Upcoming ACOM Event Calendar

June 2008

2008 Summer Education Conference
June 26-28, 2008
Chicago, Illinois
Palmer House Hilton

July 2008

Idea Network
July 17, 2008
1:00 PM EDT
Hotel / Center Track: Procedures from Start to Finish for CSMs
CVB Track: Procedures from Start to Finish for CSMs

August 2008

August 21, 2008
1:00 PM EDT
Revenue Management

September 2008

Idea Network
September 18, 2008
1:00 PM EDT
Hotel / Center Track: Emergency Management
CVB Track: Housing Updates

October 2008

October 16, 2008
1:00 PM EDT
APEX Update

November 2008

Idea Network
November 20, 2008
1:00 PM EST
All Tracks: Discussion on Industry Article

January 2009

2009 Annual Conference
January 9-11, 2009
New Orleans, Louisiana
Westin New Orleans

A special thank you to the Summer Conference Sponsors:

Don’t miss the opportunity to have your name listed above. If you have any questions or are interested in sponsoring ACOM, please contact ACOM Headquarters.

The Art of Audio-Visual: Powerful New Systems Entertain, Educate and Engage

Reprinted with permission from Corporate & Incentive Travel, May 2008 issue.

By John Buchanan

A while back, Jeff Loether, president of audio-visual consulting firm Electro-Media Design Ltd. in Rockville, MD, received an interesting proposition from a hotel developer client. “He challenged me with a blank piece of paper and asked me what we would do if we could do anything imaginable with an audio-visual system and had the money to do it,” said Loether, who serves as audio-visual guru for the International Association of Conference Centers.

In early 2010, the same year that Loether’s company celebrates its 20th anniversary, his state-of-the-art musings will make their debut in, of all places, Kazakhstan. “Believe it or not,” said Loether, the new JW Marriott hotel in Almaty will feature a 6,000-square-foot ballroom that provides “a visual experience that immerses you in images and projected live motion all the way around its four walls. We’ll be able to put an event into the middle of a forest or into the middle of Central Park with New York City on all sides of you.”

The technology is known as edge blended, overlapping video projection, which delivers images onto giant screens that cover entire wall surfaces as long as 200 feet and as high as 24 feet. As a result, the new JW Marriott in a distant corner of the world will be the most modern and dramatic audio-visual venue on earth.

Closer to home, Fred Onsaga, events director at audio-visual production house Encore Productions in Las Vegas, delivered another version of cutting-edge drama in April when he staged an event for a liquor company that hosted 300 distributors at Bally’s Las Vegas hotel. “It was a simple product launch, but they had six flat panel TVs located around a host bar,” said Steve van der Molen, director of catering, conventions and events at the hotel. “They had a tunnel entrance with parabolic screens with four projectors in the tunnel. Then they had two circular screens, something you almost never see. So when you talk about a product launch for just 300 people and you understand that expectations are high, that’s the sort of thing you’re seeing today. This client wanted something impactful, and that’s what they got. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Allison Gillespie, who creates a dealer meeting at a Gaylord Hotels venue for Volvo Trucks North America/Mack Trucks Inc. every 18 months, is among the planners who appreciate such innovative audio-visual capabilities. What she considers state-of-the-art is “being able to do some of the virtual scenery. For example, we’re playing on the space theme for our next meeting. The theme for the meeting is ‘Reaching New Heights.’ So we’re working with big screens and bringing in virtual scenery that can move, it can change. And we’ll use three wide-screens in our main event, which is the opening night dinner. Then we’ll use it again for a general session the next day.” The point, Gillespie said, is that Volvo/Mack wants a visually stimulating event. “The crux of the meeting is to train, educate and inform,” she said. “So, audio-visual plays a very strong role in that.”

Meeting Expectations
Progressive practitioners of audio-visual such as Loether, van der Molen and Gillespie illustrate different approaches to a larger trend that is transforming presentations from the tried-and-true, such as the traditional PowerPoint and speaker at a podium, to the triumphant and memorable. They agree that the latest audio-visual capabilities are raising the bar for successful meetings and events.

“What is really happening in the meeting and event industry,” said Loether, “is that there is an expectancy spiral on the part of the general public, including the people who attend meetings and events, and that is based on the fact that people now have home theater systems and flat panel displays, so their system quality, image and sound are increasing to the point where they expect that level of quality when they go out to a meeting or event. So now companies are chasing this spiraling expectancy. They’re looking for brighter projectors, higher resolution, more HD presentations — and more technologies such as moving lights, or lights that are really video engines that are projecting light as well as patterns. All of that means putting more ‘wow’ technologies into the meetings, because people’s perceptions and expectations have changed so dramatically.”

Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions at the Kellen Meetings division of The Kellen Company in Atlanta, put the new capabilities into a strategic context: It’s about accomplishing more interesting and dynamic meetings, not simply showcasing the latest technology. “If you’re doing a presentation to customers who are going to buy your product, or you’ve got media who are going to talk about your product, then you’d better have the highest possible level of quality these days,” he said.

What percentage of meeting planners truly understand the potential for what’s out there these days? “A major minority,” Hope said. “Less than 20 percent.”

For the uninitiated, the overarching theme in audio-visual today is the more theatrical staging of meetings and events, Hope said. “What we’re seeing now is the use of technology to make presentations more entertaining,” he said. “Examples of that include video-feeds as visuals, better lighting, including ‘intelligent’ or moving and colored lighting, and lavaliere microphones that free the presenter from the podium.”

Hope agreed with Loether that the trend is being driven by the expectations of attendees, whose tastes are much more sophisticated than just a few years ago. “Today, our attention span is shorter than it has ever been — and we are influenced by communications technology from iPhones to home theater,” Hope said. “We’re expecting things to be more visual, more exciting and to move faster.”

However, Randal Lemke, executive director of Fairfax, VA-based InfoComm International, the largest audio-visual trade association in the world, cited another critical factor in the equation — content — and what he said is the single most important trend that is elevating audio-visual presentations to a higher level.

“The biggest trend today in the corporate meetings audio-visual market is that companies are using audio-visual systems that function with their networks,” Lemke said. “If you look at the availability of content, it is more and more network-based. It used to be that audio-visual content consisted of a bunch of separate CDs and other kinds of input devices. But now it’s increasingly network-based. What that means in the meeting market in particular on the audio-visual side is you can now display all of that information. It has been the biggest trend for a while now and it will be the biggest trend for some time to come, without a doubt.”

It means that companies now have the ability to import all sorts of up-to-the-minute data from corporate databases and information systems into PowerPoint or newer, more sophisticated presentation technologies. “You can import data,” said Lemke. “You can import video. You can link to Web sites. You can go anywhere you want within the corporate network and use whatever you want. That is very, very powerful.”

The World of Video
In the past, a relatively simple PowerPoint presentation has been the standard for most meetings. Now, that is changing.

“The next evolution of the process is to embed video into PowerPoint, so that instead of just having static slides up there, you can cut to a video clip,” said Hope. “That also makes it easier as a process, because instead of cutting back and forth between different machines, you’ve got a video editor in the back doing the switching. And you can also use the latest Flash capabilities to combine still slides and video clips together to make the process even more seamless and easy, and you can do it on one computer. So that has made what we can put on the screen much more interesting, but also more simple.”

Allen Morris, vice president of production and operations at VT2 Media Design & Communications in Houston, noted that the traditional PowerPoint has rapidly given way to the use of animated graphics that liven up a presentation. “It is essentially an animated PowerPoint, but it has sophisticated graphics created in a different delivery system,” Morris said.

In addition, there is new competition for PowerPoint itself. Next-generation presentation technologies from Apple and Adobe are providing capabilities for much more sophisticated visual programming.

The other trend that is driving the visual side of audio-visual is wide-screen technology. “You’re seeing more and more of that,” said John Vezzi, vice president of Hicksville, NY-based Real Time Services (RTS), which designs and installs audio-visual systems for hotels and other meeting venues. “Manufacturers that didn’t have wide-screen products until now are introducing them.”

The trend toward wide-screen presentation is actually driven by the ongoing conversion to HD (high-definition) technology, and the fact that the market is shifting from the old 4:3 aspect ratio of the traditional TV screen to the 16:9 ratio of the new generation of HD TV sets, which are modeled on the same ratio as a movie screen. “That is being driven by the consumer market because of home theaters,” Loether said.

At the same time, the quality of projectors is rapidly improving, too. The old standard of 4,000 lumens has been upgraded to 8,000 and even 10,000, which delivers a much brighter and sharper image. In fact, the state-of-the-art level is now 30,000 lumens, according to Onsaga, who cited the Barco FLM-18 HD projector as the reigning champion for good-as-it-gets visuals.

The other leader in projectors is Christie Digital, favored by Hope, who noted their combination of visual quality and resilience as key selling points. “The other thing I like about Christie,” he said, “is that if you use two or three of them you know they are going to look the same. There’s nothing worse than having the color of one projector be different from that of another projector in the same presentation.”

Audio Excellence
Most planners know all too well that nothing detracts from a meeting more than sound problems. “In reality, audio quality is probably the single most important factor in the success of the event,” Hope said. The other experts agreed.

“The real challenge,” Vezzi said, “is that most hotel meeting rooms are 'mediocre at best.' That means,” he added, “that no matter how expensive the equipment you bring in, the sound quality is still going to be poor unless room characteristics are accounted for.”

“The technology is only one part of the equation,” said Loether. “The other part is the room itself — whether it’s a meeting room, the ballroom, or the event hall at a convention center. And the advancing technologies that are delivering better quality sound systems sometimes struggle with those venues. When you have a room that has a high level of background noise, you have to turn up the sound system in order to overcome that level of noise. But that can become uncomfortable. It can also become surrealistic. If you have a room that has hard reflective surfaces on the walls that create a lot of echoes and reverberation, then all of your intelligibility starts to go down the tubes and you just have a loud meeting rather than a good meeting. The bottom line,” Loether said, “is that you cannot fix a bad meeting room with technology — unless you put headphones on everybody.”

After almost 20 years in the business, he said he is finally seeing hotels and other venues start to address the mediocrity of their meeting room acoustics. But it is a slow process, he added.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon planners to understand the challenges they face and act accordingly. “One tip,” Loether said, “would be when you visit the venue, ask them to turn on the air-conditioning. A lot of times they will bring you through with the air-conditioning turned off because they don’t want you to hear it. But when you have several hundred people in the room, you’re going to have the air-conditioning on and the fans are going to be rattling. You need to know what that is going to sound like.”

However, the fact remains that audio technology is changing, along with its video counterpart. The state-of-the-art today for sound is what is known as line array speakers, which means stacks of speakers that have the ability to control their sound patterns and play deeper into the audience while bouncing less sound off the walls. “It’s an engineered, electro-acoustic delivery system,” said Loether. “It manages sound for the whole room, rather than just pushing it out from the stage.”

However, he added, for many smaller meetings the extra expense is unnecessary. “Oftentimes, the built-in sound system is fine, as long as you can deal with the issue in the room,” he said. The most typical option for solving an audio problem is to cover the walls with drapes that absorb and soften sound in the room. “But you have to know that you need to ask for that,” Loether said. “And the only way to do that is to assess the audio quality of the room when you make a site inspection trip.”

Hire the Experts
Unfortunately, too many meeting planners know too little about audio-visual or take too much for granted, Loether and the other experts said. Consumed by the more demanding logistical aspects of the job, they fail to keep up with what’s new and how they can make it work for them. “These days, the newest equipment is almost obsolete by the time you’ve used it once,” Hope said. “So, planners need to hire audio-visual production houses that are specialists in that area and can keep up with it. But it’s also not just about the hardware. It’s about how you use it, so you really need qualified expertise that you can trust to get the job done right.”

Morris agreed that planners often shortchange themselves when it comes to one of the most important, but often overlooked, elements of their meetings. “One reason for that is the mindset that ‘we’ve always done it this way, so it’s safe,’?” he said. “So those planners are reluctant to try new things because they don’t want to take the risk and their comfort level is not very high. So what we try to do is introduce planners to new technology so they are comfortable with it, but then let us manage the production aspects. But the second reason is that most planners have just not seen the newest technologies and what they can do for their meetings, in terms of delivery of the message they want to get out at the event.”

As a planner, Gillespie said she has experienced exactly what Morris described. “Audio-visual is always changing and ever-evolving, so by the time we sit down with our vendor to do the next meeting, there will be something new,” she said. “The other thing is that what makes someone a good meeting planner is that they are very detail oriented and very logistically oriented. Their job is to make sure that all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Well, then you look at audio-visual and that is so highly technological and creative. So if you look at someone who is going to be very good at audio-visual, that is not necessarily the best person to handle the overall planning of the meeting.”

“By paying more attention to audio-visual recently,” Gillespie said, “she has learned a valuable lesson. The most important thing I have learned is not to go into it with any kind of preconceived ideas about what I’m expecting, because I am blown away with all of the options that are available to us through a good audio-visual company,” she said. “And I have seen that what we had originally proposed was so amateurish as opposed to what they were able to come back with once they knew what we wanted. So, you have to be open. And you also have to fight for more budget dollars because good audio-visual is well worth the investment.”

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