A Pivot to Hybrid: A Case Study from the South China Morning Post

January 26, 2022
SCMP Insights
Hong Kong has one of the most restrictive travel policies in the world, which makes regional in-person events almost impossible to organise in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. However, a recent event focusing on the Greater Bay Area proved to be an unmissable opportunity to grow revenue and audience beyond Hong Kong. This is how SCMP elevated ‘Redefining Hong Kong’ - typically an hour-long luncheon - to a half-day hybrid event.

Redefining Hong Kong (RHK), a flagship event run by the South China Morning Post since 2013, facilitates communication and collaboration between senior executives in the pursuit of common objectives for improving the innovation landscape in Hong Kong. Over the last eight years, this luncheon event has convened government officials, diplomats, business tycoons, emerging entrepreneurs, academics and youth leaders in programmes covering hot button issues that shape the future of Hong Kong such as housing, relations with the Mainland, entrepreneurship, female leadership and social innovation, amongst others. Each year, the event kicks off with the Hong Kong annual budget, where we put the Financial Secretary in the hot seat with our editors to debate, discuss and demystify what the budget means for everyday people. 

Taking place over the course of five meetings in 2021/22, attendees will hear from experts and thought-leaders, and share their own views at Q&A sessions and roundtable discussions. Since the start of the pandemic 18 months ago, the event has pivoted to a virtual format, where it draws even more attendees than the main luncheon, amplifying RHK’s message to a much wider audience.

The Opportunity

Our third event this year focused on opportunities in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), a very hot topic that covers many different areas. The event presented both a dilemma and an opportunity: condensing everything into a one-hour panel discussion would have done the topic a disservice, while focusing on any particular area would risk narrowing the potential audience to too niche a segment.

At the same time, Hong Kong has gradually loosened its social distancing measures, despite still maintaining one of the strictest travel policies in the world. Therefore, it was possible to hold in-person events with food and drinks served, albeit with limits on attendance.

We saw this as an opportunity to expand the programme, in order to draw as much attention and sponsorship potential to this particular event, and we thought RHK would be the perfect platform to plan and run our very first hybrid event.

The Strategy

The first thing we did was to look at popular sub-topics under the GBA umbrella and identify additional sponsorship opportunities. We also considered the fact that although the event itself focuses on Hong Kong, our virtual audience may be attending from anywhere in the world. The programme’s content, speakers and format needed to address this as well.

Our venue had rather strict social distancing guidelines as the premises operated under an F&B license. Their standard ballrooms - which usually accommodate up to 150 guests - had to be partitioned into three sections seating 60 guests, with four to a table. This restriction would have meant we were no longer able to use the open-invitation marketing approach (where interested SCMP readers join a waiting list and our team selects audience members based on their job titles and relevance to the programme). Instead, we had to invite guests individually and manually track each invitation. 

Marketing then focused on building the virtual audience, from within Hong Kong and overseas. The task was quite specific: we were seeking entrepreneurs and business leaders who are keen to tap into the GBA market by tapping into the strategic location and capabilities that Hong Kong,Asia’s World City, has to offer.

The Execution

This year’s programme has been extended from one-hour to almost three; with a mix of panel discussions and fireside chats. Nineteen experts on diplomacy, investment, smart cities, fintech and cross-border business expansion spoke at the event. Of these, nine speakers were female, representing a ratio of 42% - an important diversity rule that all our events adhere to. 

One virtual session was designed specifically with the overseas audience in mind and took place an hour before the start of the in-person track. The mainstage programme was also streamed live, with the event emcee addressing both audiences. Everyone was invited to engage through our online community and interactive Q&A.

For this event, our in-person audience brief was to target consulates and embassies, chambers of commerce, and senior job titles with Greater Bay Area and Greater China responsibilities. Sixty guests were identified and invited. 

Our marketing channels are standard (house media, paid media, and partnerships) but expanded in geographical targets - Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and The Philippines. We focused on the virtual event in all our external communications to avoid confusion with the in-person programme.

To increase our sponsorship pool, we looked to government and private organisations with an interest in promoting Hong Kong’s position as the most strategic and effective stepping stone in the Greater Bay Area market.

The Results

Reader response has been overwhelming. Over 600 registrations were received for the complimentary pass, and more than 40% tuned into the event. More than 50 in-person guests took advantage of the event to network and engage in what turned out to be a very lively discussion.

Sponsorship for this event has also exceeded our target and grew by 42% this year.

The Conclusion

Is a socially distanced in-person event worth it? Despite the restrictions placed on our in-person guests, many expressed their delight at being invited to the event, a welcome respite from the Zoom fatigue that many of us have experienced.

The team has pulled off a meticulously planned operations rundown, although unexpected problems do still occur. For example, we have a very scratchy audio connection for our virtual audience during the first half of our programme, which impacted our audience experience and tune-in rate. Such problems may occur no matter how well you plan your logistics, so be prepared with at least two backup options.

Will we do hybrid events again in the future? This first experience has been very trying for the team, as none of us have experience doing such an event in the past. But the results - in terms of sponsorship, speakers, and attendance - speak for themselves. The team is now undergoing professional training in digital event planning (which will be certified), and we aim to run a few more hybrid events to gain more experience - the only tried and true means to achieve excellence in any new discipline.