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Hybrid events are the perfect synergy between virtual and in-person events, but it can be quite challenging for event planners to put them together. That’s why in this week’s episode of #EventIcons, Sarah welcomes Kelly Knowlen to talk about the most important hybrid event tips and tricks.

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Kelly Knowlen is the executive director of sales engagement and special events at Hilton where she started building her career 28 years ago. She tells Sarah how Hilton pivoted in March 2020 and shares the resources they created to help their customers. They cover every important aspect of planning the perfect hybrid event: technology, safety measures, and audience engagement.


Pivoting To The New World Order

Before Sarah and Kelly talk about hybrid event tips and tricks, they need to go all the way back to March 2020 when Hilton pivoted from in-person events to virtual and hybrid events. “Unfortunately, most of my team was furloughed because we do the in-person events. There were only two of us that stayed on working. It was tough, but we had to adjust and move immediately into that virtual connection with our customers. We started having virtual customer advisory forums and tried to get as creative as we could. We partnered with our Hilton worldwide sales teams in executing virtual events and it went really well,” says Kelly.

“Hilton came out with our CleanStay program. COVID-19 started over in Asia-Pacific, so we had an advanced notice. We got our CleanStay initiatives launched fairly quickly. Shortly after that, we started focusing on meetings and events because our customers told us they needed this information. How are we going to come back to in-person events?”

They made plans for making their customers and attendees feel safe and created EventReady. “We took all of our customer’s input and created this program to provide our customers with confidence that they could come back to safe and socially responsible events with flexible contract terms. They were looking for new setups and new food and beverage guidelines.”

Hybrid Event Tips: Where To Start?

Kelly says that when it came to hybrid events, their customers had no idea where to start. And so, her team set out to help them out. “We gave a little bit of hybrid information, some questions to ask, some resources, some pro tips, and a case study. We built out chapters on wellness, transportation, and responsible events.” They never lost sight of what’s at the center of events: people. “CSR is really important in Hilton. We presented information to our customers every step of the way and kept tweaking it as we went.”

It all started when Kelly’s team had to push a certain big customer event back and eventually transform it into a hybrid event. “We wanted our customers to still hear from our leaders and they wanted to know what Hilton was doing about everything that was going on. It was very important to us that we go ahead and have this event, even though it was going to look really different than what we’d originally planned.”

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Two Venues, Several Watch Parties

Kelly recalls that the biggest challenges she faced were a lack of resources and time. “We had about two months to plan this event and we started out with big, lofty goals. Originally, we planned on having events all over the globe.” However, they soon realized that they would need to narrow the focus. “We took a look at what was realistic with the resources and the budget. So, we scaled it down to two event locations: Hilton McLean in Virginia and the Conrad London St. James. Those were our two in-person locations for the live stream. Then, we had about 25 of our hotels around the world that held watch parties.”

“We put out some tips for having a watch party. We weren’t sure how many people were actually going to join, but we had about 25 hotels and about 400 customers live in the properties watching the live stream. In the London and McLean in-person events, we had about 35 total customers. And we had our executive committees split between the two and speaking to our customers. We partnered with Encore.”

Hybrid Event Tips: Plan The Virtual Portion Really Well!

The first pro hybrid event tip that Kelly shares is bringing your IT partners in really early. “We brought our IT in about midway through planning. As soon as we started talking to them, we realized that we should have brought them in from the very beginning. They really helped us evaluate the properties and what the IT capabilities were. They helped us get the redundancies that we needed. You have to have backups to the backups. Make sure you limit your risk of any kind of internet failure or equipment failure.”

Another thing that you have to keep in mind when planning a hybrid event is figuring out how many people are going to be dialing in virtually. “That impacts the platform you’re going to use. We just did a live stream.”

Kelly also emphasizes working with the virtual speakers beforehand. “Broadcasting is different than speaking to a live audience. You need to get your AV confirmed. Are they going to need teleprompters or confidence monitors? What is it that they’re going to need to make sure that they’re comfortable getting them speaking into the camera? Because it is different than speaking to an in-person audience.”

And last but not least, practice makes perfect. “I would highly recommend two full run-throughs with full run of shows for each event. I don’t think you can practice enough.”

Hybrid Event Tips For Engagement

The conversation then steers to hybrid audience engagement. Kelly advises the listeners to set the expectations regarding engagement in advance. “Our numbers once got up a lot higher than we thought. We ended up with 4,300 virtual attendees, so we decided not to do a chat or any kind of engagement. We did a survey afterwards and the customers said that a chat would have been nice to engage live. But with that many people and that short amount of time, we decided not to do it. The chats would have gotten lost.”

“It’s important to create that community after the event, connect those people together and share insights even later,” agrees Sarah.

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Hybrid Event Tips: Safety Measures At The Venue

Sarah and Kelly then move from the virtual component to the hybrid event venues and their safety. “When you walk in a big ballroom and you’re used to seeing tons of chairs and the big stage, it’s shocking when you see everything six feet apart for the first time. This room used to fit hundreds and it only fits a third of that right now.”

“Make sure that the attendees and the planners have the right expectation for when they arrive. Send out pre-event communication. Tell them to please wear a mask and bring some hand sanitizer, although you have hand sanitizing stations everywhere. Let them know you’ll be setting the room so it’s six feet apart and that all of the food and beverage functions will be set six feet apart as well.”

How They Do It At Hilton

“When people came in, we made sure that we had stickers on the floor. People kept at a distance when they registered and when they went to get their coffee. Our coffee service looks a little bit different now. You can’t go back and just refill your cup, you’ve got to get a fresh cup,” says Kelly.

“When our planners come into event, there are ten high touch points that are going to be sanitized as well as all of the events space. The chairs, the podiums, microphones, window poles, doorknobs, air conditioning units – everything. Then, we seal the meeting room door 30 minutes prior to the event start time. They are also given out an EventReady room checklist, showing them everything that’s been sanitized in the room. If they want to share that with their attendees, they can.”

Final Tip: Sharing Is Caring

If there is one thing that Kelly wants us to take away from this episode, it’s that we are all learning together. “The more that we can lean on each other and use each other as resources and share, the better. That way, we can get creative, have safe events, bring in-person events back, and still have that virtual component that is going to be around for a while. So let’s just keep learning from each other and share best ideas,” she concludes.

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Sarah Christl

Author Sarah Christl

It all started when my mom... met my dad.... they fell in love... and then they had me. Hi, I'm Sarah. And my life... is kind of crazy. Marketing Lab Director. Lover of memes. Curator of content.

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