A New Look for AV: A Q&A on Outdoor Events in the Time of COVID-19

By Kaitlyn Wallace

Moving into the summer months of 2020, outdoor events have gained great success, accommodating large numbers of attendees and staging large scale events for the first time post-COVID-19. But they also come with unique challenges, particularly in the field of effective AV. Weather, such as bright sun or wind, can complicate light, sound, and projection– as can the physical spread of attendees and the setup of an event.

Given the high level of skill that is needed to conduct these types of events, MM&E reached out to a few experts for thoughts on outdoor events, the current state of meetings and events, and any advice they might have for planners unsure about how to proceed with AV for outdoor events. This interview features three St. Louis AV experts: Bill Fogarty, President and CEO of Fogarty Services, Inc., Liz O’Keefe, CEO of Technical Productions, Inc. (TPI), and Tom Koch, Executive Vice President of Live Events at Conference Technologies, Inc.

We hope this interview will bring some clarity to planners and professionals trying to navigate the new and more complex AV landscape that is essential to meetings and events today.

Disclaimer: interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Question:

“With COVID-19 causing many indoor events to be canceled or postponed, could you give some insight into some of the kinds of events that can be moved outdoors, and some general challenges posed in doing so?”

Liz O’Keefe:

 “COVID 19 presents both design challenges and opportunities in the event production space. Graduations, weddings, concerts and even business events can all be moved outside. Wide open real estate gives us the opportunity to design safe distance into our ground plan, which is a plus. However, opening up that ground plan means rescaling the appropriate audio, video and lighting needs to accommodate the event. It’s our job to meet the client’s needs and budget in this new world and keep everyone’s safety in the forefront of our design.”

Bill Fogarty:

Almost any event can happen outdoors if planned properly. Events that are outdoors often take place in a tent, but also consider larger spaces such as airplane hangars, concert venues, outdoor ice-skating rinks, and other nontraditional spaces where social distancing can take place and may have the proper meeting resources. The biggest challenge with events outdoors is the weather. Planning for heat or AC, sunlight, storms, nighttime, power, etc. When it comes to AV, there is nothing that cannot be done outside that can’t be achieved in an indoor venue.”


Question:

What variables or additional considerations need to be made for outdoor events vs indoor events (ex: wind cancelling sound and sunlight cancelling visibility of visuals)? What are the issues or advantages?”

Bill Fogarty:

“Don’t forget about stage lights… Without the lights in an outdoor venue, the speaker can have shadows or be washed out by uneven sunlight. There are also ways to utilize pipe and drape or other resources to block sunlight from the presentation area to provide a more professional presentation stage. This is also important if you are webcasting the event, or the event is part of a larger virtual atmosphere. You need the lighting to be right and shine for the virtual viewers.”

Tom Koch:

“Build in enough time to reschedule in the event of heavy rain, high wind. Additional advantages of moving outside, beyond the safety of the attendees, is the cost effectiveness of sourcing an available parking lot when compared to a theater, arena or hotel. The venue rental is typically much less.”

Question:

“How will these variables influence or change the way planners secure business with AV companies?”

Liz O’Keefe:

“The best advice I have for clients and planners is to be open to new opportunities. Those companies that are creative enough to continue to provide value during these challenging times are likely the ones who will come out on the other side with more options, solutions and relationships that stand the test of time.”

Bill Fogarty:

“It will be important to start talking about AV early in the planning process if the event is outdoors. Time is needed to formulate a plan around sunlight, night events, power resources, size, where lights can go, and the weather. There are more considerations with outdoor venues and traditionally AV planning comes towards the end of event planning. If an event is outdoor or indoor, getting your AV provider involved early in the process makes the entire event smoother and can reduce overall costs.”

Tom Koch:

“When sourcing an AV provider, the importance of using a vendor with a larger inventory, safety record and insurance is important. There are wind ratings and large heavy-duty rigging structures.  You will want to make sure your vendor is not new to this environment.  You will also want to make sure plans and schematics have been stamped by a certified engineer. Also, make sure there is a ‘high wind action plan,’ which is a documented plan if winds exceed 20-30 mph.”

Question:

“When is it appropriate to hire an AV company? What types of events require professional AV support?”

Liz O’Keefe:

“There is never an event that is too small for TPI… In the Corporate world, sometimes we work directly for the end client and help creatively design, engineer and execute not only the show, but the content rolling on the screens and the scripts that are being spoken. Other times, we work under a Destination Management Company or an Agency and simply execute their content with precision. We’re a partner, not a competitor. In the design space, we’ve become quite talented at designing around the rising costs of the ‘in house’ A/V Companies at particular venues and creating cost effective solutions that provide significant value for our clients.”

Bill Fogarty:

“Any event can benefit from an AV Company for support. The goal of an AV company is to take away the burden of the AV segment from the event planner so that they can concentrate further on the event itself and the guests. Having an AV company for just a couple of microphones means that you don’t have to worry about feedback or adjusting volume for different speakers on your own. Of course, when the AV gets more advanced, you want trained technicians setting up and operating the event. It’s important to look to your AV provider as a support team and partner to your event no matter the AV needs, just as you would for catering, decorations, chairs, or other aspects of an event.”

Question:

“What simple techniques can planners implement to increase the AV quality of outdoor events, even if they are not AV professionals themselves?”

Liz O’Keefe:

“Plan, plan, plan. Obtain the appropriate permits if they are required to work in your area. How will you load equipment in? Do you need special permission to block streets? Will you require security if equipment is left overnight? Where can you park trucks during the event?  Is there a structure to hang A/V from or will everything need to be ground supported? What about seating, restrooms and accessibility? Where is power coming from?  What is the procedure should inclement weather develop?

You’ll need a game plan. I would suggest creating a show book. Prepare a list of all possible contacts needed on site and bring that printed in an easily accessible binder on the day of your event so you don’t have to flip through your phone or open your computer out in the middle of a field. Include a printed overhead view of the site which is easily attainable from the internet as well as a floor plan or site plan.”

Tom Koch:

“Make sure there are engineered stamped drawings – safety first. Make sure the provider is supplying LED video tiles if the event is set to take place before sunset.  Projection should only be used after sunset.”

Question:

“What new directions do you see the AV and event industry in general going in the near future? What new strides have already been made and what areas have expanded in the months since COVID-19 has become widespread?”

Liz O’Keefe:

“It is no secret that the virtual world will replace some of the event production meetings even when restrictions are lifted… Things are evolving minute by minute these days and my advice is to hire a professional. Don’t plan these new events alone. Event design matters now more than ever. You can’t imagine just “zooming in” all of your attendees and expect comparable engagement in these new virtual events. Ingenuity is key.”

Bill Fogarty:

“I think the next wave is hybrid events. This simply means that more people will gather live, but the event may still be webcast out to others not attending, or speakers could present from home to the event and webcast the entire event… The virtual side may reduce, but I don’t think it’s going away. It will become a permanent extension of what a live event will be.”

Tom Koch:

“We would suspect that more and more smaller events will be taken virtual. We would expect innovations in the virtual environment to produce higher quality visuals and meetings. As soon as people willingly choose to take events virtual, there will be an appetite for things to work and look better.

We also think large outdoor events have a place in the future. For example, we have amazing feedback around commencement and graduation ceremonies in a drive-in setting. People prefer the drive in-style to an arena style. We would anticipate incentive and network-heavy events coming back as in-person functions. I think we have learned that those two types of events cannot be replicated virtually.”

MM&E

Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.