Orange County Convention Center is among venues leaning into virtual, hybrid events due to pandemic social distancing

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PHOTO VIA WIKIMEDIA
  • Photo via Wikimedia
One of Central Florida’s largest annual conventions wrapped up its week-long event last week, but you wouldn’t have known it by driving by the convention center. The massive IAAPA Expo typically spills out of the Orange County Convention Center and into the nearby parking lot with the latest in carnival rides, inflatables, midway food, and other amusement industry offerings filling more miles of aisles. Like many other events, this year’s scaled-down IAAPA event was instead all online.

The move to digital-forward events has been one of the defining features of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as vaccines begin to emerge, plans for post-pandemic events are now cautiously beginning to form. In-person events will return once it's safe, but this year has shown the benefits of digital offerings. With this in mind, some events are now opting for a hybrid model that offers the best of both.



Hybrid events were already occurring before this year, but social distancing forced many people who may have previously been hesitant to use virtual meeting tools to familiarize themselves with programs like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. The city of Orlando now uses a hybrid model with both in-person and virtual attendees able to participate in public meetings.

Marriott, IHG, Hyatt and Hilton have all updated their event planning marketing materials to promote hybrid events. Convention centers are also getting in on the act. Both the Professional Convention Management Association and the IACC (formerly the International Association of Conference Centers) are planning multi-site hybrid events in 2021. These two groups represent thousands of event planners, and the use of hybrid events by the two organizations could inspire many of those members to use the same format for their own events.



A study earlier this year found 73 percent of event planners were planning at least one upcoming hybrid event.

New York City’s Javits Center recently opened a 30,000 square foot broadcast studio designed to help with virtual and hybrid events. The studio is meant to host hundreds of in-person attendees who are able to interact with virtual attendees via a video wall that takes up five hundred square feet. In Orlando, the Orange County Convention Center debuted its Executive Studio last week. The space was designed specifically for hybrid events and can be used in collaboration with other OCCC venues, including the Linda W. Chapin Theatre and the Destination Lounge. The San Diego Convention Center has a section of its website dedicated to hybrid events where it promotes its numerous on-site options for hybrid and virtual events.

Even smaller venues are adding new technology to allow for hybrid events. Before the pandemic, one of the emerging trends for trendy hotels was podcast studios where small recording sessions were possible. Now some are taking this a step further to connect those studios a step further by connecting the other meeting spaces.

Marina Bay Sands’ state-of-the-art hybrid event broadcast studio - IMAGE VIA MARINA BAY SANDS
  • Image via Marina Bay Sands
  • Marina Bay Sands’ state-of-the-art hybrid event broadcast studio
The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore debuted its hybrid broadcast studio in July. The venue was designed in collaboration with the Professional Convention Management Association. The shift to fully virtual events has had dramatic impacts on industries reliant on in-person events. However, hybrid events may be a way to bring some business back while also providing new opportunities for engagement.

Rebecca de Freitas, MPS, DES, is a DC-based event organizer and esports collaborator who has worked on numerous large-scale global events. When the events industry came to a standstill earlier this year, de Freitas quickly shifted to virtual and hybrid events. She explained to Orlando Weekly that the loss of events is now being felt nearly everywhere. “Often overlooked for their large economic impact, the “ghost economy” of events can now be felt across the world through empty restaurants, hotels, and venues that were once filled with out of town patrons when a large event came to town.”

But de Freitas remains optimistic. “The digital disruption of the event industry has turned into an opportunity of innovation for convention centers and hybrid events alike. The halls of Orlando’s convention center stand as a reminder of the events of past, yet these [same halls represent] a clean slate for future projects that could match new technology standards with in-person events.” She views the shift to hybrid events as a way of improving the experience for all involved. Attendees now have multiple engagement options with the ability to choose the one that best suits them.

The Marina Bay Sands studio has holographic telepresence abilities that allow planners to beam speakers 'live' into Singapore - IMAGE VIA MARINA BAY SANDS
  • Image via Marina Bay Sands
  • The Marina Bay Sands studio has holographic telepresence abilities that allow planners to beam speakers 'live' into Singapore
According to de Freitas, hybrid events shouldn’t be viewed as something that kills live events, but as a solution. The use of digital tools can provide event organizers real-time data that can be used to improve events while also creating new opportunities for a wider range of suppliers. “The constant that has emerged from this time is the need for the event industry to diversify their suppliers, organizers and designers; to navigate and present a standard of experience to surprise and delight customers in person or on-screen.”

Luckily for IAAPA, no matter how advanced a broadcast studio is it can’t replace the experience of eating cotton candy or being whipped around on the latest carnival ride. But next year’s event, which will likely return to the in-person format, may see at least some attendees forgo those indulgences for the ease of tuning in from the comfort of home.


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