With 96 per cent of events cancelled or postponed in 2020, it is rare for any business events to be held with a face-to-face element at all.
Addressing the challenge of capacity restrictions (no more than 150 in Sydney) and distancing issues (one person per four square metres), at face value a business conference seems highly unlikely to take place.
Adding to the challenge the nature of the industry, one decimated by COVID, the accommodation and tourism industry, and you would be forgiven for thinking attempting an event would be a foolhardy exercise.
Interpoint Events accepted the challenge and successfully held one of Australia’s first true hybrid events in Sydney this week, with the Australasian Hotel Industry Conference & Expo (AHICE) taking place on 8 and 9 September.
The 11th edition of AHICE was scheduled for early May in Melbourne but had to be postponed until September. In the two months leading up to AHICE, the event changed almost weekly.
Initially it was planned to be held live in Melbourne, with a satellite offering in Sydney and Auckland. The outbreak in Auckland closed the New Zealand component and, in the end, Interpoint were forced to hold it only in Sydney with a strong hybrid component.
The decision to go ahead
Traditionally the two-day event has more than 800 delegates, 90 speakers including international presenters and 20 exhibit sponsors. According to Simon Cooper, managing director of Interpoint Events, there were several reasons why the event took place.
“We held a webinar in July and were overwhelmed with the response – more than 1700 registered,” he said.
“From the support we received, we realised the industry really wanted and to some extent, needed, AHICE to take place. Our sponsors wanted it and 50 per cent of our exhibitors agreed to display at the hybrid event.”
The task of securing delegates both in person and virtually was going to difficult. Restricted by the 150 in person cap, Interpoint Events had to approach delegates who had previously registered.
Then Interpoint’s team had to ascertain how long speakers planned to stay so as not to exceed the room limit. Face-to-face demand was high but having the promise of the virtual event enabled numbers to steadily grow.
Sticking to the guidelines
In the lead up to AHICE, two critical operational aspects took centre stage. These required the two major suppliers (the venue and audio-visual company) to operate in complete harmony.
“We needed to work out how 150 delegates could fit in the room, where the sponsors could set up, how we could feed and hold a networking reception and how to stream all the virtual speakers and the sessions,” said Cooper.
Interpoint Event operations manager Claire Graham was tasked with pulling all the elements together, conforming to COVID Safe protocols, whilst at the same time creating an event that had at its core the ability for delegates to network.
“From thermal heat detection cameras on arrival, hand sanitiser stations throughout the venue, sanitisation of microphones and stage equipment after each session, social distanced morning and afternoon tea with individual food packages (no buffet) and a seated drinks reception to avoid mingling, it certainly had a different feel,” she said.
Staff at the venue, Hyatt Regency Sydney, all wore masks and were extremely professional when ensuring COVID Safe measures were being adhered to, said Graham.
A technical production
The technical aspect to produce AHICE was also critical. The audio-visual production was handled by Encore, with their CHIME Live interactive streaming platform critical to developing the virtual delegate engagement.
AHICE is traditionally full of short and sharp sessions. With over 110 speakers, there were panellists and presenters from New Zealand, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, USA, and the UK.
To ensure the technology would run smoothly, all virtual speakers took part in a technical rehearsal the week before to test internet connection, microphone quality and recommend appropriate backgrounds for when they were speaking live. Moderators also had to be briefed on interviewing virtually whilst having a face-to face audience in the room.
The exceptional high quality of the virtual event gave the conference a TV/broadcast look and feel. The feedback demonstrated that it is important to maintain high quality content and user-friendly streaming platform to keep the virtual delegate engaged. In the end more than 700 virtual and in person delegates watched AHICE each day making it the largest AHICE, ever.
According to Graham, “There are a few learnings from this event but having two strong partners in the venue and the AV company was critical to the event’s success.”
Hybrid events are a relatively new concept and if you overlay COVID Safe obligations then they are definitely not simple. Added to this, costs can quickly escalate and expectations from all parties are unknown and therefore difficult to manage.
According to Cooper, hybrid events are likely to be here for the next six to nine months at a minimum.
“We are learning as we go and developing hybrid models that are financially sustainable whilst also meeting the expectations of sponsors and delegates,” he said.
“It will be very interesting to read the post-AHICE feedback, as this will identify ways we can improve on the delivery of these type of events. But I am optimistic having held our first, that the production of hybrid events will become easier.”
Was AHICE successful?
Cooper said success can be measured in different ways.
“From a purely financial perspective AHICE’s budget was turned upside down. Catering was less, there were no speaker travel costs and revenue reduced as virtual tickets were 60 per cent less than in-person tickets,” he said.
“Audio visual costs rose 50 per cent, and marketing was different as we were taking virtual ticket bookings right up to the moment the conference started.
“It was not as profitable as having 800 in the audience, but the engagement we had with both those attending in-person and those attending virtually, was extremely successful.
“Will hybrid events prompt a new award category in the Exhibition & Events Association annual awards, I wonder?”
Interpoint Events has been organising events in Australia and New Zealand since 2004. It has won the Best Show Award presented by the EEAA for its pool/spa expo and has been a finalist on multiple occasions in Best ‘New’ Show Awards.