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by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2012

Many planners are drawn to the high-tech allure of hybrid events, mobile apps or even video production, but they just can't squeeze any more out of their budgets. Fortunately for those cash-strapped dreamers, the technology doesn't have to be expensive to work. On the contrary, low-cost solutions make it easier than ever before to get great results from little investment. Glean inspiration from the following success stories.

Hybrid Events Scott Lum's team at Microsoft is responsible for organizing hundreds of customer meetings every year -- as many as four per week. Over the past year, Lum has turned the majority of those meetings into hybrid events -- and he added the online component with very little additional investment. "You can make very significant cuts to get your incremental costs down to the minimum," explains the digital marketing manager for events at the Redmond, Wash.-based firm.

Lum has strived to reduce incremental costs, and as a result he developed an economical, flexible solution that requires spending very little to stream each meeting online. The extra reach provided by putting the content online -- and keeping it there for on-demand streaming -- equates to a major return on the meager investment. Here's how he made it work.

• Determine acceptable quality. The first step, says Lum, is to recognize that hybrid events can encompass a whole spectrum of experiences for attendees. For instance, the general public has fairly lofty expectations for a high-profile Microsoft event, and that requires the appropriate investment -- "cameramen, satellite trucks, production costs in the six figures," notes Lum. But he needed to scale an affordable hybrid approach across hundreds of small, lower-profile events per year. "We wanted to create a regular cadence of cost-effective, rich media content that resonates with our audience," says Lum.

The nature of Lum's attendees determined his approach. "For my audience, which is IT pros and developers, seeing the most glitzy studio content is not necessarily what appeals to them. In fact, it might turn them off," he says. "The key is to understand the production quality that will resonate best with your target audience and create a spectrum of content that works best for them."

• Experiment with equipment. Lum attended a session several years ago that the presenter streamed on the spot, using only an iPhone and the free Ustream app. The speaker broadcast his talk, live, via the Ustream site online, and it was decidedly low-tech. But it got Lum thinking. "Basically, I realized you can create a hybrid event at almost no cost, using the production quality of a cell phone," he says. "That's awesome."

So Lum worked his way up the ladder of camera possibilities, and he settled on a basic HD digital video camera and a tripod to provide the acceptable level of quality for his audience. For the smaller meetings, he uses a roundtable camera, which rotates according to whomever is talking.

The meetings already had a basic A/V setup on-site -- specifically, an audio amplification system for the speaker microphone and a laptop and projector for PowerPoint presentations. The on-site A/V technicians -- already in the budget -- assist with the direct audio and presentation feeds for the live stream.

Lums events via Live Meeting• Make the most of what you already have. Lum avoids significant production costs associated with hybrid meetings by treating these events as webcasts. Working for a tech company has its advantages in this respect: Lum uses Microsoft Live Meeting or Lync to stream the meeting, and incurs little cost in doing so.  

Planners should find out what telecommunications tools already are being licensed by their companies, Lum suggests. For instance, WebEx, ON24, INXPO and the like offer webcasting tools that allow live streaming of a meeting. If the company already is a customer of the platform, the per-webcast cost is likely to be relatively inexpensive -- as low as $100 to $200 for regular INXPO clients doing a self-service production, or $450 for ON24's self-service Webcast Pro. (Check with the suppliers for specific prices, as many variables are involved.)

• Find the right venue. Lum's meetings typically take place in conference centers or hotels -- or, occasionally, in a movie theater. "The key thing that we look for when we determine whether or not the facility is good enough is the Internet connectivity," Lum explains. "A T1 line is ideal. Dedicated Wi-Fi, where other people can't access the network, is the bare minimum. We've tried it with 3G and 4G; the quality is just too spotty."

• Make it easy and repeatable. Perhaps the most important part of Lum's approach is the simplicity and portability of the setup -- what he calls his "hybrid event in a box." The equipment required is, literally, shipped around the country in its own compact box.

"Include the instructions, the camera, the tripod and any equipment you need to hook the camera into the meeting's audiovisual system, and ship that to the event site," advises Lum. "That way you don't incur any T&E costs for cameramen and a team to travel there. The in-person event generally has an A/V crew at the event itself. They set up the presentation, they set up a box in the back of the room for the audio and video from the presentation. That A/V team will just take the stuff from the event kit and basically plug it into the equipment in the back and set up the camera. Then from our end, we just treat it as a webcast."

Lum's sole additional labor cost is a tech point person who manages the stream and the production from headquarters. "He makes sure we have the right hardware, and he sets up meetings with the on-site A/V crew to make sure they know how to set things up," says Lum. "During the event itself, he manages the stream and ensures everything is running smoothly."