When it comes to meetings and conferences, value is in the eye of the beholder. This is one of the reasons that if not thoughtfully planned and implemented, hybrid meetings — those that bring together in-person and remote attendees — can create highly uneven experiences, depending on whether an attendee is in-person or remote.
Fortunately, by applying the insights and strategies that comprise the discipline we call ArchiTechnology, spaces intended to accommodate hybrid meetings and events can be designed to engage both in-person attendees and remote attendees. The key is to remember a few essential strategies and design principles.
First, a definition. ArchiTechnology is the art and science of optimizing human experience by integrating the meeting environment (or envelope) with the supporting technology. Through ArchiTechnology, we’re guided by our understanding of human perception: how people use their eyes and ears to interact with others (either face-to-face or virtually), as well as the technology and spaces in which people use it. The discipline is concerned with the design of the space itself — and whether it will enhance or hinder the effectiveness of the technology needed to accommodate hybrid meetings. Architecture, layout, interior design, lighting, and acoustics all come into play.
To be effective, ArchiTechnology requires a different mindset on the part of the practitioner. Here are a few thoughts to consider:
Human beings are analog, so attendees’ preferences for perceiving and communicating should be central. For example, our sense of sight includes not only seeing but also legibility, and hearing includes not only listening but also intelligibility. The quality and positioning of image displays, ambient lighting, sightlines, and audio equipment are all critical factors.
Hybrid meetings and events require more advanced AV equipment. In an ideal world, the space you’re planning to use for hybrid meetings is already equipped. But in many cases, additional cameras and microphones may be needed to connect remote attendees. These types of equipment are highly sensitive to noise and lighting problems. As a result, features that are simply “nice to have” for in-person audiences become critically important for remote attendees.
If the intent is to design or renovate spaces to be “high-tech” and ready to accommodate hybrid meetings, the envelope or room design must be carefully planned and integrated. No one can “fix” a bad room by simply throwing technology at it. The architecture, interior design, acoustics, lighting, and infrastructure must first be analyzed and issues addressed before determining the event technology requirements.
It’s important to recognize that although there are some overlaps between the disciplines of AV and IT, they actually require completely different insights and skillsets. This is why it is critical to have an AV design specialist involved in any design project for spaces intended to accommodate AV technologies. IT designers simply do not have the training or need to accommodate the nuances of analog perception and communication.
Choosing Between the Theater and the Roadhouse
Before we get into some of the specific design considerations involved in ArchiTechnology, let’s try a thought exercise to illustrate two very different kinds of event experiences.
First, try to remember the most satisfying meeting, event, or performance you’ve ever experienced. Whether it was a concert, play, sermon, performance, or presentation, you may have had the experience that everything but the presenter or performance itself seemed to “disappear” from your awareness. The magic of such an experience is that you didn’t need to make compromises in terms of your physical, aural, or visual perception. For our purposes, we’ll call this the “Theater Experience.”
Now, imagine a very different experience — one where you’re sitting in an uncomfortable folding chair in a warehouse with a stage at one end where a presenter is speaking. Scattered around the room are tangles of loose cables running across the floor, portable speakers on stands, and random lighting equipment. The audio (when you can actually hear it over the sound of the air conditioning and the technicians chattering behind you) is loud, distorted, and echoing off the walls. Projectors are set up on carts facing a portable projection screen. In short, it’s a mess, and is what we refer to as the “Roadhouse Experience.”
There’s no question which of these settings you would prefer to attend or offer to your guests. That’s why using event technologies specifically chosen for and built into each space will always provide a far more elevated experience, in all dimensions, for both attendees as well as event sponsors. This is especially true when planning for a hybrid event — because the last thing you want to do is provide a theater experience for your in-person attendees while delivering a roadhouse experience for remote attendees.
Myth Of Flexibility
In the discussions around building AV technology into rooms versus using all portable equipment, we often hear that when the AV is built into a space, it limits the flexibility for the meeting planner to arrange the room creatively. This is simply misdirection; these arguments are typically made by the AV rental companies. When the AV is built-in, there is nothing preventing portable equipment from being brought in and set up any way the meeting planner wants.
However, when AV is NOT built-in, then ALL AV must be brought in, set up, adjusted, operated, and then disassembled and stored for EVERY event. That drives up the cost of providing AV both in time and money. Meeting rooms are typically designed to have an obvious “front” or “object wall” end of the room, and the vast majority of the time, the room is set up the same way. So, building in the AV equipment to serve that typical arrangement saves time and money, while providing a much better technical and aesthetic experience for the attendees. What’s not to like?
Satisfying Attendees’ Expectations
In-person attendees of a hybrid event come with a variety of expectations and needs. At the most basic level, they must be able to see and hear the presenter and experience the program content (presentation, performance, PowerPoint, video, etc.) on the room’s display.
In addition, an in-person attendee can look around and see their fellow attendees, and hear the presenter interacting with attendees. The event may also feature thought-provoking Q&As with the keynote speaker… and even simple opportunities to meet and interact with fellow attendees. The more of these types of features and experiences, the more likely the attendee will perceive the event as engaging and being worth their time.
In contrast, consider the same event’s remote attendees. Unless planners have intentionally taken these attendees’ event experience into account, they may experience only a fraction of the value that in-person attendees enjoy. Instead, remote attendees may be able to see and hear only the presenter and view their presentation slides. Remote attendees may not be visible to the in-person attendees at all, or perhaps they appear in a “Hollywood Squares” or gallery view format on a display screen.
Designing a Hybrid Meeting Space to Engage All Participants
Now let’s talk about the next generation of meetings — the hybrid event, where half of the audience is physically present and half are remote, attending via a collaboration platform such as Zoom, WebEx, Teams, etc. What is that experience like for these events’ attendees, both in-person and remote?
We cannot fix a bad room with technology, so let’s start with the basics of an effective room: good acoustics, lighting, and arrangement. Then add in good sound system technology, including microphones for both presenters and participants, and sound reinforcement for the presenter, program, and remote participants. Last but not least, ensure good placement of cameras and displays.
As hybrid meetings occur more frequently, many venues and their technical teams will need to experiment with portable equipment and temporary configurations until they get it right. Until they do, there will be many low-quality experiences that will test the tolerance of remote attendees. It’s also likely that many venues will plateau at “good enough” and simply meet the level of toleration. Unfortunately, their remote attendees will be marginalized, and far less engaged than in-person attendees.
Most of us have learned to tolerate participating in virtual events that feature rather low quality. Fortunately for hotels, conference centers, and other meeting venues, we’re seeing evolutionary advances in the unified communications and collaboration (UCC) platforms’ functionality and quality. Just as importantly, attendees themselves are beginning to be more aware of camera angles and lighting, actual and virtual backgrounds, microphones and room acoustics, etc. — in other words, all of the elements that support a more professional event that engages all attendees, both in-person and remote.
With a little planning and thoughtful application of the principles of ArchiTechnology, you can arrange for a hybrid event where remote attendees’ experience is much more welcoming and enjoyable. And as a byproduct of intentionally designing an event space to accommodate hybrid meetings, the space itself becomes even more friendly and accommodating for the in-person, analog, and human attendee, as well. The quality of experience for both in-person and remote attendees is elevated, and you’re also setting new quality standards and exceeding customers’ expectations. And that’s a great reputation to strive for in any marketplace.
About the author
Jeff Loether, ISHC, Founder and President established ELECTRO-MEDIA DESIGN, Ltd. in 1990. He has overseen the production of hundreds of designs created by EMD’s Audiovisual (AV) engineers. Jeff is active in the development of new products and design approaches that incorporate different technologies to enhance functionality, reduce system complexity and cost, and improve reliability. Jeff’s experience and knowledge in the hospitality industry is unparalleled and he has pioneered many of the standards of AV design and implementation. Jeff is an active speaker and instructor for a number of professional organizations, including the ICIA, IACC and NSCA. He is a published author, with articles appearing in a variety of industry related magazines, including Sound & Video Contractor. He is a founding member of the International Communications Industry Association’s (ICIA) Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology Council (ICAT).