By Kaitlyn Wallace
Hybrid events have been hailed as the meeting and events industry’s saving grace in the face of ever-fluctuating public health circumstances. For attendees eager to get back to face-to-face connection, hybrid events provide opportunities for in-person communication and networking; for attendees preferring to keep their distance, recordings, virtual breakout rooms, and chat functions can serve many of the same roles. But there is one factor complicating this seemingly perfect solution, and it’s not everyone’s first guess. In recent months, hybrid events have been plagued by an unlikely enemy: the rising costs of A/V.
The Role of Hotels
The chain of events leading to rising costs is complex. On a macro level, the meetings and events industry has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, leading all stakeholders to seek out or augment alternative revenue sources. Hotels, which have suffered from massive decreases in travel and accommodations, are one of these stakeholders. As meetings and events have started to make a comeback, hotels have capitalized on A/V (particularly for hybrid events) to boost income, increasing prices for in-house hybrid A/V services, and applying steep fees for out-sourcing. This leaves meeting and event planners in a dilemma, described by Robert Huckstep, Director of Sales and Management at Capture Technologies: “It’s a tough, tough decision to make as an event organizer. Do you go with your local company that you know you can trust and work well with and sink the out-sourcing fees, or do you work with an in-house crew with all of the unknowns that come with– including having you fixed at every price?”
Set-up Costs: Twice
In-house expenses and outsourcing fees are only one part of the story, however. Hybrid events require much more set-up and planning than purely virtual or purely in-person events. Event planners must cater to two populations instead of one – that means constructing lighting and staging that works for two sets of viewing needs, broadcasting audio in two different ways, and contending with two sets of possible on-site A/V problems. As Huckstep describes, “[A/V set-up] can’t just be for the in-person audience; you have to have these more fine-tuned details in production to make more value for the viewers virtually. So, your staging and lighting bill just went up because you’re taking care of all of these details that you weren’t accustomed to prior to hybrid events.”
Inflation and Supplies
The meeting and events industry is no stranger to the increasing stresses of inflation and supply chain issues. Inflation affects every part of the A/V chain, from cost of equipment rentals to reluctance to spend on non-essential travel; to contributing to hotels’ need for alternate revenue sources. Supply chain issues have made shipment timing unreliable, making set-up and launch more challenging. Staffing issues continue to plague the hotel industry; with decreased capacity for A/V or event staff, some hotels are unable to host the large programs and events that are particularly profitable – increasing their need to augment revenue by other means. Logistical issues like these are the enemy of meticulous planners, who work to minimize uncertainty and variability in set-up and launch.
So, What Can Event Planners Do?
The answer to A/V headaches is the same as any other meeting and event obstacle: planning and good use of data. In the current meeting and event space, knowing your stakeholders is essential. Do your attendees prefer to meet virtually or in person? If your attendees are uninterested in meeting virtually, you may be able to decrease A/V costs by providing a recording rather than live virtual meeting rooms. What are the goals of your event? Continuing education or other informational meetings and events will likely value the distribution of information over face-to-face meetings. Many unnecessary A/V costs can be avoided by sending out pre-show surveys and carefully analyzing post-show data.
Hybrid Events: Here to Stay?
Are hybrid events sustainable in the long run? For now, it’s unclear. As Huckstep describes, “I have to believe they are; we’d be doing a disservice to many people if we [got rid of hybrid events altogether]. I think we’ve been doing it wrong for a very long time. But is it sustainable at the cost now? I’m not sure. We’re going to have to get creative and find cost-effective ways to throw events.”
The A/V industry is still in flux, in-part because the COVID-19 situation is constantly changing as well. The future of hybrid events and A/V is in the hands of creative planners, who will drive the meeting and events space with innovative solutions to the shifting barriers imposed by the continuously evolving nature of the pandemic. It is up to stakeholders and trailblazers in the meetings and events community to carve the path forward in this challenging audio-visual landscape.
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.