With Zoom fatigue taking its toll on audiences, we discover how you can up your production values to deliver more interactive and engaging virtual events.

JJ Performing Artistes

For the next six months, we are stuck with virtual events whether we like it or not. But just because you have a webcam, doesn’t mean you have a virtual event. Once normality resumes, many will breathe sighs of relief as they leave behind the frozen screens, weird echoes and nightmares of speakers’ nostrils to return to the tried and trusted arena of live events. But what if we learn to nail the hybrid format – can virtual go hand in hand with physical events to expand our global audience?

In an effort to learn more about the conferencing behaviours of Fortune 1000 executives, Goodman Lantern conducted a survey to discover why these influential attendees choose to appear at certain business events. For the majority, content was the primary driver of attendance, and if we can deliver that just as well virtually, there may be no reason to stop.

JJ Jackson, Director of speakers bureau Performing Artistes is one of these industry insiders who believes while social events will return exclusively to the physical realm, there may still be a future for the hybrid conference model: “When it comes to award ceremonies and gala dinners – I don’t think there will ever be a virtual element per se. Not least down to the fact that people are struggling to commercialise them right now.

“In the fullness of time, we will go back to in-person conferences because we’re social animals, yet I think there will always be a virtual element. Travel restrictions – not so much enforced by government, but in terms of company policies remaining cautious – will remain for a while even after a vaccine has been found. And personally, the biggest reason I would attend a conference is the speakers programme, so I think conferences will continue to deliver this remotely, but not just with a camera on lock-off at the back of the room.”

Moving forward, organisers will be thinking more about the quality of what they are pumping out to growing virtual audiences. 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: “I feel a bit sorry for Zoom, it has become a generic phrase to blame poor video content on, in the same way PowerPoint has become a shorthand for everything that’s wrong with presentation software. They are essentially just tools to do a specific job – it’s how you use them that counts.

“PowerPoint is a great way of delivering imagery and video, it only falls down when somebody puts up 30 bullet points on screen reads them out. Similarly with Zoom, it’s just a way of linking people through video – it’s neither innately good nor bad. It’s the equivalent of hiring a boardroom at a venue. You’ve got a table and chairs, perhaps a flip chart and screen. For the purposes of bringing  people together for a discussion, it’s perfect – but an event, it is not.

“But at that same venue, you might hire a function suite and put in professional staging, sound, lighting, you may well have a production company running it. It looks and feels professional and slick, creating the right impact for the audience. On the keynote side, just being slumped behind your webcam – with at best a bookshelf and at worst your washing drying and the dog wandering around in the background – is no longer good enough, especially if somebody is paying thousands of pounds for it. 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.”

At a time where purse strings are stretched, this investment could prove a major gamble for agencies. Yet if hybrid aspect is here to stay as many predict, it may just pay off to help them stay ahead of the game: “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. We recently hosted a virtual awards ceremony from here, inviting two presenters to link a whole load of pre-recorded bits while following Twitter to do shoutouts and engage with the audience. Now if you watched it live, it will have all looked very professional, but it was just me and one other guy in our office – it was all slightly surreal.”

“We’re not an outlier. I think more facilities will come on stream – many hotels at the moment are converting underused space to this very purpose. We had a London client who wanted a more glamorous background, so we discussed it and I said: ‘why don’t we get a suite at the Royal Lancaster overlooking Hyde Park?’ As long as the internet connection is good enough, you can bring your kit and stream as comfortably as you can in your own studio.”

From a venue’s perspective, internet speeds are set to prove the biggest challenge when it comes to facilitating future demand for high-definition streaming: “If you’re streaming your event in 4K, you certainly wouldn’t be doing through their Wi-Fi, you’d be using a hard wired connection and ensure they allocated you sufficient bandwidth. Let’s face it, hotel Wi-Fi is renowned for not being what it might be, so moving forward they’re going to have to invest big time in installing dedicated fibre lines.

But while production values may be queen, content remains king – with much of our Zoom fatigue stemming from poor presentations as opposed to production values: “With virtual, you have to adapt to your audience, remembering that although you might have a thousand people tuning in, every single person is essentially in the front row. I always liken live events to theatre – because you have a stage and an audience, and although you can use lighting to direct their gaze, it’s ultimately up to them to decide where they look. Whereas with virtual, it’s more akin to TV, but with added audience interaction.”

In the same way event production teams are having to think differently, presenters are also having to adapt: “In terms of the keynote speakers, charismatic people don’t necessarily come across as well as you’d expect them to. Normally they’re running around the stage larger than life, but it’s hard to get that across on a fixed camera. But when you have a speaker who has fascinating insights and a brilliant story, even though they may be introverted or hiding behind the lectern, funnily enough they often come across better through a virtual format.”

When planners are faced with picking the right presenter for their virtual event, JJ believes they should be headhunting for a less traditional skillset: “A good rule of thumb, is If presenters have good radio experience, they tend to be good at virtual. It’s the simple reason that if you think about a TV situation, even if you have no audience, you’ll have the camera man, lighting, sound, producer and all the rest of the crew on set. If you’re doing radio, it’s just you and your producer. They may have millions of listeners, but they have no reaction whatsoever, so they’re good at knowing how to pitch it. If they do phone-ins, that’s brilliant because they know how to engage with a Zoom attendee who suddenly pops up on screen and is slightly nervous, but they will also know how to shut them up – in a nice way.”

When deciding on entertainment to blow your virtual attendees away, there are formats that simply don’t lend themselves to the medium: “Hiring a comedian to do a 15-minute set is out, that just doesn’t work because of the issue of comic timing – the pauses usually reserved for laughs turn awkward fast. You should be looking for entertainers who offer something a bit quirky, such as musical comedy in the style popularised by Tim Minchin. Their routine is based in song, meaning they don’t have to wait for the audience to laugh before they go on to the next verse. Not only that, they will often write a bespoke piece for the event and it’s those references which the audience most enjoy. If you want to incorporate some interaction, there are brilliant freestyle rappers who will create a rap on-the-fly from words fired into the comment section by the audience.”

If you’re looking to put on a virtual extravaganza with limited resources, JJ suggest your budget may stretch further than you think: “When lockdown was in full force, clients expected fee reductions and frankly, artists were offering them because they were literally rolling out of bed and jumping in front of the webcam. Now, things are getting a bit more sophisticated and clients are often running their event from a central studio hub, so there’s not as much saving from a presenter’s perspective, but fees are certainly more malleable than they once were.”

Going forward, there will be major opportunities to widen audiences and increase revenues for those events which persist with virtual when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror: “As a company, if you have a consumer title with a worldwide audience, suddenly virtual means overseas readers can attend. Speaking with New Scientist, although it boasts a large international readership, its events normally only attract a UK audience. But since they’ve shifted to virtual events, the overall numbers are much higher and drawn from around the world. This lets you play around with the model, turning your physical event into a premium product, supplemented by the virtual offering, for which attendees are paying less, but bringing the potential for greater numbers, which is a win-win for everyone.”

Stewart Moss at the Cedar Court Hotels Harrogate studio.

Stewart Moss, Group Director of Sales for Yorkshire’s Cedar Court Hotels discusses how he created #StudioSpacesYorkshire with a view to facilitating conferences for clients during lockdown…

I could see how the need for companies to communicate presentations to their full audiences wasn’t going to go away, even if they couldn’t all physically be together. Technology being put to use in such a way made instant sense to me and was therefore worth our combined efforts; happily, this turned out to be the case.

However, what has surprised us somewhat is the multitude of other uses people are finding for this setup! Digital weddings are on the horizon, as are fashion photo shoots, charity presentations and fan engagement filming for sports teams – naturally, we are delighted and have continued to evolve and tailor our packages to accommodate.

As we move forwards with the concept, I will be looking to ensure that we are offering an ‘experiential’ element to complement the digital for I think that’s where the true ‘value’ lies: here is a fantastic set up that makes you look and sound more professional than ever before, to as many people as you want, who are all enjoying a ‘meeting-themed care package’ that has been delivered out in time to be shared together – community, both on screen and off.

The Studio in Action.