Brandt Krueger

TECHNICAL PRODUCER, EDUCATOR, SPEAKER, AND CONSULTANT FOR THE MEETING AND EVENTS INDUSTRY. GEEK DAD, HUSBAND

Consultant, Meeting and Event Technology
Owner, Event Technology Consulting
Instructor, Event Leadership Institute
Cohost, #EventIcons - Where the icons of the event industry meet

Filtering by Category: AV

Audiovisual Megamergers: Expansion of Services or Potential Budget Buster?

(A heavily edited version of this article was published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Summer 2019. This is the original text of the article, and does not reflect the opinions of MeetingMentor Magazine or ConferenceDirect.)

It wasn’t a national emergency, or some other sad and tragic news event, but it’ll still be one of those moments I’ll always remember where I was when it happened: the moment PSAV announced their intention to purchase Encore Event Technologies. I was on the headset, calling the cues for a meeting in Nashville when the news broke. First I got a text from a technical director friend of mine, and before I could hit Reply, it came over the headset as the news spread backstage like wildfire. There were an awful lot of [expletive deleted]s on the headset for the next few minutes, I can tell you.

Within days, it hit the industry magazines and websites. The headlines were all fairly reserved, including “PSAV Acquires Encore Event Technologies: What It Could Mean for Event and Meeting Planners” and “Freeman to Sell Encore Event Technologies to PSAV”, but the articles themselves raised a significant number of questions and thinly-veiled versions of those same [expletive deleted] concerns.

So now it’s a few months later, and the dust has started to settle. While it’s too early to know how the merger is going to affect things like commission structure or audiovisual equipment prices, we can look to the past to see our possible futures.

BrandtKrueger@gmail.com

In-House vs 3rd party: an old debate

So let’s get one thing out of the way, and fast. This is not a hit piece on the in-house model of audiovisual providers. I’m not one of those, “All in-house providers suck and are overpriced” guys. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a big proponent of using the provider that makes the most sense for your event. Some times that’s the in-house, sometimes it’s a third party AV company. Sure the in-house is often more (and sometimes quite a bit more) expensive, but you’re paying for convenience. You don’t have to buy the $8.00 tin of gummy bears in the minibar, but they’re right there and y’know, it’s been a long day and gosh darn it, I deserve those smiling little guys... but I digress.

Bigger, Better, MOre

Let’s face it: this isn’t PSAV’s first rodeo. Ever since they were acquired by Goldman Sachs, and then later by Blackstone, they’ve been buying up audiovisual and production companies at an accelerating rate. The press releases are basically boilerplate at this point, expressing how “excited” and “proud” they are to have acquired Company X, how doing so will be “expanding the breadth of its capabilities”, and what it will mean to PSAV “ and more importantly, our customers.” Swank, American AV, Hawthorn, Hargrove, Concise AV, FMAV, and now Encore - each one extending the scope and reach of the company into new markets.

What market dominance brings

BrandtKrueger@gmail.com

The advantages to PSAV are obvious. The newly-combined companies span markets across a wide geographic area, including most of North America and, thanks to Encore, Asia Pacific. If you have a national/international sales contact, they can help you work with your local offices, smoothing the often, um… inconsistent... pricing that can occur from property to property, and ensuring quality standards from location to location.

With each acquisition, PSAV’s local inventory grows by leaps and bounds, meaning less rental equipment and/or shipping of equipment over long distances. If a certain piece of gear is needed for a show, PSAV is more likely to have it close by, and easily move it from warehouse to warehouse, keeping it where it’s needed most. Any existing R&D experiments into things like projection mapping, closed “silent disco” audio systems, and advanced lighting techniques are automatically absorbed, potentially leapfrogging competition into the future of AV.

The upsides to the customers have not been so obvious, especially for smaller meetings and events. While the increase in R&D can translate into loosely defined concepts such as “innovation” and “experience”, I’ve yet to hear of any decreases in the costs to the consumer due to reduced shipping or equipment rentals. While having a national contact can help smooth price fluctuations from property to property, they can only go so far, and if your group isn’t particularly large, I’ve heard plenty of planners who have difficulty getting responses from their national sales contacts. Put simply, with a company this big, you better be a big fish if you want attention.

a shift in hotel priorities

Hotel representatives haven’t been shy over the last few years about where their priorities lie. I’ve heard well-respected senior management publicly declare, to a room full of planners, that they are no longer the top priority for venues. It’s the transient business (I hate that term, it sounds like they’re chasing after 1930’s hobos) that hotels are prioritizing these days. When a room block fills up, good luck getting more rooms. They’d rather sell them to last-minute business travelers.

Since hotels are perfectly happy not having your meeting and event business, thank you very much, there’s less incentive for them to bargain with you for that business. As a result, more and more planners are running into the phrase, “non-negotiable”, or worse, “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s just our policy.”

Nonetheless, having an in-house AV option is an important part of being a modern, meeting-and-event-oriented hotel. It’s kind of a given: if you’re going to have meeting space, you need to offer some kind of AV services.

our possible futures

So what happens when you combine market dominance of an in-house AV provider with hotels that aren’t inclined to negotiate? I’m not going to lie… there’s a lot of potential for budget-busting possibilities.

BrandtKrueger@gmail.com

The optimistic outcome is that as PSAV expands, customers reap all the benefits that go along with that expansion. Prices come down as the company is able to move assets easily from warehouse to warehouse, reducing costs and improving efficiency. The only problem is that, so far, those cost savings haven’t been passed on to the event organizers, and have only been realized in the form of profits.

The much-more-realistic outcome is that the trends of the last few years will continue. As hotels no longer feel the need to negotiate contracts, they’re much more likely to enforce “exclusivity” clauses with in-house AV. Basically, “If you come to our space, you’re using our crew.” And why not? In-house AV contracts include commissions returned back to the hotel, so it’s in the hotel’s interest to enforce these clauses. In the past, these could easily be negotiated away by experienced planners, but as we’ve already said, more and more often the answer is, “Sorry, nope.”

And so comes the worst case scenario: you have a hotel industry that doesn’t feel the need to negotiate, combined with an in-house AV provider that increasingly is the only option in most markets. Put simply there’s no incentive to negotiate. If you’re the required provider, and hotels don’t care to negotiate, why not raise your prices? And then raise them again? And again?

I’m not going to lie- I’m already starting to see some suspiciously large opening bids from “required” providers. Right now, they’re still willing to negotiate and come down on those prices, but for how long?

so what’s next?

Planners need to stand strong. If more and more hotels are requiring you to use the in-house provider, you need to be willing to walk away and find one that doesn’t. You should always have the option of bringing in your own AV company. If I want a snack, I shouldn’t be forced to grab those gummy bears from the minibar. If I want to take the time to leave the hotel, walk down the block to the local gas station and buy them there for a fraction of the cost, I should be allowed to. I would never stay at a hotel that refused me the ability to bring in any personal snacks or beverages, and planners shouldn’t put up with these “requirements” either.

There’s an old saying: Before the contract is signed, it’s called “negotiation.” Afterward, it’s “begging.” With the consolidation of in-house AV providers, and the prioritization of hotels of transient business, the contract negotiation process when it comes to AV is becoming a massively important part of budgets. I’ve always said that planners have more power than they realize. Now’s the time to make sure you use it!

Expect the Unexpected: Don’t Let Surprise AV Charges Blow Your Budget

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Spring 2019)

It’s happened to the best of us: Your event is winding down and you’re in the home stretch. Everything was flawless. The boss’ boss is happy as a clam and already talking about how you can take things to the next level. Just a few more folks to depart and you’re home free!

It’s at that moment that the representative from your AV company decides to approach you with what appears to be half-ream of paper and a pen with the venue logo on it. It’s the final bill. And it’s thousands of dollars more than the estimate.

Now, in what should be your moment of triumph, you’re figuring out if there’s anything left in the “popcorn balls” budget you can move around to cover the overage.

The good news is that the vast majority of budget-busting surprises can be avoided, with a little planning, a little negotiation, and a little common sense. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest offenders to keep an eye out for.

WiFi

Let’s get this one out of the way first. More planners than ever are making sure to address this issue with the venue as part of the negotiation process, but there’s still just enough of you out there that aren’t to include it in the list. WiFi is infrastructure. Unlike water (which you don’t get charged more for depending on how much your attendees use), WiFi doesn’t cost the venue more or less whether or not you use it, so why not list it as a concession?

Many planners are requiring “top tier” wifi access for their attendees as part of their agreement to choose the venue, but if you’re not able to secure it in the contract, make sure you know exactly how much you’re being charged, and how it’s being calculated.

Power

Unlike Wifi, power is definitely something the venue gets charged for the more it uses, so any opportunity it has to shuffle that cost onto its customers, you can bet it’s going to take. This is another one of those items you want to be very sure exactly how much you’re going to be charged. Sometimes it’s a flat rate, others it depends on whether special equipment (extra circuits, power “distros” that AV companies can hook up their gear) is required.

Many cities and states have laws that prohibit the resale of public utilities (aka power and water) so some venues have gotten quite creative on charging for power. Some venues will actually charge you for the use of wall outlets, and even charge you per wall outlet if you use them, so beware. The average attendee looking to plug in their phone for a little extra juice could cost you hundreds of dollars!

Rigging Points

Here we go again with an infrastructure item being used as a source of revenue. Rigging points are permanent positions in the ceiling of a venue from which heavy items such as truss, lighting, speakers, and projectors can be hung. Once installed, these positions are permanent and do not require any unusual maintenance.

But here’s the deal- especially in older venues, these points might not actually exist. Mega-corporation in-house AV companies will approach the venue with an offer of installing them… in exchange for the exclusive right to charge for them. Venues, seeing it as a win-win, agree. “Point charges” can run as high as several hundred dollars, per point, per day.

3rd Party and In-House AV Fees

More often than not these things - WiFi, power, and point charges - are used as incentives to use the in-house AV. “As a benefit of using the in-house audiovisual services, we’re proud to offer your attendees complimentary WiFi, and waive the following fees and charges…” Nice! They might even throw in a 20% “discount” for using the in-house provider. Sweet!

That’s the carrot. If that doesn’t work, there’s the stick. Many venues will charge you a fee for bringing in a 3rd party vendor to handle your AV. If you’ve been reading my past articles, what I’m about to say should come as no surprise...

Always, always make sure to get a comparable bid from a 3rd party vendor (or two) to make sure your in-house bid is fair. Use this as a negotiation point, because much like a lot of the Black Friday sales this year, it’s not a 20% discount if they’ve marked up the price significantly beforehand. Plus, sometimes even with the fee, it can still be cheaper to use a 3rd party.

Supervisor Fee

In addition to the fee charged for bringing in a 3rd party vendor, some venues will require a “supervisor” to be on site when doing so. You, of course, are on the hook for paying for them. This supervisor is there to make sure, theoretically, that all rules and practices required by the venue are being followed to the letter, which usually entails making sure the right color tape is used on the floor.

The short answer to this (and frankly all of these charges) is to negotiate them away at the contact stage. If it’s too late for that, however, you should require that they be there, in the room, doing the job you’re theoretically paying them for - not in the AV office working on renderings for other clients. You’d be surprised how often this requirement goes away when the in-house AV realizes they have to have someone sit in your room doing nothing all day.

The Catch-All Clause

What’s the biggest way to avoid unexpected charges? Make sure everything, everything is laid out in advance. Many planners are starting to add clauses to their venue contracts that say, “if it’s not here, you can’t charge me for it.” I’m not a lawyer (and I don’t play one on TV), so I’ll leave it to the reader to research these types of clauses and what they cover. If you’re going to use one, make sure you read and understand everything in the contract. If you don’t, find a trusted AV partner to give it a once-over before you sign on the dotted line!

(More than) 5 Things AV People Wish Planners Knew

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Winter 2018. Expanded and updated July, 2019)

I’ve been doing this meeting and event production thing for quite some time now, but somehow it’s still surprising how often you hear the same old questions, over and over again. In the spirit of clearing up some of the most common questions about AV and event technology, I decided to reach out to my AV friends all over the world and asked them to tell me the one thing they wish meeting and event planners knew. The answers were as varied as the people themselves (and some returned full-fledged rants that contained way more than one thing), but a few trends definitely emerged.

So without further ado, here are some of the most difficult questions and comments we hear from planners, and the honest responses on behalf of me and my fellow AV folks!

 “This seems like more than I asked for. How do I know I’m only getting the equipment I need?”

This is by far one of the biggest concerns planners express, and it stems from people being worried they’re being “cheated” somehow- that the AV firm is “padding the bid” with unnecessary equipment. Well, guess what? They might be, but not for the nefarious reasons most people think. While there are bad actors in any industry, the vast majority of times a company adds gear to a bid, it’s not because they’re trying to cheat you. Instead, they’re covering their butts. And yours.

Many planners freely admit that things change at the last minute, and frequently that can mean adding equipment. An in-house AV company might have the ability to just go in back and grab some more gear if they happen to have it in stock, in which case it’s going to get added to your bill anyway. If they don’t have it in stock, they and any 3rd party company are going to have to get it from somewhere else. That could be on the other side of town, or in a completely different state, and if it’s a last minute thing you’re going to be paying a premium.

A better play is to just plan for the unexpected. Make sure you have a few extra microphones on hand for that panel that just popped up, or an audio mixer capable of taking a few more inputs for when you remember at five minutes to doors, “Oh! We should have some dinner music. And can you play something energetic during the awards?” Yep, we sure can. 

This actually happens on a lot of events, and believe it or not most of the time you don’t get charged for it. The number of times I’ve seen AV and production companies throw extra gear on the truck “just in case”, even though it wasn’t on the bill, can’t be counted, and most of the time the client didn’t ever know it. 

“It doesn’t take up any more room on the truck. And you own it, so what’s the difference?” 

This one’s a little more rare in my experience, but it came up in a couple different forms with my AV contacts, so it seemed worthy of making the list. I think it stems again from planners being worried they’re being “taken”, but unfortunately it comes off as being cheap or having a fundamental misunderstanding of how renting equipment works. The idea is this: if the vendor owns both a 3-year-old projector and a brand-new one that’s twice as bright, of course you’re going to want the newer, brighter projector. Who wouldn’t? But here’s the deal: the newer projectors probably haven’t made their money back yet, while the older ones have been rented out enough not only to cover their original cost, but to start generating profit. As a result, they can be discounted if necessary. If you want the latest and greatest, however, you’re going to have to pay more for it. Expecting otherwise is to expect AV companies to work for free, or worse, at a loss.

“I’m willing to work as late as it takes, and *I* don’t get paid overtime.”
AKA “Geeze, these overtime rules seem harsh!”

This one doesn’t get said out loud as often as some of the others, but usually manifests itself in the form of eyerolls and under-the-breath grumblings, some of which I’ve been guilty of myself. Labor can be expensive, and it can get really expensive if you go into overtime with your crew. It can get really, really expensive if you violate what’s called “turnaround time” which guarantees a crew a certain amount of time off before they have to come back and work again. Violate turnaround time, and the entire next day turns into overtime. OUCH!

For a lot of planners, once the event is over they’re able to take some downtime to recoup, relax, and recharge before they start thinking about their next event. Many independent and even full-time or corporate planners do not immediately go on-site to the next event, and have time to catch their breath. I know so many planners that will take a full week off after their big annual events. For those in AV, it’s just on to the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

It may be your company’s Super Bowl, but for Johnny the Camera Guy, it’s Tuesday.

The average AV “day rate” usually covers a 10 hour day, already 2 hours more than a typical work day (though this is starting to change, and we’re seeing more and more 8 hour days). Overtime rules exist in many professions because the human body isn’t capable of working 16-18+ hour days every day without breaking down over time, and overtime is a way of discouraging over-working crews day in and day out. It also makes sure they’re compensated when they do work long hours. Turnaround time ensures at least a few hours of sleep and a chance to recharge a bit before showing up again in the morning. 

“I can buy it for that!”

Yep, you can. But then it’s all on you. 

When you contract an AV or production company, it’s all on them. They purchase the equipment, they have road crates built to protect it on the truck, they make sure it’s clean and functioning before it goes out, they make sure it gets to the event safely via truck or shipping, they set it up, they pack it up after the event, they inspect it again when it gets back to the warehouse and if it’s damaged they repair it, they clean it, and then they store it until it’s time to take it out again.

If you buy it, you’re responsible for all of that. You have to weigh the value of your time against what you’d be paying professionals to handle for you. In the end, it might make sense for you and your organization. The biggest one people forget is the storage. Sure, you could buy all the projectors for your breakout sessions yourself, but where are you going to keep the 30 projectors afterward? The broom closet? That empty cube down the hall?

“Bring us in earlier, please!” 

Ok, this one is flipped- something I hear AV folks say all the time. It still falls into the “things we wish you knew” category, though.

AV people can be an enormous resource for you, and not just when it comes to technology! We can help with the creative side, helping you design your event to maximize your AV spend, and guiding you into (or away from) themes and ideas that might impact your budget. Maybe you don’t need that Miss Saigon helecopter closing, and besides, it wouldn’t work in that venue.

And speaking of venue, we can help with contract negotiation! Be sure to run your venue contracts by your AV or production company before you’ve signed them. We’ve seen every trick in the book, and can help you head off problems before they start. More and more venues are imposing stiff penalties for using 3rd party AV companies, or charging through-the-roof fees for WiFi. Even if you haven’t settled on which AV or production company you’re using, most every AV person I know would be happy to be a second pair of eyes on your contract, even if they’re just “in the running” for the job, so don’t be afraid to use us as a resource from the earliest moments in the planning process!

BONUS!!

The following items were “cut for time” on the original article. Enjoy a few more things AV people wish planners knew!

“But those guys can do it with fewer techs…”

Different companies have different best practices. They also have access to different people and skill levels, and you can’t possibly know what staffing circumstances might exist. One company may have a group of well-rounded “Jack of all Trades” techs, while another may choose to employ specialists in each field of audio, video, and lighting. If a company A says it will take 4 people and cost $10,000, and company B says it will take 3 people and still cost $10,000, do please do not ask company A to try and do it with 3 techs in an attempt to save money.

“Can I get that by tomorrow?”

I’m sorry you need it tomorrow- if you want it to be accurate, it’s going to take time. Hurried quotes are more likely to be overbid, include unnecessary equipment, or leave out equipment you need. It’s simply human nature. If you want a more accurate quote, you need to slow down. Send your AV company the RFP, and then make sure you hop on a call with them to go through it line by line. Then, once they’ve sent you the bid, go through it line by line to make sure you have everything you need. A little patience early on can save you thousands in last-minute additions.

“Can I buy you lunch?”

Yes. Yes, you can. Buying the crew lunch has so many benefits, it’s hard to believe not everyone does it. On most events, tacking on a few more of the meals you’re serving the attendees wouldn’t even show up as a rounding error on the budget. Even if it does and you’re counting every penny, it’s still a good idea.

First and foremost, it keeps the crew together and makes them feel more a part of the event. If they all go their separate ways at the food court, it’s just not the same as all sitting around the same table. And even though the point of a break is to forget the show for a minute, you’d be surprised how many solutions to problems get figured out over a flat-meat sandwich backstage.

Providing crew meals, coffee stations, beverages and snacks show you care about them, and when a crew feels like you care about them, they’re much more likely to care about you.

"Do we really need rehearsal?”

Yes. Yes, you do. The more smoothly casual it looks, the more likely they rehearsed the ever-living crap out of it. Everyone wants to deliver a Steve Jobs keynote, but what so many don’t realize is that Jobs required a full week of rehearsals in advance of Apple events. Every move was meticulously choreographed. It’s no coincidence that after Jobs was gone, most people agree that Apple keynotes lost their luster. That just the man…

BONUS BONUS!

Here’s a “Whiteboard Wednesday” I did on this topic for Endless Events…

Pro Tips for Saving Money on your AV Bill

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Fall 2018. Updated February, 2019)

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If there’s one universal truth for all events, it’s that there’s no such thing as an unlimited budget. Even world-class sporting events and megalithic awards shows have their limits. Every planner, at one point or another, is faced with the limits of their own budget and is forced to find a way to save a few dollars.

There’s plenty of big-ticket items on events: the venue, catering, transportation. Most of those costs are easily understood and can be adjusted based on the level of quality and service desired. If you want to save money on the evening dinner, you may need to change the menu or choose a lower cut of meat for your guests. If you want to save money on transportation, your folks are flyin’ coach!

When it comes to AV, however, far too many planners still just accept “the price is the price” on a bid full of equipment they don’t understand or collapse under pressure from the venue to “just use the in-house”, stacking on fees and charges as disincentives to bringing in your own AV company. There’s plenty of good reasons to use an in-house AV company, but let’s be honest- price isn’t usually one of them.

Let’s take a deeper look into that and a few other ways to save money on your AV bill!

Back to School: Learn More About AV

This one’s probably the more difficult, so let’s tackle it first. I’ve heard so many planners and other event folks say, “Oh, I’m just not techie, I could never learn that stuff.” But here’s the thing… You’ve probably never heard someone saying, “Oh, I’m not French, so I could never learn French.” AV is just a language, and if you just spend a little time learning the lingo, you’re able to enter into a more informed conversation with your AV providers.

If you’re still in school, make sure you find out if they offer an AV 101 class. More and more schools are providing these as part of their hospitality programs, thank goodness! If you’re out of school, take advantage of industry conferences and associations that provide education sessions. Keep an eye out for AV and other tech-related classes. Full disclosure: I teach an online technical meeting production course for planners, but that’s not why I include this point. Education really is one of the best ways to save money on your AV.

Why? Because most of the time when AV providers “bulk up” their order, it’s not because they want to cheat you, it’s because they want to cover their, umm… bases. The more you sound like you know what you’re talking about, the more likely they are to take you at your word that what you want is what you need. That helps make sure you only get the equipment you need, and nothing more thrown in, “just in case”. Your quotes are going to be more accurate, so you’ll truly be only paying for what you need.

House Party: In-house AV vs. 3rd Party

Most experience planners have at least a couple of horror stories when it comes to using in-house AV companies. I always try to remind folks that crew vary wildly from property to property and city to city just like any AV company, so it’s important to take these stories with a grain of salt. There is something that’s true more often than not, however, and that’s in-house AV companies tend to be more expensive. Why? Well, lots of reasons dealing with economics, real-estate, and market differences, but the easy one to understand is this: they’re convenient.

Much like the $8.00 can of soda in the hotel lobby store, you’re paying for convenience. The equipment is all on site in case you need something last minute, and at the end of the show, it all goes on the master bill. No muss, no fuss.

Unfortunately, many venues will discourage you from shopping around and trying to get a lower price. Many will have penalties in their contracts if you choose to bring in a 3rd party company or will revoke certain concessions like free wifi. But don’t let that stop you! No matter what, I always recommend people getting at least one 3rd party bid. They’re almost always less expensive, sometimes even with the penalties and discounts. I once saw a client save almost $10,000 by bringing in a 3rd party AV company, and that included paying the hotel a penalty!

Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate

Some people prefer to use the in-house because it’s so convenient, and that’s OK. But you should still get at least one bid from a third party. Why? Leverage. The biggest thing that getting educated and getting additional bids enables you to do is negotiate. An in-house company will more often than not come down in price if they know you’re seriously shopping around. Be tactful, be polite, but don’t be afraid- you don’t have to go all Godfather on them. You’d be surprised how often, “Look, guys. I want to use you, but this other crew is willing to do it for $10k less. Can you at least meet me halfway?” will work!

And if you’re worried about the quality of your crew, one final tip: don’t be afraid to ask for references. We do it all the time with 3rd party AV companies, so why not do it with the in-house? Ask the venue to be put in touch with the most recent clients to use the in-house AV. It shouldn’t be an issue, and it might even be a red flag if they’re unwilling to do so. That might give you more leverage if you’d rather use a 3rd party, as no respectable venue should force you to use a vendor that was getting bad reviews.

What are your favorite tips for saving money on your AV bill?

Incorporating Immersive Technology in Live Events

(This article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Spring 2017)

Augmented reality and virtual reality have been on the event technology buzzword list for a while now, with one or both making a lot of people’s “Hot Technology to Watch” lists as far back as 2015. The subject has always been a little twitchy for event people because a lot of what we do is about in-person experiences. We’re people-people, so the idea of a hundred attendees in a room strapping some device to the top of their heads is going to give a lot of us a severe case of spine shivers. Nonetheless, after years of talking about VR and AR, practical uses are starting to make their way into the meeting and events industry.

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Let’s take a moment to get our definitions straight because a lot of people have started to use the term virtual reality a little loosely. Augmented reality is the process of layering something over reality. An example would be the much-maligned Google Glass, in which the user could still see the world, but had text information in the corner of their vision. Whether it’s your smartphone, smart glasses, or full-on cyborgesque headgear, the user can still see and hear the world around them. Whatever information or image that’s being presented to them is being layered over the real world. It is literally reality, augmented.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, is meant to be an immersive experience. It transports us out of the real world - and into a virtual one. These are the headsets that have come on strong in the last year, including offerings from Google, Oculus Rift (which is owned by Facebook), Sony, LG, and other major manufacturers, and are quickly being followed by a host of knock-off, no-name brands. In addition to fully virtual worlds being presented to the wearer of a VR headset, an important subcategory has emerged: immersive video. While not technically virtual reality, filmmakers, documentarians, and extreme sports enthusiasts have begun creating amazingly compelling 360° video, putting the viewer in the middle of the action. The viewer can turn their head and body in any direction to view what’s going on in the scene, but cannot interact with it in any meaningful way.

Much has already been written about the uses of virtual reality as a marketing tool, either by venues or destinations. Immersive video and VR are perfect as in-booth experiences, or even giveaways as low-end VR devices can be as inexpensive as $10 in bulk and can give the viewer a dramatic and powerful view of your product or hotel. But how can event organizers start to take advantage of these emerging technologies, and overcome the healthy skepticism of what is inherently a solitary experience?

While VR headsets intentionally drop the viewer into their own personal world, don’t discount the group experience. Audi and Samsung have worked together to create group virtual reality experiences for their events. Upon arriving, guests were guided to a room of almost 100 Gear VR headsets and seated on space-age spinning chairs. From there they watched, simultaneously, a virtual presentation of amazing graphics and sound, including being seated in their new model vehicle while it rolled through a virtual thrill ride of twists and turns.

Meanwhile, back in “reality”, the room was pumped with smoke and one of the walls was removed. At the conclusion of the virtual presentation, the guests removed their goggles to reveal the actual vehicle to be inspected in person. The photos and videos are incredible, with people laughing, holding hands, and spinning in their chairs. The guests appear to have an amazing time... together.

This kind of scale is probably out of the budget for a lot of events, but it does show that creative event designers are finding ways to turn VR into a group experience. For the short term, most events might need to content themselves with some kind of station with two or three headsets where guests can have a little fun going into a virtual world or playing a game, but as costs come down and technology gets faster, it’s easy to envision group VR presentations becoming more cost-effective.

Things get even more interesting on the augmented reality side. Because these devices are layering information over reality, the experience doesn’t take you out of reality. We will again see the most obvious possibilities for venues, including being able to stand in the middle of an empty ballroom, put on a pair of AR goggles and have important information overlaid on to what the viewer sees. This could include various room setups, decor options, room features, and more - all rendered three-dimensionally and moving as the viewer walks through the environment. The goggles could highlight even more technical items such as ceiling heights, power drops, and rigging points.

Another application is to combine AR technology with other hot-topic technologies. Beacon technology allows for precise device location where GPS might not be available. Now, combine that with information contained within the typical event mobile app. Imagine being an attendee at a busy trade show. While visiting a booth, you receive a notification in your AR-enabled glasses, letting you know it’s time for your appointment at another stand. Your path to your next appointment is highlighted, and (just like Google Maps) it shows you the fastest route.

This technology is coming faster than you might think, with several companies working actively on augmented reality goggles and headsets, and while a little behind their virtual reality cousins, commercial versions should be available soon from the likes of Microsoft and Google. In the meantime, compelling AR experiences can still be achieved using tablets and smartphones, and these will likely continue to be popular and less expensive options for the near future.

On Value

This is the tale of two clients.  The names and details have been changed to protect the innocent.

The question: Which client got the better value for their money?

The show:  Both clients requested pricing for almost identical situations- a 500+ person sales conference, including AV, stage design, meeting room decor, graphics and PPT template design, special event design and decor for their awards banquet, and production support, including show caller, technical director, and production manager.  There would also be some post-meeting video editing of the footage.  Both bids were full scale meeting productions, but were based on some smaller work we’d done with each client, so this was a big inroad for us in each situation.  As such, very reasonable pricing was given out of the gate to help sweeten the deal, in order to get the larger portion of the total event expense.

Client A- The Negotiator.  Even given the initial generous pricing, the client negotiated the price even further down, until a lot of what we pitched was dropped down to at cost or below cost to get the business.  Many services were even thrown in for no-cost, including the post production editing, which is my time.  Hey, we all know this happens a lot, especially with new clients.  Once you get the business, you hope to recoup over the long-term relationship you build with the client.

They continued to question every single price in the process, citing non-realistic consumer level (think Home Depot) and internet pricing for room decor (which did not include labor, setup, delivery, etc). They changed one of their conference days from a half day to a full day, and seemed outraged that we’d charge more for labor for the AV crew.  They questioned the roughly 10% (a couple hundred bucks) in profit we sought to gain for arranging the hanging of several thousand square feet of ceiling treatments.  They tried to cut staff that we weren’t charging for anyway in hopes of further discounts.

On top of the negotiating, they also kept requesting more and more of the “free” services we were providing.  More graphics, more video, alternate edits, and “oh by the way”s galore.  We finally had to put our foot down and start line item-ing each and every addition, which inevitably meant more price negotiation on each and every item.

On site, and throughout the conference, there was even more of these add-ons, and truth be told I couldn’t help but feel like they thought they owned me for the run of the show.  We continued to line item every item, every request, and we only did what was asked of us and no more.

I also got the feeling they were looking for mistakes, cataloging every minor detail and filing it away, so that after the conference they could come back for more money off the bill.  We always strive for the perfect show, but in my 15 years in the business, I’ve only seen maybe one where absolutely nothing went wrong and this was no exception.  Additionally, a lot of equipment and crew redundancy was cut due to the budget concerns.  Unfortunately there are some clients that you can't help but feel that they count on trying to get money back at the end of a program,  by accumulating a list of things they're dissatisfied with and disputing the bill.  The entire conference run was one of stress and anxiety.

After the show I was tired, cranky, bitter, and feeling a little used.

Client B- Minnesota Nice.  Almost the polar opposite of Client A.  While budget conscious, there was never the feeling of constant nit-picking or chiseling.  They seemed to understand that things A) cost money, and B) we might make a profit on them.  Whenever things were added, they were always amenable to adding to the overall bill.  Above all else, they were always extremely polite, and very understanding of the time and effort that goes in to putting on a conference.  As their conference went on, I genuinely came to like the people involved- the conference committee, the executives, the attendees.  As a result, as I look back, I actually did a lot more for them than Client A.  All the little add-ons didn’t feel so bad, and I found myself wanting to help them make their conference better and better for their attendees.  They added a rush order to the post-production, and even after a week of travel I found myself wanting to work through the weekend to get it done for them so that they could get the conference materials into the hands of their folks in the field.

Due to hotel restrictions, we were forced to use the in-house AV, and unfortunately for our client, they really stunk up the house.  Tons of equipment and crew issues.  In the case of Client A, we might have been tempted to just shrug our shoulders and say, “Not our fault”, but instead we were right there in the fray, passionately advocating for our client, making sure they were dealt with fairly in the end.

Since the program, we’ve even provided some “at cost” services to help them out with the post production distribution. Why? Because they asked nicely.

After the show I was tired, but really looking forward to the next time we work with Client B.

My Take:  While we all agree that, in theory, all clients should receive the same treatment, I think we can also agree that that’s not human nature.  In the end, the two companies' bills, minus the differences between the two shows, were probably only a few thousand dollars different.  I’d be curious to know, if they knew each other, which client thought they got the best deal- the best value for their money.  My guess is that they both would think so.  In my heart of hearts, I’d have to say that at least when it came to my time, my effort, Client B got the most value for their money, and will continue to do so as long as we have the privilege to work with them.

I am not anti-negotiation.  Around the office I have the (occasionally derogatory) nickname “Consumer Brandt” because I detest bad customer service and have no trouble telling people when I believe they’re giving it to me.  I will not hesitate to ask for fees to be waived, prices matched, or things to be thrown in.  But there is a line, and it’s largely a matter of tact, manners, and polite civility to know when that line's been crossed.  There’s working the system, and there’s abusing the system...

As I move forward, I’m going to try and keep all this in mind as I work with our vendors.  I’d like to think to a certain extent that I do already, but it never hurts to try harder, right?

So what do you think?  Who got the better value?  Does it matter who the client is and who the vendor is?  Why?

On What Went Wrong at the End- More Reflections from ECTC11

The number one question that I've seen come out of Event Camp Twin Cites regarding the technical side of things is, "Dude, what happened at the end?" For those that did not see it, there was an almost comic meltdown of the Skype connections to the Pods.  A kind and well written summary from Mitchell Beer can be found Here.

Some of this is conjecture, as we had to tear down and vacate the venue in very short order, so further testing could not be done.  What follows is a rough compilation of the many things that contributed to not only the bizarre ending to ECTC11, but the Skype problems in general throughout the conference.

It has been asked, rightfully so, why didn't we test all of this before going live.  I can tell you that as far as we were concerned we did.  They tested the lines, they tested the calls to all the pods, we tested the inputs, we tested the outputs, we tested the video inputs, we tested the video outputs.  It's a valuable lesson in something we all know- that there's no such thing as too much testing, or taking those test too far.  Sometimes it's just not enough.

All of the following contributed and played off each other, and unfortunately it is the interplay that caused the most serious problems- most of which would not have shown up in anything other than full scale, live testing, with the actual participants in the actual rooms with the actual equipment.  And probably the correct alignment of Mercury thrown in just for good measure.   ECTC, in essence became the full size test.  At least it's an environment that's theoretically set up for that purpose...

So here it is, to the best of my ability:

1) The number of pods- Last year there were two pods.  In true Event Camp Twin Cities fashion, they pushed the envelope and tried to have 9.  Eventually that number reduced to 7.  Because of the number of pods, especially the original 9, it seemed impractical to have nine dedicated machines, and we decided to try the group calling feature of Skype and had 4 pods on one computer, and 3 on another.  So having so many pods is why we started combining them on machines, which leads to...

2) Combining Pods 1- Combining the pods created a lot of noise on each of the two Skype machines.  Instead of one person at a time, you now had bunches of people talking, waving, saying hi, and I think that Skype was clamping down on some feeds to "promote" others.  It's certainly the way it sounded in the headphones of the audio rig.  The wrong pods were being brought to the front of the mix.  It would make sense that Skype is geared towards what it's generally considered use is- chat between one or more individuals.  When individuals are chatting, we tend to wait our turn.  The noise from some pods seemed to be canceling other pods out, much like a Google Hangout tries to "decide" who's talking, and that can be overridden by someone typing to loudly.  To make matters worse, there was the problem in #4, but we'll get to that in a second.  All of this would be fixable if only we had the ability to somehow mute the audio of some of the pods when one was speaking, which leads us to...

3) Combining pods 2-  According to the Podmaster (as I desperately probed around for a solution to stop the madness), there was no way to mute individual pods on Skype.  I do not know this for sure, as I don't personally have the premium version of Skype with the multi-person chat.  What I do know is that the recent redesign of the interface for Skype is a bloody mess, and if there were controls to mute the audio, good luck finding them.  You're more likely to accidently bring up and call your Aunt Judy trying to figure out the right combination of hidden rollovers and hieroglyphs.

It should be noted at this point, that in a further attempt to salvage the segment, we hung up on all the pods and tried calling a couple of them one at a time.  When we knocked it down to a single call to Amsterdam, though, their audio feed was clearly being cut in and out by the noise limiter on Skype.   I am again not familiar enough with Skype to know if there's a setting that could have been changed on their end, but it was again very obvious when listening via headphones.  It may have been possible to overcome with some time, perhaps by having someone come closer to the mic on the computer and by having all other hush, but before we got to that point I was told we had Silicon Valley on the line on the other machine.  When we connected on a single call to Silicon Valley, Mike appeared to be on a headset, and it sounded awesome.  I plugged and unplugged the audio jacks on the Mac so I could talk to him- the drawback of routing the audio signal through the house was that we didn't have a good talkback method, and we were all set to go back to him.  Unfortunately, though, we just plain ran out of time.  We had a hard out at 2pm, Kurt was wrapping things up in the room, and the decision was made to scrap it.

4) Pod instructions/Combining Pods 3- (sensing a common thread?) Despite meticulous instructions, and without throwing anyone under the bus, it seemed like every time we went to a Skype machine, at least one of the three (or four) would have their audio turned up on the Sonic Foundry feed.  This contributed to the confusion, and exacerbated problems 2 and 3 because we couldn't mute them.  People still weren't listening to the right feed, and the delay ate us alive.  Furthermore, the audio in the room then contains the potted-up Skype audio, which contained the audio of the delayed webcast feed, which is now being sent back to the other pods.  Yeesh...

5) Panic.  I regret having to put this one in, but it's true.  When things go south, your mind is racing, and you try everything you can think of.  Sometimes, though, the moment passes and it just wasn't enough.  You don't think of a solution until the next day.  Or the next week.  It's like that great comeback for an insult that you don't think of until the jerk's walked away.

I can't imagine what it was like up there for Sam, and he kept his cool very well.  The best description I heard was that he was the straight guy in a comedy routine that he didn't know he was in.  My suggestion in perfect 20-20 hindsight, however, is that when the first one wasn't answering, we needed to just stop and wait to see how long it took them to respond.  Discover their delay and deal with it.   Some have suggested some kind of in-room clock or audio cue in dealing with delayed audiences, as continuing to speak (while a perfectly natural reaction) only adds to the confusion.

If an actual 30 seconds went by, which I know is an ETERNITY, then we'd know that something was wrong beyond them just being on the wrong feed.  As it was, it felt like Sam would move on in what seemed to me to be less than 20 seconds, and then we're suddenly being answered by the Pod he'd  just left.  He'd try and go back to that one, only to be answered by the one he'd just moved on to.

So that's what happened.  Feel free to pick it apart and tell me what I may have missed.  And if you know where it is, for the love of God please share where the mute button is in Skype.

Otherwise, my recommendations coming out of this are:

1) Reduce the number of Pods if at all possible to 4, and put them all on their own machines.  4 inputs is where the lowest levels of video switchers tend to hang around, so you can have a dedicated switch just for flipping between Pods for not a lot of money.  That switch then sends its signal to whatever your main video switcher is.  If you need to scale up, scale at that point and get a bigger Skype switcher, but I really feel like 1-1 machines might be imperative to making this all work.

2) Maybe to reduce noise, perhaps you give "voice" to the leaders of the pods and give them a headset?  Just spitballing... It might overcome the limitations of combining pods.

3) If the machines are separated, your audio feeds will need to be separated, so again your going to need more channels on your audio mixer, or a completely separate mixer for the Skype machines.  Either way, it gets you individual control over the audio feeds, and you can mute whoever's mixing margaritas in the background.

4) Did any of the pods notice they were being fed the main video feed instead of looking out the I-Sight cameras in the MacBooks?  What's your feedback on the video quality, other than any buffering or obvious Skype-related things?  I'm still experimenting, and if I figure it out I'll share.  We may try it again at Event Camp Europe.  Suffice it to say that it's remarkably low tech and inexpensive, and I think could be a really nice key to making this all work.

5) It should go without saying, but I will.  When it comes to trying new tech, try and emulate the final use scenario as closely as possible during testing.  We thought we had, but clearly there were factors at work that we didn't anticipate.  At least now you know to...