Let’s face it: Audiovisual can be a little intimidating. You look at your bid and you see all those model numbers, cables, connectors, and mystery boxes, and you can’t help but feel like you’re looking at cryptic hieroglyphics from some advanced alien civilization. And look at all that labor! Do I really need all those techs? What the heck do all those people do? How do I know I’m not getting taken advantage of?
As it turns out, a little knowledge goes a long way. You don’t need to know every model number or spec on every piece of audiovisual equipment out there, you just need to ask yourself a few simple questions, and keep a few checklists handy. Doing so can help you understand what you need (and don’t need!) for audiovisual services, can immediately impact your bottom line, and potentially save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
No matter what the size of your meeting or event, you’re probably going to need some kind of audiovisual services. After all, it’s hard to find a meeting these days that doesn’t have some kind of AV involved, no matter how small. Even if it’s just plugging in a laptop to a monitor or projector in the conference room, there always seems to be something. So whether you’ve got a thousand-attendee awards gala, or a small meeting for your executive committee, keeping an eye on your AV can pay off.
And don’t worry- if you get confused by any of the terms in this article, we’ve included a full glossary of AV terms at the end!
The Site Visit
One of the first places you need to start thinking about your audiovisual needs is also one of the most overlooked–the site visit. Before you’ve even signed the contract for the venue of your event, it’s not too early to start thinking about things from a technical perspective. As you’re getting the grand tour of the property, don’t just admire the beautiful surroundings, the luxurious spa, the carpet, or the furnishings. There’s plenty more to keep an eye out for!
Availability of Outlets
As you start to think about where different portions of your event might take place at the venue, be sure to take note of where all the power points are. The patio on the south lawn might be a gorgeous location for your pre-event reception, but if you want to have a little light jazz playing in the background or some lighting on the trees, you’re going to need power. Many bar and back bar facades incorporate lighting, and unless you’re burning propane or other canned fuel, hot liquid containers or catering hotboxes are going to need to be plugged in as well. Not too many, though, and we’ll get back to that in a moment.
In more traditional meeting spaces, don’t assume there’s power either. You’d be surprised at how often there seems to have been absolutely no thought put into this basic need in modern meeting and event spaces. Think about where projectors and sound systems are going to need to be located in the room, and whether or not there’s power available in those locations. Watch out for airwalls! While these are great for subdividing venues into smaller, more intimate spaces, airwalls almost never have power outlets in them. This creates one, two, sometimes three walls that will not have power outlets available.
Outdoors or indoors, if there’s no power readily available where you need it, it’s going to have to be run there via cable. Depending on how far, that can involve a significant amount of labor. Techs not only have to run the cables but also tape them down, put them in cable ramps, or otherwise make sure they’re safe and not a trip hazard. If the power needs are significant, heavy duty cable or outdoor power generators might be required, adding even more cost to the bid.
Availability of Power Circuits
Anyone who’s ever blown a fuse or circuit breaker by running the vacuum while the microwave oven is running understands one of the basic concepts of power circuits. Each circuit can only provide a certain amount of power to a certain amount of devices. When a circuit is overloaded, the wires within it begin to heat up, potentially causing a fire. Circuit breakers and fuzes prevent this from happening, shutting down power to the circuit if they sense an overload. You may need to plug in the vacuum in a different room to make sure it’s not on the same circuit as your microwave popcorn.
Sometimes the logic to these circuits is obvious, with the living room outlets all being on one circuit, and the dining room on another. Other times, especially in older houses, there can seem to be no logic whatsoever, with some circuits spanning multiple rooms, and others handling the “lower” outlets, while still others handle the “uppers.”
Just like in your house or apartment, the same goes for venue power. While the venue almost certainly has multiple circuits handling different rooms and portions of the space, there may, or may not, be any logic to it. One entire ballroom’s outlets could be on the same circuit, or there may be separate circuits for the A, B, and C divisions of the room. While you may only have basic AV on your side of the airwall, the group next door might have a popcorn machine. If the two are on the same circuit, it’s possible you might overload it, tripping the circuit breaker and killing power to both rooms.
To be fair, venue salespeople aren’t likely to know which outlets are on which circuits as you walk around the property, but it’s still an important thing to keep in the back of your mind as you evaluate your venue. Older venues are more likely to have confusing or inadequate circuit configurations, while newer properties tend to have more circuits available. The best thing to do is to keep in mind anything “out of the ordinary” ‘when it comes to power. If you’re going to have anything “industrial” like our popcorn machine example, make sure your venue contact knows it, and that you’re ensuring the power circuits can handle it.
Before you sign on the dotted line, there are a few more questions you should make sure you have answers to. The first is to make sure you have a clear understanding of how you’re going to be charged for power. Some venues include power in the rental of the facility. Others will charge you only if you require additional equipment for a band or a large stage set with sound and lighting. While one facility might charge you a flat rate, another may charge you like the power company based on how much you use. Believe it or not, some venues will actually charge you a fee for every single outlet you use!
So basically, there’s no consistency on how you’re going to be charged for power, and it can vary wildly from venue to venue and around the world. That’s why it’s incredibly important to clearly understand how the venue charges for power at their facility.
Rigging Points and Charges
Another thing to keep in mind as you tour the facility is whether or not it has rigging points, and if it does, where they are located. Rigging points are physical locations in the ceiling of the venue where truss and lighting can be hung safely above the stage and audience. If you intend to “fly” your lighting and sound, you need rigging points. Otherwise, they have to be held in the air by ground-based structures such as speaker stands and light trees.
Where the rigging points are located in the room can dramatically influence how the room is set up. If the room only has a couple rigging points, located toward one end or the other, this might dictate where the stage will be, where projection screens and projectors hang, and whether or not any lighting can be directed at the audience.
It’s important to note that many facilities have had these points installed by 3rd party companies (usually the “in-house” AV company), and in return, these companies are given the right to charge a “point charge” if you intend to use them. These point charges can range from minor “convenience” fees to several hundred dollars per day, per point that can be real budget busters if you don’t know they’re coming.
Internet Access: Availability & Fees
The next big thing to check at your venue is the availability, and cost, of internet access. This needs to include not only any internet access being provided for your attendees, but also that needed by your staff, your presenters, and any event technology you may be using for the event. A lot of articles have been written about WiFi at events but suffice it to say here that it’s something you need to make sure you’re asking about before you decide on a venue or sign a contract.
Much like power charges, it’s still the Wild West when it comes to consistency of service and pricing in venue WiFi. Again, some charge flat rates while others charge based on speed tiers. Some charge based on the number of users, and others based on the total bandwidth used. Ask your venue representative exactly how they charge for internet access. How much for WiFi? How much for a wired connection for your event office or for backstage?
Which brings up a great point: If you have a speaker that requires internet access for their presentation, you need to make sure they really need it. If it’s just to show a video online, check with your AV company to see if they can help to get an offline version that can be embedded instead. If their presentation absolutely requires an internet connection, don’t just log them in to the same WiFi connection your attendees are on. WiFi can be unstable, especially once a lot of people are on it at the same time, so don’t take a chance. Make sure they’re on a hardline connection, but be prepared–hardline internet connections are often one of the most expensive kinds of access a venue can provide.
Negotiating with the Venue
Between the power charges, the rigging point charges, and the internet charges, you’re probably feeling like you’ve already spent your AV budget, and now they’re requiring you to use their in-house AV company? This is looking expensive! Don’t worry, all of these charges are negotiable, as long as you haven’t signed the contract. The trick is to make sure you have a full understanding of them before you sign. If you don’t know what they are, it’s hard to use them in negotiation!
Some or all of these charges may be waived, including whether or not you use the in-house AV company. Many times, venues will waive these charges if you choose to use the in-house AV, and in fact, this is one of the biggest incentives venues will use to encourage you to do so.
But all of this is negotiable. All of it. If the venue really wants your business, they may be willing to waive all of them, including the requirement to use the in-house AV. Obviously, the larger, more prestigious the event, the more likely they are to want your business, but even small groups should try to negotiate these fees away. It never hurts to ask, and you might wind up saving hundreds to thousands of dollars before we’ve even really thought about what AV equipment you need!
Site Visit Checklist:
Availability of Outlets
- How many?
- Where are they located?
Availability of Circuits
- Is your room on its own circuit or is it shared?
- How much power can the circuit handle?
- How does the venue charge for power?
- How many and where are they?
- Does the venue charge to use them?
- How does the venue charge for WiFi?
- How does the venue charge for wired connections?
Don’t forget–everything is negotiable!
The AV Team
“How many techs do I need?”
It’s one of the simplest questions to ask, and one of the more difficult to answer simply. The fact of the matter is that the most honest answer is, “It depends.”
It depends on the complexity of the show. It depends on how many presenters you have. It depends on what type of media they plan on displaying–PowerPoint? Video? It depends on what kind of lighting you intend to have. It depends on whether or not the event is being recorded. Will it be live-streamed? How big is the audience? What’s the negative impact if it doesn’t run perfectly?
Roles and Responsibilities
All of these questions can play a part in determining the technical and production staff for your event, but rather than trying to create an exhaustive list, let’s take a look at it from a different angle.
Every meeting or event is different. There are so many variables, it’s impossible to say exactly how many techs a given type of event will require. Instead, let’s break it down and think about it in terms of the most common roles and responsibilities. What needs to be done? Who would normally be responsible for that job if we had as much crew as we wanted?
Let’s take a moment to review the most common roles and responsibilities at events, and then come back to our staffing question.
- The person at the “Front of House” soundboard, monitoring the levels of all the microphones and other audio sources. Generally the lead audio technician.
- The person backstage responsible for micing up presenters, checking and replacing microphone batteries, and otherwise maintaining and monitoring all backstage audio equipment.
- Lighting Designer
- The person responsible for creating and designing the lights for the event, often playing a role in determining which lighting will be used, and how it will be used.
- Board Operator
- The person responsible for programming and operating the light board. In most small to medium events, the board operator is also the lighting designer.
- The person responsible for physically installing the lights, running the cable, and adjusting/focusing them as needed throughout the event.
- Video Switcher
- Responsible for determining which video sources (laptops, playback, cameras) are displayed on which displays (projection screens, confidence monitors, notes monitors, backdrop displays).
- Camera Switcher
- Shows with multiple cameras will sometimes have a separate camera switcher, responsible only for determining and switching between camera angles. On small to medium shows, the camera switcher is also the video switcher.
- The person for preparing and playing back video cues.
- The person responsible for “shading” the cameras, which is to monitor the brightness and contrast of the video as presenters move around the stage. Skin tone, background brightness, and lighting can all dramatically affect the quality of the camera image, and often change over the course of the event. If not monitored closely, the image can be too dark or “washed out.”
- Loads presentations and other graphics assets on to show computers, and assists with edits and changes pre-show. Runs and monitors the presentation machines during the show.
- Responsible for the proper setup and adjustment of projectors and other displays throughout the show. When “stacking” projectors (aiming two projectors at the same screen to increase brightness), the images must be perfectly aligned and frequently need to be adjusted periodically on multi-day engagements.
- The producer is the person responsible for putting on the event, and often is the one “in charge” of all creative and logistical decision making.
- Production Coordinator
- Sometimes called an Assistant Producer, their role is to assist the Producer in their duties, taking care of the smaller details, returning phone calls, vendor coordination, etc.
- Technical Director
- The person in charge of the overall technical side of the show, overseeing rigging, lights, audio, video and any other technology being used on site.
- Stage Manager
- Responsible for the backstage area, readying speakers and getting them on and off the stage smoothly and efficiently.
- Director/Show Caller
- The director is the one calling the show, calling out the video, audio, and lighting cues.
That covers the most common roles found on the majority of meetings and events but is by no means an exhaustive list. As mentioned in the definitions, some of the roles are frequently handled by the same person, such as the Lighting Designer and the Board Operator, and others can be further subdivided. The point here is that each of these roles needs to be considered when looking at the staffing for your event.
If your meeting is light on PowerPoints and only has one video to be played, you might be able to combine the Graphics and Playback positions. If the show is being recorded for archival purposes only, you might not need a dedicated Shader. You, as the Planner, might be the Producer, the Coordinator, the Technical Director, and the Show Caller, all wrapped into one. So while you might not need a single person for each role, you need to make sure you know who is handling the responsibilities for each position.
The other factor that needs to be considered is how important the responsibility of a particular role is. Your event might only have two videos to play, but how important is it that they playback perfectly? If it’s just an internal quarterly meeting, it might not be that important. If you’re Apple announcing the latest hot new gadget, it could be extremely important that the video plays back at exactly the right moment. In the first case, you might be able to have a single person responsible for everything. In the latter, you probably want a dedicated tech for each role.
“How important is it?” is probably the key question that needs to be asked when determining technical staffing.
The General Session
The general session (sometimes called the “plenary session”) is often one of the largest contributors to the audiovisual budget. For this section, we’re going to look at the needs of the most common meetings and conferences. To determine your audiovisual requirements, sometimes it’s easier to break things down into a series of questions, rather than thinking about equipment.
How many presenters? Are there panels?
Start with the basics of your agenda. Having a rough idea of how many presenters you’re going to have over the course of the event is going to immediately start shaping your audiovisual needs. If your general session only has one presenter for the entire time, that’s very different from an all-day conference with multiple presenters.
How many presenters you’re going to have on stage at one time is the other major factor. Will your speakers be going up one at a time? Or will the CEO and the CFO be co-presenting? Will there be a panel discussion? If so, how many people are going to be on it?
Will there be presentations or video?
Once you’ve got a rough idea of who’s going to be presenting, the next question is whether or not they’re going to have some kind of presentation. Will they have a PowerPoint, Keynote, or another type of presentation? Is that presentation likely to have audio contained within it? Is there a video that needs to be played to open the session? To close it?
Will there be music or sound effects?
This is one that often gets forgotten until the last minute. What’s playing as people walk into the room? During the transition from one presenter to another? And who’s going to provide that music? While many audio techs will have a playlist or two they bring along to all their events, you can’t assume this is the case. It’s also worth noting that it’s against the terms of service and potentially a copyright violation to use streaming services such as Spotify during your event.
How big is the audience?
Or, more specifically, you might ask, “how far away are the audience members?” Is your event an intimate gathering? Or is it a large hall with thousands of attendees? How well are the attendees on the left and right of the audience going to be able to see the stage? The presentations? Is it a deep room? A wide room?
Is it being recorded or live streamed?
More and more events are being live streamed on the internet. Is yours going to be? Will a single camera suffice, or is the footage going to be edited and used later in marketing or other promotions? If so, you might want multiple camera angles to choose from, and will need more than one camera and operator.
Putting it all together
As you were thinking about all of those questions, your mind probably started to put together a rough equipment list. That’s why this exercise is so helpful. By answering these simple questions, you’re now able to start figuring out exactly what audiovisual equipment you’re going to need.
Adding up the number of simultaneous presenters is going to give you the bare minimum number of microphones you need. Determining whether or not you have presentations or video tells you whether or not you need a projector and screen, and that you’ll need a computer or two backstage to run the PowerPoints. If you have a large audience, and/or you’re going to be recording the presentations or live streaming, you’re going to need at least one camera. If you’re showing that feed on the screen and also have presentations, you’re going to need a way to switch between the two. If you’re going to be using the footage for marketing, you might want two or more cameras.
However, rather than trying to generate an equipment list yourself, you could actually write up the answers to these questions and give that to your potential AV vendors instead. This allows them to choose the equipment they feel is best for your event and is also preferable to “cutting and pasting” your equipment needs from previous shows. It tells them a lot more about the type of event you’re putting on–quite a bit more than just an equipment list.
Taking things to the next level
Of course, those questions only cover the basics. As your events grow and change over time, more and more complexity is added. Will you need confidence or notes monitors for your speakers? Do they need a timer? A teleprompter? Will there be some kind of big “wow” opening act to surprise and delight your attendees? Many entertainers have special requirements over and above the basic AV needed for your general session.
It’s also important to keep an eye out for anything else “out of the ordinary.” Maybe your sales department is going to do a live demo of the new customer portal on their website. That’s going to require internet access, and potentially a laptop computer on stage for the presenter to work from. If a presenter wants to be able to walk through the audience in a big hall and still be on camera for the rest of the audience to see, you’re going to need to make sure there’s lighting available so the projection image is bright enough.
Basically, if it falls outside of the questions above, make sure your audio visual vendor knows about it!
General Session Checklist:
Number of Presenters
- Will they come up one at a time?
- Will there be panels? How many panelists?
Presentations and Video
- Will there be presentations?
- What machines will they run off of?
- Is there a video that needs to be played?
- What’s playing as people walk in and out?
- What’s playing during transitions between presenters?
- Who’s providing the audio files, and what are they playing off of?
Audience and Venue Size/Shape
- How many people are attending?
- Is the room unusually wide or deep?
- How does the venue charge for wired connections?
- Will a camera be required for presenters to be visible?
Live Streaming and Recording
- Are the presentations being recorded? Live streamed?
- Why are they being recorded? Archival purposes? Marketing?
- Do we need multiple cameras?
- Something not on this list? Make sure your AV vendor knows about it!
A significant portion of meetings and conferences offer an educational component and frequently offer these smaller sessions as a way to give the attendees some say in determining what they’re going to learn about. In a lot of ways, breakout sessions can be treated as miniature versions of a general session, with most of the same questions being asked. How many presenters? Is it being recorded or streamed?
In order to keep the experience consistent, however, many planners will standardize the equipment offered in these sections. For example, a typical breakout AV setup might be:
- One projector
- One folding projection screen
- One small sound system with two microphones (handheld or lavalier)
This information needs to be clearly communicated to the presenters, and it then becomes their responsibility if they require something other than what’s being provided, such as additional microphones. Especially for smaller sessions, many presenters will want to use their own laptops for the presentations, but it’s up to you as the organizer.
You may wish to provide laptops instead, allowing presenters to load their presentations. Each model has its own challenges, and there’s no right or wrong way. Providing the laptops reduces the possibility of configuration issues, as once the laptop is set up and connected to the projector, it stays that way for the duration of the day. Depending on the complexity of the presentation, however, it might not run right when transferred to a new machine.
On the other hand, letting presenters use their own laptops increases the likelihood of issues connecting to the projector or display, and you don’t have any control over the age, speed, or type of laptops they bring.
How many techs do I need for breakout sessions?
This is one of the most common questions people raise when looking at their AV bids. The good news is, we’ve already given you the answer! Do you need a dedicated tech in every room? It depends on how you answered the questions we laid out above. If your breakout presenters are VIPs or sponsors that are likely to judge the event harshly if anything goes wrong, then you might want to make sure you have plenty of techs roaming the halls. If you’re recording the breakout sessions for distribution or sale later, you’ll want someone stationed in each room monitoring the audio, making sure the levels are correct and the recordings are turning out well.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to take on some acceptable risk regarding setup and configuration issues, you might be able to get away with having only one or two techs that go around and help only those who really need it.
Adapters and Dongles
If you’re allowing breakout presenters to use their own laptops, it’s a good idea to remind them to bring whatever cables are required to output video to projectors, and what type they’re likely to need. Even still, no matter how many times you remind them, the odds are high someone is going to forget theirs. It’s best to just plan on it, and ask your AV team to bring a few spares of the most common video adaptors.
Breakout Section Checklist:
- Provide streamlined, basic AV for all sessions
- Communicate clearly what that will be to presenters
- Let them approach you if they have additional needs
- Determine whether you’re providing laptops or relying on presenters
- Allow time for hookup and configuration between sessions
- Bring extra adapters and dongles
- Are you live streaming or recording the sessions?
- How critical is it that “nothing goes wrong?”
- How important are the presenters? Sponsors? Executives?
Other Production Areas
While the general and breakout sessions are the most common areas requiring AV, they’re by no means the only ones. Here’s a list of a few more, as well as some things to keep in mind.
Registration is frequently the first thing your attendees see when they arrive at your event, so why not give it some flair? Lighting and projection can add just a touch of mood, as well as help display sponsors or other important information. Make sure you understand the internet requirements of any registration software or websites you’re planning on using. This is another place where you might consider getting a dedicated hard-line internet connection.
The show office is the central hub from which your event is run. It’s the place where staff can work and take breaks, create last-minute signage, monitor registration, radios, and so much more, so don’t leave it out of the equation. Make sure it, too, has fast internet for downloading those last minute presentations, a printer, and plenty of power outlets for staff to charge their phones and laptops.
The same goes for backstage. It’s nice to provide a “green room” area for presenters to relax before and after going on stage, check their email, and charge their devices. You may even want to provide live audio and video feeds so they can see what’s happening on the main stage.
Networking and Workspaces
Attendees need a place to hang out and relax as well, especially if the hotel rooms are a long way away. Many conferences and trade shows will provide lounge and workspaces for their attendees, equipped with a mix of comfortable seating as well as table areas more conducive to working. Once again, make sure to provide plenty of power for attendees’ devices.
Lighting and a little music can go a long way toward setting the mood at a reception. As already mentioned, choose your location with this in mind, making sure there’s access to power. Will anyone want to say a few words? Better have a sound system with a microphone that’s capable of reaching all your attendees in addition to playing music. Of course, some receptions are events within themselves, but even the smallest ones may require AV.
Lightning Round: AV Tips and Tricks
There’s so much more, but we wanted to leave you with a list of quick tips and tricks that can help add a little polish to your audiovisual experience, and maybe help you avoid some of the traps as well.
- Instruct speakers on proper microphone handling before they go on.
- Hold handheld mics close to the mouth.
- Make sure lavaliers are placed high on the shirt or jacket (about the third button on a typical men’s shirt). If you have to place it to the left or right side, try to choose the side the person is most likely to favor.
- Presenters should avoid walking in front of or near audio loudspeakers.
- Help prevent speakers from turning away from the audience to look at their slides.
- Should be placed in easy view of the presenter.
- Make sure they’re large enough to be seen easily from the stage.
IMAG and Cameras
- Talk to your presenters about how detailed their slides are before deciding whether or not to put them on camera. If their presentation is slide-heavy, it may not be worth the money.
- Make sure cameras are elevated, or otherwise have clear sightlines to the stage.
- Rope off the area around the cameras to prevent attendees from leaning or placing personal items on the camera platform, causing the camera to shake.
- Teleprompters take practice. Rather than help an inexperienced speaker, they can actually do more damage than good.
- Even with experienced speakers, schedule extra rehearsal time so the teleprompter operator has an opportunity to feel the pace and speaking style of the presenter.
- Encourage speakers to speak from bullet points instead of scripting unless the wording absolutely has to be precise.
Rehearsals, Load In, and Load Out
- One of the best overall ways to improve your event is through rehearsal.
- Schedule enough time between load-in and when your event starts to allow for rehearsal time.
- Make sure you have the venue contracted with enough time for load in, rehearsals, and load out. Many venues will book events right after each other with minimal transition time, forcing late-night or early-morning call times, or extremely long days that may force your labor into overtime.
- It is possible to over-rehearse as well, and sometimes running through things “one more time” can drop you into overtime, so make sure you keep an eye on the clock.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive “AV 101,” but instead a list of tools to help you determine what your audiovisual needs may be. Think of it as a conversation starter for you and your audiovisual vendors. If you’re able to work through the questions and checklists listed above, and to communicate those answers to your vendors, you’re much more likely to get only the equipment you need. Budget-busting surprises from the venue contract can be avoided, as well as costly, unexpected overtime.