Why event production companies and labor coordinators need to cultivate and support a whole new generation of AV crew talent
The LASSO team is chock-full of industry veterans, and one thing we love about this industry is that we’re privileged to be a part of a tight-knit community. We’re grateful to the community leaders and industry experts who lent their insights to this piece:
- Omar Colom of AV Educate
- Steven Q. Evans of Show Imaging, Inc.
- Alex Gray of Protostream
- Destiny Künstman of Klance Unlimited
The onset of the pandemic spurred a slew of virtual events. Producers, labor coordinators and techs faced a whole new set of challenges overnight. We had to learn what we were doing while we did it, often to mixed results.
As live events resume across the globe, we’re seeing virtual events stick around in the form of hybrid events. We’ve discovered the many benefits to virtual options for every event: For would-be attendees who can’t travel, for accessibility reasons, or for those who just prefer to stay home, hybrid events offer the opportunity to be a part of the action.
“The virtual experience can yield a huge return on what you think is a large investment on the hybrid side of the event. It can actually be a more profitable part of your show – if it’s done right.”
There’s a number of reasons hybrid events are here to stay, but perhaps the most compelling is that hybrid events are a major potential source of revenue.
“You have 20,000 people watching a concert on the internet for 20, 30 dollars a pop, or the 6,000 people watching the show live,” explains Alex Gray, founder of Protostream, a remote live sound streaming service. “The virtual experience can yield a huge return on what you think is a large investment on the hybrid side of the event. It can actually be a more profitable part of your show – if it’s done right.”
That’s the kicker: if it’s done right. And the industry is still very much trying to figure out what “right” looks like.
Hybrid event production is more expensive than traditional live event production
First thing’s first: your clients need to understand that hybrid event production is not as simple as streaming video of your speakers on Zoom. A high quality virtual version of your event requires an adequate investment.
If you can remember way back to the beginning of the pandemic and the onset of virtual events, you can probably also remember a bad virtual event you attended.
Source: Crawford Group
Events like corporate summits that were replaced with virtual conferences experienced the challenge of distracted or disengaged attendees. “What falls off is when you go to intermission – what does the audience do?” explains Omar Colom, founder of AV Educate, an online community dedicated to empowering AV techs to improve their professional skills. “Live Q&A isn’t happening. Engagement in the chats is not happening.”
Hybrid events don’t just mean an added layer of complexity – they mean many, many added layers of complexity. “You have people asking you, ‘He made a great comment, can you bring him full screen?’ And then I have to know what quadrant he’s in, what computer he’s on, and how to get to him very quickly,” Omar provided as just one example of the many, many considerations both hybrid event producers and hybrid event techs need to be prepared for – including the need for tech support as members of your virtual audience ask for help troubleshooting technical issues.
“When you go to intermission – what does the audience do?”
All this goes to show: hybrid events should cost more – substantially more – than a traditional event.
“It’s still two separate events,” explains Omar. “There’s the in-person event… and there’s the virtual element, which, in addition to what you’re doing for the live [event], you have to create all these other elements.”
Destiny Künstman of Klance Unlimited, an event, convention, and concert production company based in St. Louis, agrees. “A lot of clients now want an in-person option and an online option, and they don’t want it to cost double. They want to see two options for the price of one, and you just have to explain: that’s not how this works.”
Steven Q. Evans from Show Imaging, Inc., a boutique experiential event production group in southern California and Florida, echoed the same challenge. “The clients are coming in with the same or lower budget and they want a beautiful hybrid experience,” he explains, “so the educational side of that has been really challenging.”
“There has to be a dedicated experience and crew for the virtual experience to actually mean something.”
But as Alex argues, anything worth doing is worth doing right. “There has to be a dedicated experience and crew for the virtual experience to actually mean something.” If clients want the kind of quality experience that yields the results they are looking for, they will need to understand that a larger investment is necessary – and it’s up to hybrid event producers to spend time on that client education.
Hybrid event production has created a skills gap
Rapid, overnight evolution of event production technology to meet the needs of hybrid and virtual events has created a challenging skills gap for those who work in the industry.
New technologies and the demands of hybrid events are asking more of AV techs than ever before. Omar continues, “Instead of having a graphics guy [and] a playback guy, those are now being brought into the media servers, so one man is essentially operating what used to be three positions. And that’s creating a whole new level of skill sets that even before the pandemic weren’t there.”
Alex agrees. “Now, especially between video and audio departments, those things have kind of merged. We’re now ‘Network and Hybrid engineers’. The audio people have to know something about video, the video people have to know something about the audio, and everyone has to know about communications… And people are really struggling with this. It’s difficult. It takes twice as much prep time to plan these events.”
“Now, especially between video and audio departments, those things have kind of merged. We’re now ‘Network and Hybrid engineers’.”
The need is especially acute in video. In the “before times”, for example, an LED wall specialist broadcasted a speaker at a graduation ceremony to different screens across a venue. Now with hybrid events, the skills required of a video engineer extend beyond the cutting edge of broadcast. Innovation in video production has accelerated tenfold to appeal to quarantining virtual audiences watching from high resolution screens in their home. Techs, labor coordinators, and hybrid event producers need to keep learning as they go.
As Omar puts it, “The skill sets needed have definitely evolved and gone to this other level. And a lot of guys have adapted, a lot of guys coming into the field are learning quickly… and some guys are struggling.”
Event production companies that invested in their people are well positioned for success in hybrid events
At the beginning of the pandemic, Steven and the team at Show Imaging saw an opportunity. They had a 12,000 sq ft-large storage warehouse. In the middle of March, just as the pandemic was beginning to impact the industry, they converted that space into a broadcast studio. Though initial furloughs were necessary, they were able to bring all of their staff back with their PPP loan.
“Everybody came back and everybody learned something,” says Steven. “We had production managers that became studio managers. Camera operators became video switchers. It gave us a really great opportunity for people to explore what they really want to do, so we have ended up with a group of people with a whole different set of skills that they’re comfortable doing.”
“We have ended up with a group of people with a whole different set of skills that they’re comfortable doing.”
When it comes to the brave new world of hybrid and virtual event production, Omar would agree that training is a wise investment. “A lot of the companies that have survived and thrived during these pandemic times kept their staff on board and trained them, and their staff is really good [at these skills].”
Alex at Protostream found himself in a similar situation. As a sound engineer, he saw work dry up almost overnight. “We needed a way to keep doing what we were doing, and we had the time to figure it out,” Alex describes the silver lining opportunity the pandemic presented. The question was clear – How do we mix a show without physically being in a given place? So Alex and his co-founder set out to determine how to deliver a superior quality of sound by sending compressed audio across standard internet connections.
“We needed a way to keep doing what we were doing, and we had the time to figure it out.”
Seven months later, Protostream was born – a technology that can send and receive 64 channels of uncompressed audio over the internet, a first for sound engineering in the country. Now, instead of all the same people an event production team would bring in to do a live broadcast, those same engineers can do their jobs remotely, with only a few pieces of gear and one or two techs at the showsite.
“We would not have touched this if we hadn’t had the time that COVID gave us,” Alex says.
Hybrid event producers have a lot to learn from churches
Training your staff and sourcing crew talent takes time – and not all of us had that luxury during the pandemic downturn. So what low-hanging fruits can hybrid event producers adapt into their event production strategy right away?
Certain verticals have achieved big success thanks to the acceleration of hybrid events – churches are one prime example.
“They’ll set up a whole concert,” explains Omar. “The live part is a show… There’s music playing, they have six cameras, one’s on a crane, one guy is running around with a handheld, you’ve got two with long shots in the back – this is just the standard,” Omar explains. “You [as the viewer] feel like you’re watching an event… You might even be getting a better shot than someone attending the event in-person.”
“You might even be getting a better shot than someone attending the event in-person.”
One big takeaway for hybrid event production is their use of emcees. “[Churches] set up another stage and a one camera shot with an emcee, so your intermissions go to that person or team and they’ll comment about what just happened, what’s going on, [and] how the community can get involved.”
Many corporate events are missing the boat on this. At a corporate event, “You listen to someone speak for an hour, then you go to a breakout room, and then you come back to the GS and it’s a party, and then there’s an after-party… The audience is expecting a theatrical set up, but [virtual] corporate is not like that,” Omar explains the problem.
“If you don’t have that emcee doing a live Q&A or engagement in the chats, a disconnect is happening.”
Hybrid event producers working on virtual corporate conferences should ask themselves, “What does the audience do during your intermission?” says Omar. “If you don’t have that emcee doing a live Q&A or engagement in the chats, a disconnect is happening.”
Hybrid event producers should also look to the evolution of e-sports
Pre-pandemic, there was already one burgeoning corner of the industry that could run entirely from the comfort of one’s own home: e-sports.
Now with the virtual acceleration driven by the pandemic, streamers have already become the next generation of virtual event producers.
“If you look at the Twitch community, these are kids who virtually control this whole interaction with the comments,” explains Omar. “They’re doing it live, they’re popping up things because they’ve got different queues created. They’re automating the audio, the lighting. These guys are automating everything.”
“If you look at the Twitch community… these guys are automating everything.”
The prospect of automation is an exciting one in an industry where techs have to keep their eyes and ears in ten places at all times to ensure every detail is right. “The AV world has been incorporating [automation] into our world more and more because it saves so much time. It used to be, ‘These are options for you’. Now they’re becoming a mainstay of what we’re doing,” explains Omar.
Hybrid event production is a huge opportunity for the live events industry
Even with all the challenges that come with rapid innovation and the subsequent skills gap, there’s no doubt that hybrid event production offers huge opportunities for those event production teams that chase success in this space.
As Alex mentioned at the beginning, hybrid event production enables a previously unimaginable volume of viewership that has the potential to become a major revenue stream. We’re not quite there yet, though – we all need to do more to keep up with the cutting edge of hybrid event production. And, we need to apply those same principles of creativity that drew us to the industry in the first place: What kind of event magic will engage both in-person and virtual attendees?
Hybrid event production enables a previously unimaginable volume of viewership that has the potential to become a major revenue stream.
With hybrid events, there will always be extra details to plan. But instead of approaching them as a burdensome roadblock, turn them into opportunities to think of new virtual event ideas that engage your audience.
Omar points to the example of alcohol brands that hosted remote mixology classes. “They partnered with rideshare and shipping brands to coordinate and schedule home drop offs. You pay for your bottle, your shaker, and somebody teaches you a class online.” Omar described. “Someone is managing that – who bought this, where do they live, what day it needs to be delivered – there’s still a whole back end that needs to happen, plus the tech side to make sure the whole scene looks good.”
Is it a lot of work? No doubt. But so is anything that’s never been done before. There will continue to be hybrid event duds. There will continue to be growing pains as all of us in the industry level up our skills. There will continue to be pushback on hybrid event production budgets. But the outcome we can all look forward to is a world of hybrid events that creates experiences we never could have imagined pre-pandemic – and that’s a very exciting prospect.
What are your thoughts on the future of hybrid events? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org