Following the success of The Gathering 2022, John Fitzgerald reflects on the dilemma of holding in-person events.

Earlier this month, we launched our new Digital Call to Action at an in-person event, ahead of an online launch a week later. After the in-person event, a few people called us out on Twitter, asking why we had not run a hybrid launch so that we could be more inclusive. 

We had thought about using a hybrid format, but this was hard to do well within the context of the wider event. Thousands of people attended The Gathering, with more than 80 events taking place over two days, many in parallel sessions in 13 different rooms. This means that The Gathering is designed for an in-person experience. Short room setup times and technical constraints such as overloaded WiFi mean it is not an ideal environment for hybrid meetings or streaming. We also knew that our report had an online launch lined up one week later. 

Folk on Twitter pointed out that this wasn’t good enough – how could we talk about a digitally-confident voluntary sector without using a hybrid meeting format? On reflection, they were right. 

Hybrid meetings do require some thought and preparation, and they change the nature of the experience of both in-room and remote attendees. But they can offer a more inclusive experience.  

Organisations such as Glasgow Disability Alliance have been trialing hybrid meeting formats for events such as report launches and local election hustings: 

With these benefits, why haven’t we talked more about hybrid as a format before now?  

Firstly, our own recent experience of DigiShift and our topical digital training is that fully online events are still popular, especially for geographically-dispersed groups. In our own work, we haven’t yet seen much demand for a mixed format. Doing events entirely online is a lot easier to manage and puts everyone on the same footing. 

Secondly, the organisations who have been trialing and refining hybrid meetings and found successful approaches have been able to do this on their own. 

When I was first challenged about the decision not to go hybrid, this felt a bit uncomfortable. If we’re supposed to be highlighting the best in digital to the wider sector, why didn’t we demonstrate it ourselves? Part of the answer is that digital evolution is all about responding to raised expectations: 

Hybrid meetings have been around for a long while – and we’ve used them ourselves as a team. But often, the challenges of getting the format right, especially for fully interactive hybrid meetings, outweighed the benefits. Now, as our context changes, people have new needs and expectations. We aren’t going to return to ‘normal’ ways of working after the pandemic, it’s more like a ‘next normal’ where previous assumptions about ways of working are challenged. 

The whole sector is constantly trying new things out for itself. Our experience with DigiShift community calls is that organisations of all sizes come with ideas and experiences they have discovered for themselves. We’re open to more conversations and thinking, especially as we see new ways of working emerging. So, we’ll be adding a section on hybrid meetings to our Call to Action report. With thanks to Glasgow Disability Alliance and others for challenging me, and other teams across SCVO on this topic.