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 events — 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, accommodate, 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 for the attendees and event sponsor in all dimensions. 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.
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 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 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?
As hybrid meetings begin to occur, 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 and other meeting venues, we’re seeing evolutionary advances in the 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, 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 customer’s expectations. That’s a great reputation to strive for in any marketplace.
About the author
Business Advisors Consortium
Jeff Loether is a leader in both the hospitality and event technology industries, and provides world-class ArchiTechnology consulting for entertainment and event spaces. His 40+ years of experience and reputation makes him the prime resource for architects, hotel developers, and management companies looking to optimize their event and entertainment venues through practical design and profitable operations. Jeff authored the Master Design Brand Standards for Audio Visual and Acoustics for many of the industry’s leading five-star hotel flags and for the International Association of Conference Centers.
In 1990, Jeff founded Electro-Media Design Ltd., as he saw the need to create a cooperative independent consulting practice (no equipment sales) that supports innovative and practical approaches to Audio Visual (A/V) and Building Acoustics design and implementation. His team’s mission is to provide clients: “Better Meetings = Better Bottom Line” results by designing cost-effective and reliable systems that are easy to use. They also develop Managed Event Technology Service departments for client hotels that provide great guest service and experiences. It is these two paired-components that create the highest ROI for the owner and property manager.
Prior to establishing Electro-Media Design, Ltd. Jeff served as the Manager of Audio/Video Systems Design for Marriott’s Architecture and Construction Division from 1980 to 1990. He developed the Master Standards and directed the conceptual development, design document production, procurement, installation, testing, and the final acceptance of presentation and entertainment media systems for all of Marriott’s various facilities worldwide. While with Marriott, he completed over 250 projects including those for four and five-star resorts, convention and conference centers, corporate and educational facilities, and senior living communities. Jeff received his BGS degree in Audio Technology and Computers for Business from American University in 1985.
Throughout his career with Marriott and since, as a technology consulting professional within the hospitality industry, Jeff is recognized as one of its thought-leaders and has developed and taught many workshops, seminars, and classes for the design and facility management industries. He serves as the Technology Partner to the International Association of Conference Centers and received the Award for Excellence in Education and the Pyramid Award for his work with IACC. Jeff is also an Adjunct Instructor for InfoComm and the International Communications Industries Association, the leading A/V trade association.
Jeff was inducted into the International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC) in recognition of his accomplishments. He is a Founding Member of the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technologies (ICAT), a council of InfoComm and is currently serving on the Board of Directors, North America for the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC).
He enjoys boating on the Chesapeake with his bride, Lilly, aboard their Coaster, WaterLilly. Jeff also has developed and licensed several inventions and enjoys woodworking, barbershop singing, and handcrafting exceptional hot pepper relish from his pepper garden.
Audio Visual and Building Acoustics Design, Development, Consulting, Operations
Company: Electro-Media Design, Ltd.
Location: Gaithersburg, Maryland and Orlando, Florida