After COVID kicked occupancy rates off a cliff, INNSiDE Manchester was among the first hotels to lead the transformation of disused event spaces into production studios. The Meliá hotel partnered with AV supplier Sterling Event Group to install a stage floor ringed with multiple cameras and a professional audio and lighting system, backed by a HD laser projection screen alongside two 65-inch LCDs for branded content, all controlled by a live stream production suite.
“We used to host live conferences with 300 delegates in the space,” says Scott Brown, INNSiDE’s Cluster Director of Sales in the north. “We can now host that as a virtual event with just 30 people on-site, but another 300 attendees dialling in remotely.
“It wouldn’t be practical for us to house tens of thousands of pounds of kit on an ongoing basis. But because of the size of the space, and the fact we don’t foresee hosting large-scale events for the next six months, it works for us right now while AV suppliers are sat with unused kit in their warehouses. Meliá already offers a hybrid solution, but the difference with INNSiDE Live is it alleviates a lot of the setup and breakdown expenses, making it a really cost-effective solution for clients.”
A year into the pandemic and organisers are increasingly conscious of broadcast quality. Performing Artistes is one of the many agencies racing to invest in professional studio equipment in response to the mounting dissatisfaction of virtual attendees, fed up with low quality webcam footage: “It’s about creating the right impression for your audience,” says Director JJ Jackson. “Having your keynote slumped behind your webcam – with at best a bookshelf and at worst your washing drying in the background – is no longer good enough, especially if clients are paying thousands of pounds. Events agencies have to invest in a decent webcam, lighting and backdrops at the very least, and ideally a multi-camera setup with a little mixer so you can slickly switch between them. We’ve invested in professional lighting and high-definition cameras in our office – it’s a great halfway house between expensive studio rental and having speakers present at home.”
However, Richard Bowden, MD of Sterling Event Group, argues it’s not necessarily the equipment that counts, but the expertise behind it: “There’s a place for in-house studio setups, using venue furniture in a nice location with very simple production. But in the live events market, conferences attended by hundreds of delegates would always see the expertise of a professional AV company – and it shouldn’t be any different with virtual events.
“It’s not just about investing in a broadcast-quality cameras; there are hundreds of pieces of kit behind the scenes that all work together to deliver a virtual event. Having that equipment infrastructure in a safe, suitable place and a core team who know how to use it allows you to deliver events that look more like a television production and less like a Zoom call.”
Kevan Holland, Co-founder of Trident Hospitality Consultancy believes one of the biggest challenges in proper AV investment for virtual events is a lack of knowledge across the industry: “Some of the AV companies who are putting the platforms together are coming across with so much jargon that it’s hard to sell their product onto clients. Our members who work with AV companies to offer hybrid events solutions report their clients are reluctant to pay thousands of pounds to connect 100 people via a platform, when Zoom is virtually free – they don’t actually understand the logistics of how virtual works. It’s fine if you’re a big association, but for the average small to medium size company, it’s hard to swallow some of the costs.”
Trident member Vicky Webb, Venue and Events Manager at Millennium Point, says it has been a priority to ensure her events team are trained to understand the technical aspects of virtual events: “It’s our job to match people with the right solution. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a techie – that’s why I have an AV technician on hand. Clients often don’t understand what they want and it’s up to us to have the knowledge as a sales team to direct them towards what they need and help them understand the cost implications.”
“Not every client is going to have the budget associated with a primetime TV show,” accepts Richard. “How we think about screen content is different for virtual events. AV teams can remotely manage events and achieve some of those production values digitally, combining webcam feeds with professional graphics and pre-recorded content.”
As to exactly what’s possibly right now, Richard is witnessing change on a weekly basis as the pandemic pushes virtual event AV to its limits: “The whole industry is developing so rapidly right now, seeking the advice of a professional production company who can share the pros and cons of using different platforms has never been more valuable. If your platform isn’t right or the interaction doesn’t work in the way that you were hoping, it could mean the difference between a successful event and a PR disaster.”
EXPERT PRODUCT PICK
Absen Polaris 2.5 Pro
Weeks before the pandemic began, Sterling invested in a new LCD to enhance its live work: the Absen Polaris 2.5 Pro. A high-resolution modular screen, it can be configured to curve and the pixel pitch (the density of pixels) means the image looks particularly crisp on camera: “It’s proved the backbone of our virtual shows,” Richard claims. “Little did we know when we purchased it, that the only way audiences would be seeing this screen for the foreseeable would be via camera.”
The first screen the AV supplier installed when building its Manchester studio proved flexibility is key: “It’s important to us that we don’t offer the same setup for every event and the modular aspect of the product helps us quickly change the look and feel of our sets.”
When clients are scrutinising the environmental impacts of events, modular LCD backgrounds the perfect alternative to throwaway props: “It gives us a fully branded backdrop that can change for each session in a way that was previously achieved by printing onto backgrounds which would simply be discarded following the event.”