Do Hybrid Conferences Work?

The pandemic forced many events online, which has worked fairly well inside many companies and certainly spurred some technological advances in how we meet and share information. With the pandemic ending or at least entering an endemic phase, there are many live events now, as well as some attempting to embrace a hybrid philosophy.

I went to two conferences in 2022 that embraced the hybrid concept: SQL Bits and the PASS Data Community Summit. I was just a speaker at the former, and mostly a speaker at the latter, though I saw quite a bit of the behind-the-scenes action from the organizers’ perspective at the Data Community Summit.

During SQL Bits, I watched a hybrid session with a remote speaker. I also presented two sessions with a moderator that was engaged with the virtual attendees. The experience watching a remote presenter wasn’t great, and the audio at times was hard to hear. I also spoke with a few virtual presenters who also noted they struggled to hear people in the room. All in all, it felt somewhat live, but I felt disengaged from the speaker, and missed a feeling of interaction from the picture-in-picture of the individual speaker inside the larger screen. It was just too hard to see them and understand body language.

At both events, the sessions I presented with a moderator went well, and I felt the moderator could be a good proxy for people online. I also know that I have little visibility into what people online see and hear. I’ve gone out of camera range at times, and I rarely know if the virtual audience can see my entire screen, me, or some combination of both, much less hear what I’m saying.

After the Summit, I read a post about hybrid events from Andy Galbraith, which made a lot of sense to me. I enjoyed seeing and speaking with Andy in Seattle, though I know that our interactions would have been fewer, less satisfying, and less connected if we were virtual using Spatial.IO or some other technology. Spatial has been the best online platform I’ve seen for groups, but it’s still not great.

Like Andy, I don’t want to pick a fight, but I have a few perspectives on why I don’t think hybrid works for the most part. First, it’s resource expensive. The equipment, people, and time spent putting the show together make it less attractive for most events, even paid. The people managing AV find it more than twice as hard to manage the technology and don’t like the added stress.

Second, the interaction is still very limited, and when we do try to interact, it’s full of pauses and stutters in conversation that make this much worse than in person. Even a proxy adds delays and a very un-natural feeling to the engagement.

Lastly, we don’t really create the same engagement as the view from a virtual event is very limited, and one can’t really engage with other attendees in the same way we can in person. Not only in sessions but before/after and in other spaces. Meetings with more than ten people are often hard to engage with more than a few people, so I don’t expect we can make things better when there are 50, 100, or more people in a virtual meeting.

I appreciate the accessibility aspect of virtual attendance. I think we ought to have more virtual events. I was glad we had a few virtual SQL Saturdays in 2022 and I’d like to see more in 2023. If you want to put one on, especially with a niche technology, please reach out. I’d love to see more of these events.

I just don’t think hybrid works. Not at large conferences, not at SQL Saturday, and not at user groups. My view is you should choose one or the other. Make it in-person or virtual.

That being said, I do like the broadcast efforts from large conferences. I thought PASSTV was great. I have enjoyed the shows between sessions at Ignite and Build, and I hope we can do some of that for the 2023 PASS Data Community Summit. One thing I think has worked well across decades is broadcasting. The effort is lower and the experience for the remote audience can be better. They aren’t included, but they can see a “show” that is better than a clumsy attempt at bringing thousands of people into a “room” of some sort.

I don’t think hybrid conferences work, but I know I’m biased in that I help run and organize live events. I want to see more live events in the future, and I want to see more virtual events.

Just not together.

Steve Jones

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About way0utwest

Editor, SQLServerCentral
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