No Second Chances: Get Live Events Right the First Time
The success of any live event is dependent on five core elements: the people, the plan, the technology, the venue, and the audience; they all intersect to either make or break an event. The added layer of virtual attendees creates an even greater challenge, because you have to produce the event for people both inside and outside the room. The key is to use the right technology to make it easy to reach the live audience and virtual attendees and provide them a quality and worthwhile experience.
And I can tell you from experience that it better be good!
Over the last 20 years of producing live events, I’ve learned a lot about how things can go right and wrong, and from good to bad, and from bad to worse. Most problems stem from the things that fall through the cracks: forgotten tasks that didn’t make your checklist or that were not delegated. They can either creep up on you or blow up in your face, and we all know what’s at stake. As they say in the live event biz, “You’re only as good as your last show.”
You can avoid most problems with proper planning and clear communication. The best shows are the ones where everyone knows what to do, so the show comes off without a hitch. Whether you are in studio or on location, the same rules apply if you want to be successful. The key to succeeding is that you go in with a plan and strongly dissuade clients from disruptive last-minute changes. They may think it’s not a big deal, but you know better.
Have a Plan
Get on the same page with your clients to get them on board with deadlines and financial commitments. Give them an understanding of the live event requirements. Most clients aren’t familiar with what technology they need, but they know the outcome they want. It’s your job to educate them about what they need because you know what’s best for any given situation. Get as much information from your clients about their event so that you can recommend the right package to fit their needs and budget.
Determine if you’ll need multiple cameras versus a single camera production. Explain the differences—and why you might need more cameras, lighting, set design, multiple microphones, and additional crew. If your clients’ goal is to webcast its live event and create a high-quality video archive, it’s easier for them to understand that requirements are different if they have one speaker on stage at a time than if they’re presenting a panel discussion.
With every live event there are various templates that can be applied to the production. While each setup is distinct, there are standards to follow when the space allows.
Most live events take place in an auditorium, conference room, convention center, or ballroom. Go into each location with a game plan on how you will set up your tech area, where each station will be, and what needs to connect to what. Also, be sure to have backup equipment and crew in case of technical or physical problems. Don’t forget to test your webcast on location.
The best way to keep everyone on the same page is to prepare a call sheet, schedule, and production summary that includes every last bit of detail that covers the entire production. Give everyone on the crew a copy for reference, and lead a production meeting before the show so that all teams are synched up.
Stick to the Plan
Go into each show with a scripted game plan; ideally, it will be a detailed run of show documents that maps out the show flow. Your plan should also include setup diagrams that show signal flow; floor plans that show the room layout and location of AV, cameras, lighting, catering; and any other documents such as webcast information, call sheets, production schedules, and checklists for both the crew and clients to follow.
The producer and director going over the show flow with the clients and crew; LED lighting and a lucite podium give an elegant look in the studio. (Photo: Sam Fung.)
Stick to Budget and Deadlines
It’s easy to go over budget when you start adding extra cameras, wireless microphones, internet and power drops. However, the biggest cost overruns come from not correctly estimating the amount of time it actually takes to produce an event. In most cases, labor will be your biggest cost, and if you don’t account for overtime (and even double time) you run the risk of ending up way over budget. Having the proper staffing ratio is crucial to staying on time and budget.
Plan a Rehearsal
The more you know, the better you do, and the best way to know is to practice. Aside from presenters being able to practice clicking through their slides and getting comfortable with the environment, you need to know their transitions, cues for videos, music, camera angles, and blocking, along with how the show will open and close. Will your presenters have walk on music, require on-screen graphics, or need internet access? Is there an announcer or VOG? How will Q&A be handled? It’s best to have that all figured out in advance and to rehearse with your presenters and crew. If time permits, try to gather the crew together for a show flow meeting, then go through a tech rehearsal with the crew, followed by rehearsals with each presenter. Beginnings, middles, and ends, along with transitions, video rolls, lighting changes, and every audio and video cue should be rehearsed.
Conduct a Site Survey
Take a site survey at least a good 8 weeks ahead to inspect data and A/V ports, power requirements for lighting, ceiling height for rigging, and windows and doors for light and noise. Bring a digital camera, measuring tape, and a continuity tester as part of your arsenal. Knowing your location is your best defense against failure. Not only are you able to assess the space, but you also get to meet the people who manage the venue; ultimately, they are the ones who support you and your production.
Some venues will let you bring in all your own gear, without any buyout fee, but there are other venues that have exclusives on lighting and audio. It can even be within the jurisdiction of a local International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (IATSE) union, and you’ll be required to hire union labor. If you’re a producer, it’s best to work with a meeting planner who can deal with the hotel contract. That way, you can focus on the AV and event production. But be sure to make friends with the venue, both the in-house AV and banquets staff. Don’t forget that you’re in their house, and they are key partners in your success. The two most important aspects of your site survey are to gain intelligence and build relationships.
Create a Floor Plan
After the site survey, you’ll have all the right measurements to create a floor plan for the space. Most hotel event managers will have software that allows them to draft a floor plan to scale; if possible, you should ask for that before you start your own. That way, you’ll be able to place the AV equipment, lighting, and video department within and around the space. You can determine where the camera’s audio and lighting will be and how the AV team will work within the same space with the hotel banquet staff.
This view is of a video village with HD engineering, monitoring, switching, and recording. (This was set up inside a closet! Really, and it actually fit!)
Have an A-team (and Take Care of Them)
Whenever possible, work with a team you know and trust and who knows your business. The best way to achieve your results is to be surrounded by people you trust, people who are professionals and experts in the field, and people you can rely on to do their jobs. Relationships are vital to your process. The keys to getting the job done are delegation and deference to expertise.
You need to rely on your team members to do their jobs and, sometimes, to take over your responsibilities, when you get called away to manage client issues and handle last-minute changes. With so many moving parts to your live event, you can’t micromanage or keep track of every detail within each department. Your team will be those extra eyes and ears to catch any issues and ultimately get the job done right. Redundant personnel and technology are crucial, and equipment failure should be expected. Backups of your backups really save the day in a pinch.
Know Your Role
You may be producer, director, technical director, and even camera operator all rolled up into one, or you may have the luxury of hiring a full crew. If you have a crew, it’s best to break it down into individual departments that all work together for the common goal of producing a live event. Each department has a department head, or lead, and an engineering component.
These are the main departments and crew members:
- The show producer has the final say, is on the phone a lot, and pays for things.
- The show director calls the show (may also be your video director).
- The video crew includes the video director, engineer, technical director/ switcher operator, and camera operators.
- The audio crew should have an audio 1 and audio 2 operator.
- The lighting crew includes lighting director, gaffer, electrician, and rigger.
- The graphics crew includes graphics 1 and graphics 2, plus perhaps projection and speaker timer.
- The web crew includes webcast producer(s) and technicians.
- The stage crew includes stage manager and stage hands.
- The set/strike crew provide help with the load in, set, strike, and load out.
It’s important to take care of your crew. Bring snacks and plenty of water to keep their energy up, and be sure to budget crew meals for long production days. That’s the best way to keep them happy and on their toes. Also, if you’re not working with a meeting planner, make sure you budget hotel rooms for crew members who have to spend the night at the venue.
Know Your Client(s)
If you are the event producer, you really need to communicate directly with the main client. Most executives and professional speakers have handlers or communications staff who write their material and maintain their messages. They employ administrative staff who directly support them and maintain their schedules, and a variety of reporting staff, directors, managers, and, well, you get the point. There are layers between you and the main client, who, in the end, is the person you are working for. Whether you are planning the event logistics, identifying the technical requirements, working on content, or estimating the budget, all things flow from the wants and needs of the main client.
Here’s an example of framing the close-up of a speaker on a panel discussion (pictured: Jerry Coy, Kaiser Permanente). This shot is looking over the shoulder of the camera person during a three-camera live shoot.
You can save yourself a lot of work if you can get a meeting with the main client, well in advance, to discuss staging and presentation style. With all the handlers, you get a lot of filtered information and waste a lot of time getting through the layers. Having been in the AV and live event business for more than 20 years, I’ve worked with thousands of people, including C-suite executives, government officials, doctors, lawyers, middle managers, frontline staff, motivation speakers, techies, artists, musicians, actors, and the like. Through all these interactions, I’ve come to learn that the most important piece of the puzzle is direct communication with the presenter.
Live events are just that: live! There are no do-overs! Falling off the stage, the clicker not working, problems with videos, and dead links are all common occurrences, but they can all be avoided. You can’t foresee everything, which is why it’s so important to rehearse the things that you can foresee. Tech rehearsals and talent dress rehearsals are key to a successful live event. The real estate mantra says, “Location, location, location.” I follow the AV mantra, “Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.”
AV and Video
Video village, as it’s called, is where the video department is located, either backstage or in an adjacent space. It’s where the director, technical director/switcher operator, producer, engineer, graphics team, projectionist, and webcast or videoconference producer resides. It’s the central nervous system of your equipment setup, signal flow and distribution, connectivity, interactive tools, and lots and lots of cabling. If you’re producing a live webcast, your video department will look like a remote TV studio; essentially, that’s what it is.
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