Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meetingHub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 10 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the futureHere are my current thoughts about COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future. Earlier this year I wrote:

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

I am not focusing on hybrid meetings at the moment. Why? Because I see little, if any, benefit of holding in-person meetings at this time. When we are able to have in-person meetings safely without masks or 6′ social distancing, I expect to be designing for two basic kinds of hybrid meetings.

  1. Traditional in-person plus online stream plus online meeting concierges that mediate the in-person portion with those online. (Emilie Barta has a decade of experience mediating such meeting formats.)
  2. Hub-and-spoke style meetings (long championed by Maarten Vanneste), with facilitated in-person pods that are internet connected, usually to a central in-person meeting. Once again, include one or more online meeting concierges to facilitate what happens between pods and the central in-person meeting.

COVID-19 has temporarily suppressed the market for hybrid meetings, but I believe their future is bright!

Please don’t call them virtual meetings

I’ve been noticing a strange trend, ever since COVID-19 caused just about all bread and butter meetings to vanish. Suddenly, people are calling the meetings we’re holding these days virtual meetings.

In the immortal words of Bob Newhart.

Stop it!

Virtual

I’m sorry, but when I think of a virtual meeting, this comes to mind…

virtual meetings

…together with content like this…

virtual meetings

Now, before I get a storm of protests from dedicated Second Life fans, let me be clear that I’ve nothing against anyone who enjoys time in virtual worlds.

And if your meeting is using holographic telepresence to bring in a presenter or two, perhaps virtual is the right term.

Otherwise, I think there’s a better word to use. But let’s explore using virtual for a moment.

The two relevant definitions of “virtual” in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED account required] are:

“Not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so.”

“That may be so called for practical purposes, although not according to strict definition; very near, almost absolute.”

I can’t really quibble with the application of the first definition, but the second reminds us that virtual also means “almost”, with the unsaid connotation that “virtual” isn’t so good.

Why the rise of the phrase “virtual” meetings?

I think meeting industry people are using “virtual” to describe Zoom/Teams/BlueJeans/WebEx meetings these days because we are upset that our traditional meetings, together with our livelihoods and useful expertise, have largely disappeared overnight.

We were and are proud of the meetings we created and ran. “These internet-enabled meetings just aren’t the same!” (And we’re right, they’re not.) And we’re feeling a mixture of grief and anger that they’re gone right now.

As a result, it’s tempting and understandable to use a term like “virtual” to describe what’s taken their place. We feel a little better, because “virtual” meetings aren’t really quite as good as the face-to-face events we’ve been holding for years.

What’s in a name?

Various event industry folks have discussed this terminology, like Dennis Shiao, who puts those early days of “virtual events” in a historical context …

‘I wish we came up with a better name. The dictionary definition of “virtual” refers to something “simulated or extended by computer software,” while I associate the word with “that which is not real.” The “virtual” in “virtual events” makes the category seem mysterious. When something is mysterious, it’s easy to put it aside or pay less attention.’
—Dennis Shiao

… and a recent thread on MECO with Mike Taubleb, Rohit Talwar, me, Sue Walton, Naomi Romanchok, Michelle Taunton, MaryAnne Bobrow, and Gloria Nelson.

The term I think we should use

First choice: Online

Let’s (continue) to call them Online meetings! I say “continue”, because currently, online is the most popular adjective used on the internet (~1.5 billion Google hits). Everyone knows what online means: Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans or ON24 or …

Second choice: Digital

Digital is pretty descriptive (and is the second most popular adjective used: ~1.4 billion results), but to me it feels a little ambiguous. Digital could stand for Zoom or a Slack channel or Second Life or …

Not my favorites

I’d like people to stop using virtual, for the reasons shared above. (It is also less popular than the two previous terms: ~1.1 billion hits.)

Also, let’s avoid livestream for meetings that involve any interaction. I think to most people, livestream means one-way communication (think streaming a movie or music), not something that’s interactive. If you’re hosting an interactive online event, “livestreaming” seems misleading. If, however, you’re broadcasting a meeting without any interaction from the online participants, livestreaming is an appropriate description.

And what should we use for traditional meetings?

If you’re actually meeting in a room with people (let’s hope we get to experience that soon!) I prefer in person, in-person, or face-to-face. What’s the difference between the first two? “In person” is an adverb, and “in-person” is an adjective. So we hold in-person events in person. Get it?

Oh, and let’s not forget hybrid

Finally, hybrid is a useful and specific descriptor for meetings that have both in-person and online components. We’ve had hybrid meetings for years, and I predict their popularity post-pandemic will only increase.

Conclusion

The grammar police don’t always win! My opinion may make no difference — but at least I’ve shared it. What do you think? Share your favorite meeting adjectives in the comments! 

Virtual photo and description attribution: Flickr user Lilith

Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

innovativeportalbannerCurtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar. We received many good participant-led event questions, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!

Read the rest of this entry »

Hybrid event architecture ideas sparked by Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Hybrid event architecture ideasI expect much will be written about the problems encountered with communications with the remote pods at Event Camp Twin Cities 2011 (ECTC) last week. Rather than concentrate on what went wrong, I thought I’d share some ideas on hybrid event architecture that grew from my on-site experience and a long conversation with Brandt Krueger, who produced the event, the following morning. Without Brandt’s explanations I wouldn’t have been able to write this post, but any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone. I am not a production professional, so I write this post in the spirit of provoking discussion and input from those who have far more experience in this area.

Event Camp Twin Cities hybrid event design

Let’s start with a brief description of the set-up at Event Camp Twin Cities. As with many hybrid events, there were three audiences:

  • The local on-site attendees in Minneapolis
  • Seven “pods” (small groups of people that gathered in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters)
  • Individual remote audience members

Both the pods and the individual remote audience members viewed the activities in Minneapolis via Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite platform. This product provides, via a browser-embedded player, A/V from the event (e.g. a presenter speaking) alongside additional media feeds (e.g. presenter slides). The flexibility of this technology, however, includes a cost that contributed to the problems encountered at Event Camp Twin Cities. The “real-time” feed delivered to remote attendees was delayed approximately twenty seconds.

During ECTC, individual remote audience members viewed the Mediasite feed and interacted with the proceedings via Twitter as a backchannel, ably assisted by remote audience host (aka virtual emceeEmilie Barta. From the accounts I’ve heard, this channel worked well.

The pods also viewed the Mediasite feed and could interact via Twitter. To provide additional interactivity for the pods, Event Camp Twin Cities set up live Skype calls to the pods. Several pods clustered on one Skype call. When local participants wanted to have a real-time conversation, they switched to Skype, turning off the Mediasite feed. This is like the way a radio show caller turns off their time-delayed broadcast radio once on the phone.

How it worked out

For reasons that are not clear to me, this switchover process did not work well at ECTC. Rather than concentrate on what happened and why, I’d like to suggest another architectural approach for the pods’ experience that may prevent similar problems in the future.

Instead of switching between delayed and real-time channels for the pods, I think that pod <—> local communications should be set up only via real-time channels. One reason that the pods at ECTC use the (delayed) Mediasite feed is that it provided a convenient aggregation of the two broadcast sources needed for any event these days—A/V of what is going on at the venue plus a channel for slides or other supporting materials. That works for the individual remote audience, which only interacts with the event via Twitter. But when you want to have significant real-time, two-way communication between pods and the main event, you have to handle the complexity involved in switching between delayed and real-time channels on the fly.

Possible improvements

Here’s how my approach would work. All the pods would receive a single real-time broadcast channel for supporting materials (slides, movies etc.) created at the event. You can easily do this using one of the “screen-sharing” solutions in wide use today. The A/V from a “master” computer would broadcast to each pod. And the event would link to each pod via its own two-way channel. This could be a Skype or other videoconference call, or perhaps a product like Google+ Hangouts could be used.

With this architecture, the pods would not receive a delayed feed (i.e. no Mediasite feed), so no switching between delayed and live would be necessary. (Individual remote audience members would continue to receive the delayed feed, as before.) The main event site would need to produce the audio feed, to avoid distracting sound from the pods. But this approach would eliminate the complexities of switching between two channels on the fly.

I think that this approach might be an improvement over the Event Camp Twin Cities 2011 design. It would allow easier spontaneous real-time interaction with the pods, while eliminating one potential source of problems during the event. I await with interest any comments by those who understand the issues better than I.

Hybrid event production professionals, hybrid event attendees, in fact all event professionals: what do you think?

Thanks Ruud Janssen for the photo of the production studio at Event Camp Twin Cities 2011!