The Complexities of AV
A guide to the equipment and tech support you need
by Susan Crittenton, MC² National Director Events/Executive Producer
Once upon a time, event audiovisual was simple. Set up the equipment and projector, deliver your presentation and pack it up. Story over. But today, AV is far more important, integral and sophisticated.
Attendees expect content to be digital, easily shared and green. People who can’t attend an event want to have the ability to see what you have to offer remotely or at their convenience according to their own schedule, and to share it with others.
But getting the results you want — at a price you can afford — takes some effort on your part.
Determining your AV needs
The presentation format you’ll use at an event should be the starting point in choosing the AV you’ll need to rent. For a more professional-looking session — and lower cost — pick one format and ask all the presenters to use the same, either standard or wide-screen.
Which is right for you? Generally speaking, standard definition projection (4:3) is good for breakouts, smaller meetings, social events and parties. High-def (16:9) should be used for large audiences and large screens, and could be necessary if you have speakers using tablets and notebooks to present. Choose wisely. There’s a large cost differential between standard and high-definition.
If you do go hi-def, you’ll need to make sure you have HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cables, which aren’t part of everyone’s standard kit. Even with hi-def, tablets and notebooks don’t all have the same outputs or work the same way, and you’ll need to have all the right peripherals for each.
Better yet, have a presentation computer that’s clean and fast, and have all the presenters use it. Why? You want to avoid the risk of a game of solitaire or a personal email alert from the presenter’s computer popping up on screen for all to see. Your dedicated computer will help ensure a professional look at the event, without any careless mistakes.
If some presentations must be live from the Internet, obtain high-speed connections. Also, make sure you have the presentation saved to a USB drive or disc in case you lose your Internet connection. If possible, forgo wireless. A hard-wire connection is more reliable.
And most importantly, have backup for your most critical equipment.
Pulling together your crew
Because they haven’t given the supplier the right information up front, many planners are surprised when they get their AV bill. To keep this from happening to you, first think through your entire agenda.
Determine which technicians you’ll need. For video, that typically means techs to handle playback, record, cameras, projection and engineering. But five technicians may not be necessary for these five tasks. Can one person handle more than one of them, considering your agenda? If so, you might be able to hire fewer techs.
For audio, an engineer for the board is a necessity. A microphone assistant may also be called for to make sure each mic gets to the right person, who’ll be on each mic, etc. For lighting, you’ll need a lighting designer to design and program lighting cues, and an operator to run the lighting board. You’ll also need an electrician for the install and dismantle and sometimes during the show. Make sure when you look at labor, you understand the number of people you’ll need and what they’ll be doing.
If you’re using a hotel or conference center in-house supplier, write into your contract that you must have the same techs every day. You don’t want to rehearse with one crew and have another show up on event day. Also, you want a dedicated crew, not technicians who may be paged to help someone else set up — even if they say they won’t bill you. If the venue can’t give you this consistency, it doesn’t have the depth you need. Look elsewhere for your AV, if possible.
Picking an AV supplier
Which supplier is right for you depends on a number of factors; you should consider what kind of event it is; whether it’s being held in a hotel, conference center or your own facility; and the length of the event.
The part of the country you’re in also matters. In big markets, you’ll probably have lots of choices. In smaller markets, your options are often limited.
It’s efficient to use an AV supplier close to your venue to control trucking and travel expense, but you also need reliable, consistent service. Balance the budget and green issues.
Of course, in a union city, you may not be able to use your AV supplier’s technicians or only a limited number of them. In addition, some union and casino facilities have AV services you are obligated to use. But avoid getting contractually locked into using a venue’s AV supplier, if you can help it. You want flexibility to find your own equipment and qualified technical support, whenever the option exists.
Nailing down your AV plan
When it comes to putting together a contract with your AV supplier, remember you must provide an accurate schedule, so the supplier can give you an accurate estimate on labor. Carefully think through your agenda. For example, if you don’t say there’ll be a working lunch, early start or evening event, you could be billed for overtime.
Keep in mind very few days are eight-hour days; most of them are 10 or 16 hours. If you’re quoted a daily rate, make sure you know if it’s an eight- or 10-hour day and what the hourly rate is for OT.
Sometimes, you’ll need to pay for the lunch hours, and be prepared for four-hour minimums. Be clear as to the actual number of hours techs will be on the clock. Plan for the worst case and be pleasantly surprised if your bill comes in lower. For instance, if you estimate 12 hours and the crew is sent home after 10 hours, you’ll only be billed for 10 hours.
If your venue is a hotel ballroom, ask if the room will be empty when you plan to set up. If it won’t be, find out who’s using the room before you and how long it will take them to load out. (You’re better off if you don’t find yourself loading in while others are loading out.) When contracting the meeting space, make sure you have enough time for set up. And don’t forget to include time for rehearsals.
Plan for crew meals and breaks to avoid penalties and control OT charges. If you know you’re going to have long days, schedule eight hours turnaround time for the period from when they leave the facility until they return.
You’ll find that equipment is usually charged at a day rate. So, if the event runs three or more days, negotiate a weekly rate to save money. Be meticulous on your equipment order, and leave room to maneuver on labor.
If you’re using the in-house AV supplier, make sure your quote includes all local sales and hospitality taxes (on equipment rental), as well as service fees (on equipment rental and labor). These items alone can add as much as 20 to 40 percent to your bill. Ask what these are up front to avoid going over budget. If you’re working with an outside AV supplier, there won’t be a service charge.
Plan everything you can in advance, and don’t be afraid to ask for an update when you go from a preliminary to more detailed agenda, so you can discuss costs. Don’t expect to negotiate during or after the event.
AV isn’t just a projector on the wall anymore. A range of equipment choices are available. Make your decision on what AV equipment is right for your event and what kind of tech support you need before you ever seek out a supplier. A reputable, full-service AV supplier with a regional or national presence will be able to help you if your event travels to multiple cities. Be precise with your specifications, negotiate fairly, and the only surprise you’ll get when you receive your bill will be a pleasant one.
Susan Crittenton, MC² national director events/executive producer, is a seasoned veteran of the world of Fortune 500 corporate events, bringing to the table a wide range of talents honed by her experience with a client list that includes IBM, Delta, Volvo, Brown-Forman, Glaxo Wellcome, The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot, Eli Lilly and Bank of America. In addition, Crittenton has been responsible for successful press events, meetings, tours and training programs for GE Healthcare, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorganChase, Symantec and Verizon. The executive producer for the Air Force Information Technology Conference, she is best known for her talent in problem solving, production design and deployment of new technologies for meetings and events.