One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we have all had been compelled into an online or virtual way of meeting and engaging with each other. As restrictions for travel and gatherings gradually lift, we have the chance to gather face-to-face once again, but is this always the right approach? The use of virtual meetings has brought many benefits, but they cannot entirely replace physical interactions, and in-person meetings provide their own challenges, so do hybrid meetings offer the perfect blend?

Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has caused a seismic and far-reaching change in healthcare. There has been a shift in the way scientific research is conducted and communicated, how physicians provide clinical care, and how pharmaceutical companies engage with their customers and ensure scientific exchange. During this time, we at AXON have also changed how we communicate, delivering more than 100 virtual meetings of various shapes and sizes.

As the world slowly reopens, we are faced with the question of whether to revert to face-to-face meetings, continue with virtual, or consider a hybrid approach. There is no doubt that many of us are desperate to experience a physical meeting again and take advantage of networking opportunities that the online approach struggles to deliver. Many congress organisers, who turned to fully virtual activities, also are likely keen to benefit from revenue streams that only face-to-face meetings can offer. However, for everything virtual can’t recreate, there is also a benefit. Virtual meetings offer greater accessibility for attendees, allow for a wider reach of audience for organisers, provide more flexibility in timing of delivery and allow for a reduced environmental impact on the planet.

It is no wonder that so many organisations are considering a blended approach to organising meetings; however, making practical and ethical decisions between face-to-face and virtual events can be challenging. So can navigating the myriad of hybrid meeting options and technology. As always, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so creating the right blend of both is vital to delivering a memorable and successful meeting.

Choosing the right meeting solution

When choosing the best format for a meeting or event, it is important to first consider what you want to achieve, as well as what your audience might be looking for, and then select the right format to help meet your objectives.

For example, do you need to convene a group of people and communicate a message quickly? Then a virtual meeting might be a good option. Does your meeting require that attendees have in-depth discussions on potentially controversial issues, reach unequivocal consensus or focus their undivided attention? Then a face-to-face meeting might be the way forward. Are you trying to maximise your reach and simultaneously address different learning styles? Then hybrid might work.

The hybrid meeting continuum

Hybrid meetings cover a range of different options. Being able to stream a live or face-to-face meeting so that you can reach a bigger audience is one thing – but being able to connect and engage with those online participants as you do in person is something else. 

Technology has advanced rapidly in the past year and a half, giving us access to more tools than ever to entice online participants to engage and interact during meetings. But before deciding how to engage and interact with participants, you should first consider why you want to engage and what value will it add.

It is wrong to believe we can create the same experience for face-to-face and online attendees. Instead, our focus should be on setting expectations for both types of attendees and ensuring that they are catered for in equal measure. From lengths of sessions to types of tools used to content and speaker engagement, there are some key questions to get right from the outset. We’ve learned from our virtual and hybrid experience how these considerations, applied in the right way, can create more engaging meetings and events, and add more value for our clients and their audiences.

It is unclear now how far the current interest in hybrid meetings will continue, but it seems likely that it will exist in some form for the foreseeable future. In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, where we were forced to change our practice to be entirely virtual, we are now in the position where we can blend the best of both worlds and deliver better meetings for all those involved. As science continues to evolve, so too, is the experience of designing and delivering effective healthcare communications.