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Convention Center Prepares for Hybrid Events

Hybrid events, which combine in-person and online components, are becoming a significant trend in the mass meetings space as a result of COVID-19.

In response, the San Diego Convention Center is enhancing its technical offerings to better serve its clients and capture a larger piece of the growing hybrid event market.

The Convention Center invested in some of the needed technology before the pandemic occurred.

The point, said Andy Mikschl, is to serve as a safe and effective large gathering provider with all the necessary technological advances to support that goal. And, ultimately, for the Convention Center to become a leader in this area in order to be an economic driver for the San Diego region once again.

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“We already have experience hosting hybrid events, especially for our technology and gaming-focused clients. The difference is that now the vast majority of our clients are looking to go the hybrid route, at least in the near future,” said Mikschl, chief sales and revenue officer of the San Diego Convention Center. “Because some of our clients don’t know all the possibilities that are out there for the virtual components, we have been developing a menu of services for them and educational materials for our staff who work directly with our clients.”

Due to international travel and large gathering restrictions, medical conditions and other reasons, the San Diego Convention Center anticipates a dramatic increase in the number of conventions and meetings conducted in a hybrid fashion into 2021. Through hybrid events, organizers can attract in-person attendees as well as encourage virtual registration, said Mikschl.

To meet the anticipated demand, SDCC has developed a hybrid events working group composed of staff from the Convention Center as well as its audio-visual partners, Atlanta-based ON Site, and its technology partners at Smart City Networks. Mikschl said the team has the ability to secure all the necessary hardware and software required for hybrid events of various sizes, including additional cameras and tripods, risers and studio microphones. On the software end, these components scale from a simple livestream to an immersive experience with virtual lounges, breakout rooms, interactive polling and other enhancements.

Simulcast Options

For attendees who travel to San Diego for a convention, the hybrid services can also provide a way for them to participate in larger sessions, albeit virtually. For example, SDCC’s technology partners can coordinate with event planners to simulcast a live session to other remote areas of the Convention Center and/or nearby hotels. So, the technologies can be used to reach online participants as well as large numbers of attendees safely gathering in other parts of the Convention Center or in neighboring locations within the city.

Roger Thompson, regional director of hotel services for ON Site, said his job is to simplify the process and create a compelling event experience.

“When you talk about hybrid events, you’re essentially talking about who we are and what we do,” he said. “We can broadcast a meeting to 20 people or set up a massive interactive gaming experience with thousands of in-person attendees and hundreds of thousands of global participants.”

Infrastructure is Critical

Shawn Lowery, senior director of product marketing for Smart City Networks, said infrastructure is critical to an effective hybrid event.

“Demand may be accelerating at this moment, but we have been steadily enhancing our support for hybrid events during the past 15 years,” he said. “Should one circuit fail, we have automatic failover to the backup circuit so there is no downtime to clients.”

The most important aspect of a well-run hybrid event is dedicated bandwidth, said Mikschl. That will ensure that the internet connection does not go down during a live panel discussion. The quality of a virtual attendee’s experience quickly declines when a livestream’s audio cuts out or a speaker’s face freezes mid-sentence.

“Our team brings those resources and experience,” Mikschl said, adding that since SDCC has in-house technology and AV partners in place, the shift to hybrid events doesn’t require significant expenditures on their part. Instead, the convention center anticipates clients will reallocate their budgets to pay for the enhanced online components, he said.

New Revenue Opportunities

While projections of estimated revenue from hybrid events are premature at this point, Mikschl said such events can present new revenue opportunities. This includes virtual registration fees and sponsorships, like the sponsoring of a session, a chat room or internet access itself. If sessions are recorded and posted online, that sponsor’s visibility continues long after the event takes place.

At this time, the San Diego Convention Center is preparing to reopen in 2021 with new safety protocols that include social distancing guidelines and other safety measures, said Mikschl. In July, it became one of the first convention centers in the United States to achieve a GBAC STAR facility accreditation by Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of ISSA, the international cleaning industry association. This means SDCC is implementing a program of stringent protocols for cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention, according to the company.

As part of the California Travel Association, the coalition of convention centers and destination marketing organizations, it has proposed safe reopening guidelines for the 13 largest convention centers in California, he added.

“Productive discussions are taking place with (Gov. Gavin Newsom’s) office and regional leaders regarding those guidelines,” Mikschl said, “and detailed ones we have developed specifically for our San Diego operations.” 

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