Understanding the Basics of Projection Technology for Meetings and Events

Originally posted in the Spring 2014 issue of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

I understand that this article may be somewhat technical, but if you take the time to read ahead you will learn the basics of projection technology. Hopefully this will help you gain a better understanding of this critical element to most programs, saving you time and money in the long run.

Screen SizeProjection Lens
Size is probably the most important projection consideration. Generally speaking, the last row of seats should never be more than six to eight times farther than the height of the screen. For example, if you are using a 9 foot high by 16 foot wide screen, the last row of seats should be no more than 72 feet from the screen. Also, the nearest seat should never be closer than the height of the screen; so in my example the nearest seats should be no less than 9 feet from the screen. These screen size formulas are more guidelines than strict rules. Depending on the visual content being displayed, these distances may be extended or may even need to be reduced. For example, if you have very detailed presentations for engineers who will be viewing technical diagrams on screen it may be necessary to reduce the distance to the last seat. In this instance four times the screen height may be prudent. If you are only using the screens for actual video content then it is usually acceptable to have the last row be eight or nine times the screen height from the image. The best advice is to trust your judgment. If you feel that the screen is too small (or even too large) then it probably is. Unfortunately these onsite judgments cannot be made until it is usually too late to make the necessary changes. These formulas are a great tool to use for advance preparation when all you have is a room diagram to make these decisions. Room diagrams can be very misleading, but if they have accurate dimensions it is nice to have some reliable formulas.
Aspect Ratio
The aspect ratio of the screen is simply the difference between the width and height. Before high definition, the standard aspect ratio in North America was 4:3 (width x height). For example, a screen that is 4 feet wide would be 3 feet high. The standard high definition aspect ratio is 16:9. Considering all televisions, and most computer screens, are in this aspect ratio (some computers are 16:10, but close enough), I recommend only using 16:9 screens and requesting that all content for your programs be created in this format. This is important for several reasons, but mostly it keeps your setup looking fresh and modern.
Front or Rear Projection
If you have the space, rear projection (RP) is usually the best option. Rear projection allows for a cleaner look by not having a projector somewhere in the room, and it allows for presenters to walk in front of the screen without getting in the way of the projected image. The only real additional cost to RP is the fact that you usually need to use some sort of drape or hard scenic elements to hide the backstage area and the projector. Front projection (FP) typically allows for more seating space because the screen can be set up against a wall. The main issues you will encounter when using FP are how to keep the presenters from walking in front of the projector as well as placement of the projector itself. There are many creative ways to utilize FP when necessary ranging from ceiling rigs to long throw lenses to towers in the back of the room. With a little imagination you can usually make FP work.
Projectors

Projectors come in many different shapes and sizes. Renting projectors can get quite expensive so it’s very important to figure out exactly what the job requires. This is a place where planners often overspend on something that they just don’t need, or don’t spend enough and simply don’t have quality visuals for the presentations or video.

There are no magic formulas to figure out what projector will work best for your application. A simple thing to remember is that DLP is better than LCD (for several reasons that I will not go into here). If you can afford DLP then it may be worth it for your higher budget events, but in most applications a bright LCD will do just fine. The real key is to not mix DLP and LCD in the same room. That is when the differences between the two become obvious. I would like to take a moment to comment on backup projectors. In my opinion there should always be at least one backup, if not multiple “online” backup projectors onsite. While failure is rare with newer projectors, there is simply no way to predict when a lamp or some other internal component will fail. This risk is reduced greatly by proper projector maintenance, but this can never really be guaranteed. Any time you rent a backup projector your AV supplier should only charge half the rental price of the main units.

3 Approaches to Choosing AV Suppliers for Events

Among meeting and event professionals there seem to be three different approaches to dealing with the AV needs of their programs.  Each of these approaches can (and do) make sense in certain instances, and there are many factors that come into play when making these decisions.  It is, however, always helpful to step back and consider if the choices you are making create the most value while providing the best chance for a positive outcome.Projector Backup

In-House AV Suppliers
The first approach is to contract the in-house AV supplier in each venue.  Depending on the size and scope of their programs this may make sense for some planners.   This choice can be very convenient (especially for smaller events), but rarely is it the most cost effective.  In-house AV suppliers must pay a percentage of their revenue to the venue as a commission, and this cost is always passed on to the customer.  Many venues try to charge “corkage” fees (arbitrary charges for bringing in outside suppliers) which are in place to deter planners from contracting outside AV suppliers.  These fees are meant to protect the profits that are being made through the in-house AV service.  It is important to understand that these fees can always be negotiated out of the contract before signing.  I have never encountered a venue that is willing to lose an entire event over the lost AV revenue.

Independent AV Suppliers
The second approach is to contract independent AV suppliers for every event.  Many meeting and event planners take this approach because they have developed relationships with certain AV suppliers, and there is a level of comfort and trust that comes with these partnerships.  Contracting an independent AV supplier can often be the less expensive option when compared to the in-house company, but even when it is not there is comfort in knowing the level of service that will be provided.  Unless you frequently hold events in a single venue it is impossible to know the level of service you will get from the in-house supplier until it is too late.

 Hybrid ApproachAudio Console Knobs
The third approach is actually a hybrid of the first two, and this option may make the most sense for many planners.  For some programs the in-house company may be the most reasonable option.  For example, maybe you work in a certain venue quite often, and you have developed a relationship with the in-house supplier.  There may be other times when the AV just isn’t that important, and the convenience of the in-house simply makes your life a little easier.  Even I use in-house suppliers sometimes because it makes sense.  I may be biased, but I do think that in most instances there is more value in developing a relationship with a few trusted independent AV suppliers and contracting them for every event possible.

Perhaps the very best option is to partner with a trusted AV professional who can look over contracts, quotes, equipment lists and labor schedules then manage the program on-site to ensure you are getting the most value out of your suppliers.  This might be the most valuable type of partnership because it allows you to choose the best supplier option for each event.

Follow Up
After posting this blog I was reminded by @OneWimpoleStAV on Twitter that there are still some venues that employ their own in-house AV staff and equipment.  These AV teams are different from the in-house suppliers mentioned above because the venue takes full responsibility for the quality of service which is always a good thing.

Do your meeting and event suppliers understand your goals?

When I am called on to design the environment for a meeting or event I want to know everything about the program.  What is the purpose?  Who are the attendees?  What are the communication objectives, and how will success be measured?  These questions usually lead to some insights that allow me to take a more holistic approach to my design, and discussions about these topics are never a waste of time.Event Goals

Too often when my clients call to discuss event design they want to jump right into the nuts and bolts of seating layouts, stages, lighting and audio visual elements.  In my opinion this is truly putting the cart before the horse because without understanding the client’s goals it is quite possible that I will overlook something that would allow me to help the program reach its full potential.

This business is all about communication, and each event has a unique message.  I often find that small details can make huge differences in the overall impact of a program therefore nothing should be taken for granted.  For example, if you are trying to foster a sense of community among attendees then seating considerations can make all the difference.  If you are trying to motivate a group of people then you may want to pay much more attention to the sensory elements of the program, and I’m not just talking about loud music and fancy lights (although these usually help).

The point that I am trying to make is this.  You should do your best to make sure that all of your event suppliers understand your goals from the very beginning.  If you are putting enough trust in them to allow them to be an integral part of your project then you should also believe that they could potentially have insights that you do not.  Knowledge is power, and the more information they have about your program the more chance they have of contributing to the event’s success.

At the very least your communication will be appreciated, and allow the supplier feel like a real member of the team.  Hopefully this will motivate them to take more ownership of the event, and that can only be a good thing.

 

Your Meetings and Events Must Be Culturally Relevant

I often wonder how much thought my clients put into the demographics and culture of their event attendees because it seems that many event planners and producers take a very “cookie cutter” approach to their programs.  This entire industry is about communication so I think it is important to remember that the communication styles and general feel of the programs must be in sync with the culture of each audience in order to be truly effective.

I recently managed the AV for a corporate event where the attendees were mid-level managers from all over the country.  A week or so before the event the client asked the Producer to put together a playlist of high energy 80s and 90s rock music to use during walk-in, walk-out and breaks.  The producer asked me to handle this task which I gladly did.  As a music fanatic I love to put together playlists for events (I guess it’s my inner DJ).  So I spent a couple of hours one day compiling a playlist of some of the most popular high energy rock songs from the requested era.  My inner DJ would say, “Rockin’ the house from AC/DC to ZZ Top!”  OK, maybe not.

During rehearsals the Producer (my client) asked if we could go over the playlist.  As I began going over each song I soon realized that the he didn’t know very much about 80s and 90s rock music because he had never heard of the majority of the songs that I had on my list.  I wasn’t using a bunch of obscure artists.  In fact, most of the songs on my playlist had hit the top 40 during these two decades.  In the Producer’s defense, he was a little older and probably grew up in the 70s so he wasn’t very familiar with much of this music.  I grew up in the 80s and 90s so this was right up my alley.  The problem is that he didn’t recognize this fact, and chose not defer to my experience as a contemporary of the requested time period.  Instead he shot down almost every song I brought, and left us with only about 30 minutes of music.

When the client arrived I could tell he was disappointed by the lack of songs, and he probably thought we had not taken his request seriously when, in fact, I had spent quite a bit of time on the project.  So he said he would bring his iPad, and we could use one of his playlists for the music.  When he gave me the iPad, his playlist contained almost every song the Producer had cut from my playlist.  Even though my inner DJ felt both vindicated and annoyed, I recognized this as a teachable moment.

When the attendees arrived I soon realized that most of them were around my age and a little younger.  I would say the average age in the room was early to middle 30s – a good 20 years younger than the Producer.  We ended up using my playlist after all, and you could tell that it was a big hit.  The client really wanted to bring the energy up in the room, and 80s/90s rock music did that in a big way.  Because the client lives every day of his life within the culture of this company, he knew what kind of music would speak to this audience.  The Producer was just being too conservative for that particular crowd.

In contrast, just a few weeks before this meeting I managed a conference for bond dealers.  Most of these attendees were men in their late 50s and early 60s.  For that event it was easy listening jazz from beginning to end.  Even though that isn’t my kind of music I recognized what many of these people listen to.  They are the same demographic as my father so I know what many of them like.  Even the attendees that didn’t like soft jazz work in a fairly conservative culture dominated by people who may not be so into Lenny Kravitz so they wouldn’t be fazed by the music selections.  It would, for the most part, just be background noise.

I am using music for these examples of cultural relevance because musical taste is one of the most obvious differences between various cultures.  But this should only be an illustration of a concept that is applied to all areas of your meetings and events; from catering to networking activities or even how much flash goes into the audio visual elements.

The simple fact is that people communicate differently based on their life experiences, and this can often be a direct result of time spent in a particular organization’s culture.  It is our job as meeting and event professionals to spend time researching the culture of an organization or group , and apply the findings to every part of their event while doing our best to avoid our own prejudices.  This is not always easy…especially when it comes to music.

Your Event Production Staff Should Look Like Attendees

Pic by David Alexander

In my role as an event technology consultant and Director I manage events of all types.  From outdoor festivals to Presidential fundraisers I have done it all, and I have always had a rule for my operational crew that they must look and dress like the event attendees.

This means that if you are working a tradeshow you should be wearing business casual attire, if you are working a high end fundraiser or corporate meeting for upper management you should wear a suit, and if you are doing a team building event on a beach somewhere in Mexico then wear shorts and a Polo.  This is so fundamental to the way all event crews should work that I don’t understand why it doesn’t always happen.

I have written about what you should expect from your event production staff in previous posts.  How the staff interacts with the attendee is important, but it is probably even more important that they blend into the crowd.  I always say that you don’t notice the AV until something goes wrong.  Well it’s the same with the crew.  You don’t notice them unless they look inappropriate or do something not in line with the culture of the group.

I cannot tell you how many times I attend events where the crew stands out like a sore thumb.  It drives me crazy!  There is simply no reason for it, and I always wonder why the person in charge allows it.  So if you ever feel that anyone on the event staff does not look right don’t be afraid to speak up.  If it looks bad to you I guarantee you that it looks bad to others.  Or even worse, it probably looks bad to the people paying the bills.

Think about it.

Event Spaces – Size Matters But So Does Shape

Jay Ward, CTS

By Jay Ward, CTS

I know this is a subject I have written about in the past, but I feel it is so important that I want to touch on it again.  Room size and shape are probably the most important considerations when choosing a meeting or event venue, and often it seems to be an afterthought for many planners.

Of course every aspect of a venue must be considered in the selection process.  If the venue is a hotel you must consider the guest rooms, amenities, catering, convenience and price.  Any one of these factors could cause you to decide against a certain property, but before taking any of these other factors into consideration you should, in my opinion, decide whether the actual event space will optimize the effectiveness of the event.

Just so you understand where I am coming from let me give you a little background.  A major part of my job is to design event layouts.   This includes all elements from audio visual to seating plans.  Usually I am given a room, a seating count and a rough vision for the event, and I must figure out the best way to configure the layout to make all of the elements work in the space provided.  The problem is that often there was no real consideration given to what the event would look like in the particular space when the venue was chosen.

Usually my client will make sure the event space can accommodate the desired number of attendees, and that there are no obvious issues with the space.  While this is certainly helpful, and probably the most important consideration in the venue selection process, we must think about the overall vision when picking the space.

Vancouver Convention Center Ballroom D

Great Room – For Certain Events

Shape and Size
As I have written in previous articles, you cannot rely on venue seating capacity charts to determine if a particular space will work for your event.  Most capacity charts list the absolute capacity limit if there were nothing else in the room other than people and tables.  This is very misleading.  You must determine the size of the actual production (AV, staging, décor, etc.) before you can figure out how much of the space will actually be available for a seating plan.  A rough guideline is to subtract 20% to 30% from the seating capacity based on how elaborate you think the production will be.

Ballroom D Floor Plan

Event In Above Room – Not Ideal

After we have determined that the size of the room will work to accommodate the audience and production elements we must consider shape.   It doesn’t matter if the room will fit the desired attendee count if it is so long and narrow that the back row will need to be too far to see the screens. This is where ceiling height comes into play because we must be sure we can fit large enough screens for the back row to clearly see the visuals.  There are some very simple formulas we use to determine this, but I won’t bore you with that here.

Planners often choose a super groovy event space simply because it looks great, but then realize that the odd shape makes it almost impossible to fit the production elements they want so the overall event suffers.  I see this all the time when doing events in places like museums or large restaurants.  While these types of spaces are great for certain events, you need to make sure they will work for YOUR event.

If you follow this blog I will probably sound like a broken record here, but I think it bears repeating.  Before you make the final decision on the venue it is critical to let your Production Manager or Technical Director give his opinion.  It’s possible that he will have some creative ideas for you, and it is also possible that he will show you some less obvious issues that may be detrimental to the event.  Either way you will have a better chance of picking the right space, and that is critical to the success of any event.

Live Meetings and Events – Record Everything!

Jay Ward, CTS

By Jay Ward, CTS

Even though I have spent most of my career working with live event technology, my career really began working in recording studios.  Actually, in the beginning I mostly just hung around recording studios, and helped out wherever help was needed.  I was a young musician and absolutely fascinated with audio technology.  After watching thousands of hours of recording sessions I came to realize there is one rule in the studio that is paramount – record everything.

In a recording session you never know when you are going to get that little piece of magic that will take a song from ordinary to awesome.  These little nuggets of brilliance can come at any time.  Often they happen when a musician is just playing around or rehearsing.  As an engineer you don’t want to be the guy that missed this moment of greatness so it’s just safe to be recording all the time. 

So here is my question.  Why don’t we record everything that happens at our meetings and events?  We often record the large general sessions and keynote speeches, but that’s not enough.  To digitally record audio and video is so cheap with modern technology that you can afford to record just about everything that happens at your events.  Even large conferences with many small symposia and breakout sessions can all be recorded.

Of course, there are legal reasons and privacy issues that must be taken into account when recording, but I’m not talking about intrusively recording people’s private conversations.  I’m talking about recording all of the potentially valuable activity that happens as a result of a group of people being together in a place and time.  This may include activities like valuable Q&A sessions or interactions during panel discussions.

There are myriad reasons why you would want to record all of the happenings at your events.  Maybe you would want to post videos of presentations on YouTube or audio podcasts on a website.  Maybe there are candid moments that could be captured during the event that you could use for promotional purposes.  How about this?  Have someone with a small video camera stand outside the session as the attendees leave, and get their takeaways.  This is valuable stuff!  There are so many potential uses for your recordings that it would be impossible to list them all here.  There is even a new site called BOBtv that is dedicated to this type of content.  I have not used it yet, but it looks promising.

When it comes to online video people don’t expect super high quality so you don’t need to worry about that.  If the content can be seen with relative clarity and the audio is clear people are fine with it.  There are so many reasons to keep those audio and video recorders rolling it makes no sense why we aren’t doing this more.

Events – Simple Designs and Big Bang for the Buck

Jay Ward, CTS
By Jay Ward, CTS

As event planners and producers you rarely have all the money you would like for your events, but budgets are a reality that we must deal with on every project.  Most of my clients are always trying to figure out ways to stretch their budgets, and while this is not always a simple thing to do there is one place where creativity always trumps budget.  I’m talking about design.

Most of my experience is with stage design, but simple scenic ideas can often be used throughout an event space.  Too often I see meetings and events with just pipe and drape stage backdrops, and maybe some lighting on the drape – BORING!!!  With a little creativity you can create stage backdrops that look incredible for very little money.  The secret of stage set design is to use cheap materials that are lightweight, and can be manufactured quickly while allowing for easy set up on site.  This really isn’t very tricky.

Here are three pictures of simple stage sets that took no time to build, and look like they cost way more than they did.  These are examples of how a little imagination can go a long way.

When you take stage designs like these, and tie them into the rest of the event décor you begin to develop a theme.  This is enhanced by simple stage and architectural lighting using color and texture.  It ain’t rocket science.  Plus, with LED lighting technology getting cheaper every day you can use lighting throughout the space to create a truly unique feel for your event.  For multi-day events you can even change your LED colors each day to create a slightly different feel for no extra cost.  Now we are optimizing that budget!

I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff!  I think it’s a blast to see how far we can stretch a budget with simple creativity.  If we had all the money in the world it wouldn’t be a challenge, right?

Give Your Presenters the Best Chance of Success

With so much going on at a typical meeting or conference it can be easy to forget that the actual presentations are the primary reason we are there.  There are many elements that must come together to make an event a success, but if the presentations aren’t successful then nothing else matters.   Whether you are paying the presenters or the presenters are paying you, it is absolutely critical that you give them the best opportunity to deliver successful presentations because, in the end, that is what the attendee will remember, and will ultimately be the measure of a successful event.There is no way to ensure that every presentation will be well received by an audience so there is no way to guarantee that every presentation will be a winner.  As a meeting professional all you can do is give the presenters the tools to succeed.  Fortunately this is not very complicated, and there are some simple things that can be provided to maximize the chances of a positive experience for both presenter and attendee.

The Stage
When setting up a stage for presentations there are many options.  Sometimes there will be a single presenter.  Sometimes there will be multiple presenters at one time.  Other times you may need to set the stage for several people to have a panel discussion to engage in a conversation with each other or the audience.Presenter

It is important to think about how the stage is set for each of these instances to increase intimacy, ensure ideal sightlines for the audience and allow for maximum energy from the presenters.  For example, if you have a single presenter on stage must there be a podium?  I have found that nothing can suck the energy from a presentation like a podium.  Consider how the podium will affect the presentations for your event, and determine whether one is necessary.  If you decide to not use a podium it is a good idea to provide a stage that is large enough for the presenter to walk around.  This is very important because it can be awkward to stand in one position for an entire presentation without something to hide behind.

When a panel discussion is necessary we often see the typical table set on stage, and panelists seated in a row with microphones in their faces.  This type of setup separates the panelists from the audience much like a podium.  It doesn’t seem natural.  I would suggest the panelists wear wireless lavalier microphones, and be seated in comfortable chairs on stage with no table.  Once again, this will increase intimacy and energy while allowing the attendee to feel more like they are a part of the discussion.

Visuals
While I am not a big fan of the typical Power Point presentation, the reality is that data and pictures are often at the center of a presentation so we simply must have the ability to display visual elements.  To give these visuals the best chance of being effective we must be sure they are large enough, clear enough and bright enough.

In the AV industry we have some basic guidelines to estimate how large a screen should be.  I could go into great detail about how we figure these estimates, but as a general rule no audience member should be further than 6 times the screen width from the screen when text is the primary content, and none should be seated closer to the screen than the actual screen width.  So if you have a 12 foot wide screen the front row should be at least 12 feet from the screen and the back row should be no further away than 72 feet.  Of course this is just a guideline, and not always possible.  You should, however, consider this formula when you are planning your room set, and try to stay as close to these parameters as possible.  It is surprising how many AV professionals don’t know this formula so it is always a good idea to check for yourself.

Another important factor is viewing angle.  The rule here is to try to keep every attendee within a 45 degree angle of the outside edge of the screen.  In extreme circumstances this angle can be as much as 60 degrees, but I would not recommend more than that.  If you find that some seats will be outside of this field you may need to reconsider your setup.

Audio
While audio is sometimes the most overlooked element in any presentation the simple fact is that it is absolutely the most important.  If the audience cannot clearly hear the presentation then nothing else matters.  It is critical to invest in the best audio equipment your budget will allow because poor performance or a failure could be catastrophic for the event.  It is also incredibly important to have a competent audio engineer because even the best equipment is worthless in the hands of someone who does not know what he or she is doing.  This is one of the major pitfalls for planners using AV suppliers with whom they have no relationship, but I won’t go into that here.

Presenter Comfort
One of the most important (and least thought of) factors in a successful presentation is the comfort level of the presenter.  Even professional speakers get nervous if they don’t know exactly what they will encounter on stage.  For this reason it is a great idea to make sure every presenter has an opportunity to stand on the stage, and get a feel for the room prior to their presentation.  I always take each presenter on stage, and familiarize them with everything.  I show them the slide advancer, confidence monitor and even where the water will be.  When possible I let them try out the actual microphone they will be using so they can hear how they will sound because it is easy to be caught off guard by the sound of your own voice coming through a PA system.

These are just a few examples of ways to give your event’s presenters the best chance of delivering successful presentations.  After all, there is nothing you can do about the actual content of the presentations, and some presenters won’t be successful no matter what you do.  There will always be the presenters that stand behind a podium and read their Power Point slides word for word in a monotone voice, but at least you can rest easy knowing you did your job.

I would love to hear any other ideas that you may have.

I Don’t Provide AV for Events – I Provide a Good Night’s Sleep

Jay Ward, CTS

By Jay Ward, CTS

As an AV supplier and Production Manager for the meetings and events industry I have always said that there are a million AV companies out there, and they all carry the same equipment.  The only place we can provide real value is with our service.  In fact, I believe what we are really providing is insurance.  Let’s face it, people only notice the AV when it fails, and when it fails it is usually a BIG deal.

Most event planners know very little about the technical side of their production.  They shouldn’t have to.  This is not what they are being paid for.  They probably don’t know much about catering or valet parking either, but they have to manage all of these elements and make them work together to create a successful event.  So I am sure it must be a little unnerving to be completely responsible for an AV production that you have no control over.  I mean, if the sound system stops working what is the event planner going to do?  They can’t run over and fix it.  They must rely on the production staff, and trust that they can handle any issues that may surface.

Ahhhhhhh.

Many of my clients consider me their AV partner, and wouldn’t do an event without me because we have built up a trust level that can only come with time.  I have become their insurance policy, and on more than one occasion I have been told that I provide a good night’s sleep.

If you are a meeting or event planner have you built a solid relationship with your AV supplier or do you just rely on whoever is available, and offering the best price in the area where your event is taking place?  Maybe this has never been a problem for you, and you are getting a good night’s sleep.  I hope your run of good luck continues.