VIRTUAL EVENTS REIMAGINED
Women in AV share their thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just 3 weeks after the government ban on all mass gatherings, I sat down with Libbie Ray, Co-Owner and General Manager of AV 24/7 and Tanya Brown, Director of Create Engage to check in on how they were coping in this unprecedented time. These inspiring business leaders were generous and authentic in sharing their experiences and had poignant take-aways to share.
Libbie Ray, AV 24/7
Are you finding clients are cancelling their events rather than turning them into virtual events? Or are they waiting to see when the ban is lifted?
I think people still haven’t made that decision, they’re still deciding if their business can run through this time, what is going to happen to them personally and trying to see how other people engage virtually.
Initially I think they’re just trying to resettle after the storm.
It’s hard to get your head around not having any live events and imagine how as an industry we can survive that. Absolutely. That was a defining moment for me.
First it was how are we going to get through the next six months and stay strong so we can reopen the doors. But now we’re looking at this situation and thinking how long will this go on?
The events industry was the first to go down, it’ll be the last to come back.
When that hits you, there’s an element of fear but then it kind of turns into this question of what is going to be our new situation, our new norm if the worst-case scenario is 18 months before we can do an event.
Once I started to accept that as a potential reality, I thought; OK, how can we use our skills, our passion, our drive, for something else? How can we help to alleviate the stresses and pains of loneliness and being disconnected and bring that into the virtual event space?
How do you think virtual events will change in this period? Virtual events are not new. But previously all we’ve done is streamed a live event for the people that can’t be there.
That’s not the case anymore. We can’t just pick up a live event, put it in front of a camera and expect people to feel a connection. We need to completely reinvent what that looks like.
How do you recreate the feeling that people have in a live event and give it to them from across the world through their screens?
Pivoting is a word we hear quite often, which is what you have needed to do with virtual events. But in reality, you still have shelves and shelves of gear just sitting there. That’s right. We lost 100% of our revenue in one day. And now we have a 1500 square metre warehouse in Sydney and another 500 square metres in Melbourne and they are full of equipment, not doing anything.
Is there anything you could put that equipment to use doing? There are a few things that we are working on at the moment like supporting streaming services where they need a larger screen. Anything to get our equipment out there working.
Now getting into the virtual space we’re investing in slightly different equipment. In a time when we’ve lost all our revenue we’re investing to make sure we’re giving people the best outcomes and solutions.
This has had an overwhelming effect on people and their livelihoods.
How are your staff coping? Like most companies in our industry, we’ve had to stand down a lot of our staff which is devastating. With the JobKeeper initiative we are in a position to re-engage our team members.
We hope to use this time and opportunity to stay connected to each other and give our teams purpose.
Through this stage we will be managing upskilling programs, product development and making sure we stay connected through online networking and team meetings, even Friday afternoon drinks.
There are countless AV techs out there with little to no work right now. Absolutely, it’s terrifying and obviously any help the government gives is fantastic.
One of the hard things with the event industry is that all of the revenue has been wiped out but we’re being treated the same as a company that’s only lost 30% of their revenue.
And for businesses like ours that have lost all their revenue, we have to bankroll the $750 payments for a month before we see a cent from the government.
So, we have to pay out that allowance to all of our employees, which we want to do for as many as we can, but we have to find that money four or five weeks ahead whilst trying to manage all the other payments with nothing or very little coming in.
We hope to use this time and opportunity to stay connected to each other and give our teams purpose
How do you think things might look on the other side of this? I honestly believe that some of the things that the industry is going to learn over the next year are going to be really valuable for our live events going forward.
Having that conference for 600 people that you’ve got ready to go, get those 600 people there because they want that interaction but then how do you engage another 15,000 people from all over the world and make that experience really good for them, not just watching a live stream?
How do you blend that virtual and live space together? I think that’s where we’re really going to see a big change.
As a business owner how are you feeling through all this? Tired, really tired. I think when you are using your imagination and problem-solving skills constantly all day every day it’s really exhausting.
From mid-February, I started scenario planning for what might happen with this situation. By the end of February, I started to see what those effects might look like and we brought our entire team together.
I’ve been really honest with people, really open. And that’s draining as well. In a situation that is so unknown, honesty has been the most important thing and trying to keep staff updated.
You don’t have control. You need to let go, knowing you can’t control it but that you can make the best of a situation. Which is what I’m trying to do.
Do you have any coping mechanisms that are helping you? For me, mindset is everything. Checking yourself when you start to go down the wrong road. You need to bring it back to what you feel you are the best at and what is the biggest gift you can give to other people.
I like to bring people up, I love to connect people. I thought to myself, if I’m not physically with people and if I’m feeling down, how can I bring people up?
It’s about reconnecting with what you know makes you happy. Really focusing in on that.
What I can control is that I can call people and see how they’re going and make sure my friends and my industry colleagues and other business owners I know are OK and stop wallowing in my own problems. One of the things I keep saying to make me feel empowered is that in a business owner’s life, there will never be another opportunity like this to see what you are made of.
There is probably never going to be another time where in a day you lose 100% of your business and you then have the opportunity to see physically, emotionally and innovatively what you are capable of.
I think of this as the ultimate challenge. I keep reminding myself of that and it makes me feel better.
What’s the alternative? We need to try to be happy through this really terrible time, support one another and try to put on really great events. Great events that just happen to have a different experience now.
One of the things I keep saying to make me feel empowered is that in a business owner’s life, there will never be another opportunity like this to see what you are made of.
Tanya Brown, Create Engage
How has business changed for you since the ban on mass gatherings? February is usually quiet for us. But it was the busiest we’ve ever had. Some of our larger clients had already made the decision to change their events to 100% online even before the restrictions in Australia.
We also had an increase of clients needing to stream in speakers from other countries that weren’t allowed to travel.
It became very busy really quickly, but then the day the restrictions on gatherings over 500 people were announced, like everybody, we lost everything. Because most people didn’t just cancel the larger events, they cancelled all events large and small.
We were still digesting that, when on the Monday immediately after the restrictions were announced, the phones rang off the hook. Our clients were looking at ways to live stream large groups of people together from around the country.
We worked around the clock to put these proposals together. Shortly after gatherings over 100 people were also restricted and that work cancelled too.
After that came the “new normal”- no in-room audience, no breakout rooms, no team building, no face-to-face networking – just 100% online live streamed events.
Collectively, the Create Engage team have been live streaming for over 12 years. This is what we do every day. We are now helping clients do this in a re-imagined way.
Some of our larger clients had already made the decision to change their events to 100% online even before the restrictions in Australia
How will you manage this demand going forward? Things are more under control now. The parameters have been set and the government has more or less said this is what it will look like for the next 90 days at least.
So, everyone has a bit more clarity, clients understand what they can and can’t do. That has helped. Plus, we’ve had time to go out with communications to our clients.
We were able to let them know what to do before they call us. For them to think about what is the purpose of your communication? What is the message? Is it as urgent to communicate as you think?
We’re really honest with people. We’re a communication tool and if they don’t need to do a structured virtual event solution, they don’t necessarily need us. They can use Zoom or one of the other many self-service platforms available.
Have you done anything differently as a result of this situation? We were really adamant about helping other people in our industry. We have a good relationship with SMC Conference and Function Centre (SMC) and Audio Visual Events (AVE).
Both of those companies were letting go of their staff and close to closing their doors. We got together with them and looked at what was happening. Our clients needed a place to go where they can communicate their message and feel safe.
SMC are a unique newly refurbed venue, AVE are an industry leading AV specialist, and livestreaming, virtual events and video production are our core services. Together, we conceptualised the semi-permanent studio solution – ON AIR.
There are so many studios popping up now – is it too much or is it in line with demand? I think there is plenty of work for everyone. There is definitely demand for it. It’s just important that it is in their skill set. If your clients have never done this before it can be a bit scary. So a streaming supplier, especially in this current time, must exceed client’s expectations and this is where experience in digital event services is paramount.
If you’re not an expert in streaming you might not have enough backups and contingencies.
Once you go live, there is no going back.
So, for you it was less about pivoting and more about collaboration? We’ve had to change more in the way we do our day-to-day tasks. Phone calls have escalated, proposals have escalated, web enquiries have tripled – that’s a big influx for a business.
The ON AIR collaboration for us is a reaction to service the needs of our clients own need to pivot their events. Live streaming and digital events are what we do every day. Our clients are used to delivering their events with a majority in-room audience, with an online component.
The pivot for these clients now comes in the fact that we’re now doing a live stream that is bringing 100% of their audience online.
Are you doing anything to enhance the online experience? For the audience to feel more connected? We’re trying to help our clients understand that you still need to treat this like an event. You still need to have an MC. If you had one before, you have one now.
The difference is, where before you could have just watched from home as the majority of the audience participation was still in-room, interactivity of some level has to be offered at a minimum as all audience participation and feedback will be coming from online.
Interaction tools such as Q+A, polling, or audience sentiment need to be considered for increased connection.
More than ever before you need to appropriately welcome and address the online audience and encourage online participation to enhance their experience.
How do you think things might look on the other side of all of this? Live streaming was something a lot of people used to think was a nice add-on.
I believe when this is over, most corporations will have an integrated digital plan to their events moving forward. So, if anything like this happens again, they’ve got a fall back strategy.
More than ever before you need to appropriately welcome and address the online audience and encourage online participation to enhance their experience
Do you think that this collaboration will continue on the other side? Our events community are so close but right now people need to be willing to collaborate and work together regardless of whether you were a competitor before.
Personally, for us, this relationship with SMC and AVE was already strong, but we’re bonded for life now, through ON AIR.
It’s not a time to be competitive. It comes down to supporting people in the industry. Having that collaborative mentality would be great to see on the other side.