, hotels and other venues have no choice but to adapt to the increasingly advanced technology requirements. "It's pretty much a ‘must have' to compete and better serve corporate clientele," he says.

Tami Kamin-Meyer is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from theAugust 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.