Updated April 8, 2021
Getting people to travel to an event was never as easy as picking a pretty destination — but until the spring of 2020 it sure helped. Now, planners and venue managers must be equally concerned with the experience they deliver to remote attendees as the one they provide to those in the building.
Between continued capacity restrictions and the fact that many participants are either uncomfortable with or unable to travel and attend in person, meeting professionals expect to be planning hybrid or omnichannel events for the foreseeable future. More than half (54 percent) of meeting planners are currently working on are intending to plan live events that will have an online component, revealed a recent Pulse Survey by Northstar Meetings Group, and another 22 percent are considering a hybrid model. (For more results from the research, click here.)
To accommodate the demand and ease the way for planners, a host of venues around the world are transforming parts of their event spaces into high-tech broadcasting and streaming studios — allowing meeting organizers to think globally while planning locally.
Numerous large-scale event venues are installing permanent broadcast studios with all the bells and whistles necessary to create a quality digital event.
In May, California's Monterey Conference Center will launch a hybrid meeting service, in collaboration with Immersive Design Studios and based on the Canvas technology platform. Canvas gained a great deal of attention as the platform behind business strategist Tony Robbins' massive virtual events, and this will be the first partnership that Immersive is bringing to a convention center. The cutting-edge tech will complement hybrid offerings to be launched by nearby hotels, including Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, Monterey Marriott and Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa.
"Research continues to show that hybrid meetings will be with us for some time as an added safety measure," said Doug Phillips, general manager at Monterey Conference Center. "The innovative platform technology that Immersive Design Studios can provide our planners will engage participants virtually at another level."
At America's Center in St. Louis, the new StreamStage hybrid-meeting solution has been created in the 1,400-seat Ferrara Theatre (though following social-distancing protocols, the venue's capacity has been reduced to 210, across three levels). On hand to support events with both on-site and digital audiences are a production manager, ample theater space for social distancing, extensive internet bandwidth for live streaming, an HD camera, a studio backdrop with lighting and projection capabilities, and audio and streaming technologies.
"Our new StreamStage is a direct response to organizers seeking new ways to connect with their stakeholders in a safe and responsible manner, and embodies our dedication to building the meeting facility of the future," said Kathleen Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis. "We are combining the best of in-person events with the convenience and high production values of virtual experiences. With protocols in place, our facility and the entire region are prepared. We can't wait to welcome visitors in person or virtually to St. Louis."
The America's Center is now a GBAC Star Facility, an accreditation that recognizes that the venue has put high-standard cleaning practices in place, and StreamStage is one part of the $175 million AC Next Gen Project that is upgrading the center. Touch-free doorways, a new 60,000-square-foot ballroom, expansive outdoor green spaces and 92,000 square feet of exhibit space also are being added.
At Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center, "The Confluence, an Event Studio," an on-site venue designed for livestreaming, prerecording presentations or hosting hybrid events, has been added. The studio is outfitted with the latest technology planners might need for such presentations, and it's ready to be customized according to planner needs. The studio can even be moved, if desired.
"While The Confluence presently has a permanent location in the center, we understand that planners may want the studio closer to the exhibit hall or another area, so we can relocate the technology and equipment quite easily," points out Kelli Donahoe, CMP, director of sales and marketing for the convention center.
The new studio's flexibility and functionality come thanks to the center's standing partnerships with production specialists Three Rivers Entertainment and telecommunications provider showNets. Technical support is available for the duration of any event, and a dedicated network engineer will manage and monitor the network and stream to ensure smooth operation.
Salt Lake City's Salt Palace Convention Center is building the new VSL Broadcast Center. The studio will be in Visit Salt Lake's on-site visitors center and should be completed in the first half of 2021.
In Florida, Orlando's Orange County Convention Center announced the addition of a digital broadcast studio. The OCCC Executive Studio, which is based out of the Lecture Hall in the West Building, is now available for bookings.
The studio is equipped with all the lighting, A/V gear and digital infrastructure needed to handle virtual and hybrid meetings, including broadcasting education and breakout sessions. It features a stage with classroom-style seating to accommodate physically distanced attendees. LMG, the OCCC's preferred audiovisual partner, is available for on-site support.
"The OCCC is excited to provide a variety of custom and unique virtual solutions for our clients," said OCCC executive director Mark Tester. "Our expertise in leading safe conventions, combined with our customer service excellence and innovative technology offerings, makes the OCCC Executive Studio an ideal venue for hybrid events."
In Texas, the Houston First Corp., the city's destination management organization that operates the George R. Brown Convention Center, debuted the Avenida Houston Virtual Studio at the facility in August 2020. The 5,250-square-foot space can incorporate any number of presenters, with or without an audience. On-site tech experts can help integrate participants from anywhere, and small groups, such as panelists or audiences, can be beamed in from another studio or multiple locations. The room also holds up to 300 people, and is ready to host larger audiences when in-person capacities are expanded.
The 30,000-square-foot broadcasting center that has been added to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City features studio-grade cameras and a 50-by-10-foot LED wall, as well as room for 300 people under physical-distancing guidelines. The studio was used for the first time in early September of last year to film sessions for the annual Climate Week NYC event, held Sept. 21-27.
Studio 801 is the new 19,000-square-foot production facility at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The space is equipped with rigging, upgraded A/V and lighting capabilities, and dynamic LED screens.
To help marry all possible audiences, Events DC, the city's convention and sports authority, has launched Gather, a platform that can be used to produce and stream digital events, as well as host on-demand content.
Redefining a venue that debuted just before the world shut down, Live! Casino & Hotel in Hanover, Md., recently turned the 40,000-square-foot Hall at Live into an ideal space for hybrid meetings. To make the transformation, a local production company enhanced the technology already in place in the space that has a $10 million A/V system, a 57-by-16-foot LED screen and two smaller screens that are 21 by 23.5 feet.
International venues are also adjusting to accommodate new meeting formats. In July 2020, ICC Sydney, the Australian city's convention facility, announced it had turned two spaces into hybrid-event studios. The main modification was to set up the necessary A/V equipment in each room permanently and to set up the seating that adheres to current social-distancing rules. Projection screens, entertainment lighting and upgraded PA systems were added to enhance the technical capabilities. There's a green room available for speaker prep, and the center can even provide a hair and makeup artist.
The space is ready for an audience of up to 300 people for a hybrid gathering. Some of the creative uses of the new screens in the spaces can be seen in a video of last summer's Meetings and Events Australia 2019 National Awards (see it here), where the award ceremony's hosts were at the podium in the convention center, and the winners accepted their accolades on screen.
"Our team was quick to put in place a format that allowed us to continue to deliver extraordinary events online," said Geoff Donaghy, CEO of ICC Sydney. "We have now evolved this into a world-class hybrid solution that enables us to transition back to in-person gatherings."
The ability to beam a presenter in by hologram is one of the draws at the new studio added to the Sands Expo and Convention Centre in Singapore's Marina Bay Sands. The room itself holds a maximum of 50 people, while the facility features broadcast-quality livestreaming capabilities. The studio's centerpiece is a stage fitted with two 19.6-by-13-foot, right-angled LED walls that can show high-resolution 360-degree videos, and a plexiglass LED floor that also can display projections.
The studio was created with input from industry partners as a way to reimagine meetings for a new era, says Ong Wee Min, vice president of conventions and exhibitions, MICE. "We firmly believe that live events will return, but every successful live event in the future will have to include a virtual element to allow planners to engage a wider audience."
All the Campus Is a Stage
Together with facility management giant ASM Global, California’s Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center will be rolling out a turnkey, interactive hybrid-meeting solution that goes well beyond the studio. Called Long Beach Live, it essentially turns the entire campus into a broadcast-ready venue.
Although the convention center in Los Angeles County at press time was closed to events, facility operators are doing much behind the scenes to set the stage for a future filled with hybrid-event productions. More than half the bookings for 2021 and 2022 are expected to be hybrid events, says CVB president and CEO Steve Goodling.
"A studio executive partner pointed out we already have more cameras and lights than most production studios," he said. "And I believe that production departments, going forward, will be as important as food and beverage at convention centers."
A new position, director of creative initiatives, has been filled to customize hybrid events for clients — which includes handling the required technology assets and programming guidance.
Using wireless cameras, a cloud-based solution, interactive software based on gaming and esports technology, plus both fixed and mobile studio-quality lighting, facility officials promise a turnkey solution. The approach has long been espoused by the center, which allows planners to take advantage of the design, tech and decor — and now, production assistance — already in place.
Less Broadcast, More Collaboration
Needless to say, the definition of a hybrid event varies — and some venues are preparing for different forms. "We have explored the hybrid studios and we will put them in a couple of our hotels in major cities," said Steve Enselein, senior vice president of events for Hyatt Hotels Corp. "But that can't be the future of our industry — having two or three people in one of our hotels, sending the images out to people in their homes. It doesn't create the same kind of face-to-face experience that you get at a meeting."
Enselein envisions a much more collaborative style of hybrid. "What we need to do is get these hybrid events going where you still have that opportunity to talk with someone over lunch, share your successes and concerns, and really connect in a face-to-face way. It's a big part of what people want, and it's how we have to start thinking about getting it to come to life for them."
And that means getting people together, wherever they might be. The Hyatt Regency Chicago recently hosted a hybrid meeting for about 20 people in person, with small groups joining in from other parts of the U.S., Sweden, Poland, Germany, France, South Korea and China.
Particularly attractive to hotel companies, of course, is the idea of connecting multiple properties to create a larger group. Hyatt is working on two events for large companies, one that wants to book 45 locations and another that is eyeing a 120-location meeting. "These are organizations that typically have sales meetings and they want to get the troops excited and then break out to very specific meetings by region," said Enselein. "That's what we're going to be working with them on."
A similar cross-location strategy comes from IACC, the international association for conference centers. Anticipating a future for hybrid events held across a host of member properties, the organization has created IACC MultiPod meetings, which aim to connect small groups of attendees at multiple centers.
The organization's 400 member venues typically specialize in such small meetings — in the past the average capacity was about 200 people — and are perfect for the size of groups now allowed in most states and countries. Offering clients a cross-venue solution to turn local events into more global versions is the goal of the initiative.
"Personal contact and the closeness of face-to-face are powerful communication and connection tools," said Sean Anderson, senior vice president of Sodexo Conferencing and global president of the IACC board. "By creating our pods, venues will embrace all the elements of physical meetings, and provide the necessary infrastructure for best-in-class hybrid solutions."