Operation Preparation: Insights on Accessible, Hybrid Event Management
If you’ve ever been involved in event management, you’ll know that there are always little fires that will need to be put out throughout the day(s) that you couldn’t have seen coming. That’s the baseline. Add in hybrid or blended elements and those fires can double! Does this mean we should only hold in-person events or online events and leave hybrid behind?
No, hybrid events are not only more accessible for attendees with disabilities, they also open up your event to audiences that you may not otherwise reach, such as international attendees who would be unable to travel, and attendees who may face financial barriers that an online attendance option can lessen.
With that in mind, how can you make sure your hybrid event is accessible for people with disabilities and that it is well-planned?
The Basics of Accessible Event Management
The best approach to take when thinking through accessibility for an event is to think of it in order of the attendee journey.
So, if we start with the event promotion. Are you ensuring that you have sufficient colour contrast on any promotional materials so that colour-blind attendees can read the information? Are you remembering to add alternative text descriptions in any email campaigns or social media posts so that you’re not excluding blind or visually impaired attendees? Are you captioning any promotional videos to include Deaf or hard-of-hearing attendees? If you’re not sure how to check these things, read my previous journal article about accessible communications for quick and easy guidance.
Then we need to think about event registration. Have you clearly identified who to go to with any questions? Have you clearly outlined the registration process in any promotional materials so attendees aren’t made anxious or confused? Have you included a question on your registration form asking attendees if they have any reasonable accommodations or requirements to attend your event such as captioning or ISL interpretation? Note that, as there is a shortage of working ISL interpreters, it’s best practice to only book interpreters if you know attendees will need them otherwise you could be inadvertently depriving others of this important service.
This brings us to the event venue. It’s really important to consider the accessibility of your venue not only to guarantee the highest number of people can attend but also so that your attendees feel welcome and included. Often people’s minds will first go to whether the space is wheelchair accessible, thinking that if there are ramps and designated disabled bathrooms that the venue is accessible. I would challenge you to think about the spaces more holistically; what’s the lighting like and might it impact Deaf attendees' ability to lip read? What are the open spaces like and would they be difficult for a blind attendee to independently navigate? Can you provide a quiet room or quiet spaces for attendees with anxiety or sensory needs to retreat to?
Now let’s think about your programme or event agenda. Try not to have overly early start times or overly long days so that anyone who needs to travel to your event has ample time, and so as not to disproportionately impact anyone with sleep disorders or chronic fatigue. Multiple comfort breaks are a must, I would recommend at least 15 minutes every 2 hours and of course, an hour-long lunch break if you’re running for the full day. Depending on the size of your venue and the distance between your event spaces and catering spaces, you may need to consider providing longer break times to allow anyone with mobility issues enough time to get their coffee and nibbles.
Preparing your Audience
The term ‘hybrid event’ holds different meanings for different people and audience expectations can really vary. For that reason, you need to be clear with your audience about what a hybrid event means to you or what your hybrid event will look and feel like. For the AHEAD Conference 2023, we outlined on our event website exactly what the online and in-person audiences would be able to see and hear and we also told them what event elements would be available to each audience and whether elements would be recorded and available asynchronously.
When we were developing our event, we first thought about what type of sessions we wanted to include in our programme (student panels, rapid-fire lightning sessions, practical workshops, and whole conference conversations bringing together the two audiences).
Next, we considered whether we wanted both audiences to be able to engage with each type of session. There are certain things that work well in-person that don’t always translate online, and vice versa, and that’s OK! As I’ve now run two AHEAD conferences online, I’ve learnt that our audiences didn’t connect with workshops or networking elements online as much as they do in-person and so with that in mind we decided to keep the workshops for AHEAD 2023 in-person only to maximise the format. We decided that we wouldn’t record the workshops because of their focus on learning and interaction with the attendees – we didn’t want people to be worried about asking questions or saying the wrong thing and having cameras rolling can sometimes have that effect.
Equally, we wanted to ensure that the online audience was prioritised as much as possible, so we decided to encourage all questions from both audiences to be submitted via Slido which is an easy-to-use online platform which allows you to share codes to specific questions or polls. We let our audience know in our pre-conference communications that they would be asked to use phones or other devices so that no one was caught off guard, and of course, I had prepped our online event team to manually add anything that came in through the Zoom chat box and our in-person event team to be ready with roving microphones for anyone who preferred to ask verbally so we made sure to cover all bases.
Preparing your Speakers
In order for the hybrid event to run smoothly, I needed to ensure that speakers knew what to expect and knew how to interact with the audiences. Most speakers understand how to engage an in-person audience, and during the pandemic many speakers learnt how to work with online audiences. However, managing a hybrid audience isn’t so intuitive, especially because there is a lot of variance in how a hybrid event works. For this reason, I would recommend taking no knowledge as a given! I mapped out for all speakers at AHEAD 2023 what the online audience would be able to see and hear and then what the in-person audience would be able to see and hear, to avoid any awkward moments where they might ask the audience to contribute only to discover they can’t! For most sessions, because we had worked with AV professionals to put on a dynamic production including cameras that could switch between the in-person speakers and the audience, we were able to give the following guidance:
“The AHEAD Conference will have both online and in-person attendees. The online attendees for your presentation will see a stream of what's happening in the conference space (i.e. you presenting, your slides, shots of the audience) plus any online speakers. They will be able to ask you questions or make comments using a website called Slido. Our hosts CEO Dara Ryder and Erica Meslin will verbally read the questions to you from Slido. Please either instruct attendees to ask questions at the end of your presentation, or if you would like to take pauses for questions throughout please make that very clear both to attendees and to our hosts.”
Preparing your Event Team
Hybrid events often have a unique set of challenges to online-only or in-person-only events. A well-managed hybrid event will have at least one person in charge of the in-person logistics and at least one person looking after the online elements. If you give one person all of the responsibility for both events, then the online audience could suffer because of in-person issues pulling their focus or vice versa. With that being said, events work best when there is a point of contact (or multiple points of contact) who understand all event elements and so I would recommend that your main events professional or team manage the in-person event and that they delegate to the online team and are available for the online team to escalate any major issues.
A message I’d really like you to take away is that while hybrid event management is challenging, it’s also really rewarding both for organisers and audiences. Don’t shift to offering in-person only if you have the scope and budget to offer a hybrid event. A bit of creativity goes a long way in cases where your budget is limited, you can opt to offer similar experiences for your audiences rather than identical ones so you might have an online presentation on a topic running at the same time as an in-person only workshop on that topic is taking place. It’s also important not to default to online participation replacing accessibility considerations or providing an accessible venue, the choice of how to participate should be a genuine choice for all attendees!