Months of preparation and hard work have gone in to ensure a corporate event generates that all-important “wow” factor. But when the lights dim and the audience settles down, nothing happens. An unforeseen technical hitch has prevented the keynote speaker from making his grand entrance and panic breaks out.
It may be the stuff of nightmares, but at some point in every event organiser’s career, it is likely a technical hitch will occur during a corporate event. The secret is to learn from past mistakes and minimise the possibility of the worst happening in the future.
Technical hitches can occur for any number of reasons. Sometimes they can be the result of using too much technology to wow the audience. Paul Hutton, managing director of audio-visual (AV) equipment specialist Blitz, has a cautionary tale for any client hoping to try this tactic. “Several years ago, one client wanted to make the chief executive officer’s entrance better than in previous years. So it was decided to put him on a motorised lectern, which would advance downstage and park at the front.”
However, on the day, the lectern failed to stop and the chief executive’s smile soon turned into a look of fear as he careered towards the front row. Fortunately, a nasty accident was averted by someone backstage pulling out the cable that controlled the mechanical device.
The moral of this story is not to avoid using special effects and the latest technical equipment – this can differentiate an impressive corporate event from others – but to prepare for the worst. “The key thing,” says Simon de Mille, account director at event marketing agency The George P Johnson (GPJ) Company, “is to assume everything you do is going to go wrong and have a plan in place to support it.”
Chris Teague, technical producer and director of event production company APS, predicts a shift towards greater emphasis on
collaborative activities at corporate events. “Collaborative meetings truly engage delegates and help a company to extract knowledge from its audience,” he claims. For instance, groups delegates might share a PC and input their thoughts on a particular company problem during a sales presentation.
Promethean AV Distribution provides interactive whiteboards, which can be used wirelessly to show presentations, conduct live brainstorming sessions and to write on. Again, the aim is to encourage greater interactivity. “Some presenters hate standing at the front and prefer to interact with their audience,” explains Steve Dracup, managing director of the AV division at Promethean. “Using the wireless hand-held device, speakers can achieve genuine audience participation.”
Essentially, the technology works by compressing video footage so that it can be screened on a company website or even a mobile phone. Yet, while the technology might have become easier to use, it still requires someone who understands how to take moving pictures. Hirst is also the first to admit that where the technical challenge is too daunting – sending a Web broadcast to a division in a remote location, for instance – it should be abandoned. “If you know someone is not going to have a good experience, don’t do it,” he warns.
Similarly, Promethean’s whiteboards have their own drawbacks. “The worst problem is if the system freezes, which means the presenter has to reboot everything,” says Promethean’s Dracup. “But the same situation could occur using PowerPoint with a projector, or the speaker’s pen could run out when using a flipchart.”
Typically, the more technical the equipment used at an event is, the greater the chance something can go wrong. For example, projecting images onto a backdrop rather than building a conventional set requires that it be programmed beforehand, which is akin to “playing 3D chess”, according to GPJ’s de Mille. His advice is to allow time for preparation: “The more complicated you make an event, the longer you need to install equipment, test and fine-tune it.”
Keep in check
Ensuring the planning stage is carried out properly can also pre-empt any logistical difficulties – such as visa and regulatory requirements – that might arise when dealing with corporate events arranged overseas.
Wherever the event is based, it is vital to visit the venue beforehand, to find out exactly what equipment will fit in the space provided and what additional facilities, such as internet access, might be needed. “We regularly find that there is an assumption about a venue’s IT capabilities, power or technical equipment,” says Blitz’s Hutton.
Another common failing is to assume the floorplan provided by the venue owner is correct. “But,” GPJ’s de Mille warns, “these are usually based on the architect’s original drawings, which are always modified along the way, or builders do not follow them to the letter.”
New and novel venues might appear to offer the differentiating wow factor at first glance, but technically they might not fit the bill. “When working on a car launch in Italy, we were using a beautiful old facility for the first time,” recalls de Mille.
“We did our usual ‘what if?’ planning: looking at its remote location, we had the feeling that there could be a problem with the power. So as a back-up, we took a generator. Sure enough on the day of the event, the power dropped. This was not a fault of the venue – there had been a problem with the local grid – but thankfully, our being prepared meant a potential problem was completely averted.”
Where’s the back-up?
Often, clients are oblivious to the fact that there has been a failure since most back-up equipment is wired on a “hot-switch” basis, which means that as soon as one piece of equipment fails, the organiser can switch across to the alternative in an instant.
Rehearsals are also key to unearthing any technical hitches before the big day. A quarantine period – whereby speakers practise their speech and cannot make any more changes – also builds in an additional safety margin. “Otherwise you have a situation where you have changes being made five minutes beforehand, which has a knock-on effect for other people and equipment,” says de Mille.
For those marketing professionals worried about the thought of managing the technical production of a corporate event, there is another alternative: hand over responsibility to another organisation. According to Blitz’s Hutton: “Clients today know what they want to say and are confident about producing PowerPoint slides, but they want someone to take care of the technical aspect of the event.”
Mark Riches, managing director of events company First Protocol, says clients need to mitigate any possible risk of things going wrong. “For this reason, we often use freelancers to keep an eye on contractors,” he says. “Sometimes we simply have them check specification sheets if there are budgetary constraints.”
Any steps an organisation can take to reduce the chances of a technical hitch occurring are worth the effort. Every event manager wants their event to be the most talked about of the year, but few would want it to be remembered as an example of worst technical practice.
A little last-minute advice
– Make sure any equipment does not obscure sight lines
– If using technology at a corporate event, ensure that it is backed up to prevent disruptions
– Only work with suppliers that have a good track record
– If they are a new supplier, consider employing a freelancer to double check what they are providing
– Try to involve the producer or production company in the venue choice