Take a journey to the Starbucks convention through AV Concepts' project diary
What do you call 6,500 people meeting to talk about coffee? A Starbucks convention. Just like the one that took place in early March, when the world's most successful Java purveyor hosted its yearly global leadership conference. Starbucks brought staff from its six North American divisions to the convention, which took place at Seattle's Key Arena and other venues in downtown Seattle.
Staging firm AV Concepts, of Tempe, Ariz., handled the audio-visual needs for the sophisticated event. The company also provided SRO with a blow-by-blow account of how it prepared for the show, starting on the day company executives first began discussing the project. The company also permitted writer Matt Hurwitz to tag along with its crew, from load-in through the entire convention at Key Arena.
Over the next two issues, we'll offer an exclusive, soup-to-nuts look inside the project. In this issue we'll cover how AV Concepts developed the staging program for the show, from initial contact to planning labor and equipment, right until shortly before show time. In the next issue we'll examine how the show went down, from setup through breakdown.
AV Concepts initially became involved with Starbucks for its 2003 business meetings.
“Even though Starbucks is a very big company, they don't like to think of themselves that way,” says Mitch Teitelbaum, AV Concepts account executive. “They still want to think of themselves as a small, one-on-one company.”
Prior to the 2004 convention, Starbucks always held regional meetings — five in the United States and one in Canada. This year, however, the company decided a more global meeting would help Starbucks' staff by giving employees a chance to meet and exchange ideas with workers from other regions.
Typical large business conventions of this type often feature a main general session, with a speaker/presenter at center stage, with video screens featuring IMAG or graphics to the far left or far right of the stage. “In that kind of situation, the screens are so far right or left of the presenter that people don't really look at the presenter,” says Teitelbaum. “They're looking at the message, which is detached from the person by 30 or 40 feet.”
To avoid that impersonal approach, with urging and expertise from AV Concepts, Starbucks decided to try a more modern and sophisticated widescreen video method for last year's meetings. This year, it decided to build on that approach by using a widescreen technology that has been making a big splash in the industry — Vista Systems' Montage. The benefits of projecting widescreen video on an enormous screen — in the case of this year's show, a 20'×65' screen — were obvious.
Montage is a 10-bit video processing and control system that uses proprietary architecture developed by Vista. The system allows users to manipulate unlimited video and graphics inputs to a degree that was previously either more complicated or simply impossible on major shows of this type, resulting in huge, carefully blended, widescreen images of all types. (See “Montage Behind-Scenes” in the January/February issue of SRO for an inside look at Montage.)
“With widescreen, the speaker can actually stand in front of the message, so that the audience is looking at both the speaker and his message at the same time,” explains Teitelbaum.
AV Concepts worked closely with Vista for years to help R&D both Montage and its predecessor, the CanvasMaster system. AV Concepts was the first staging company to use Montage on a widescreen show. (The company first put Montage to work last winter at Nickelodeon's “Up Front” event at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. For that installation, images were projected from five sets of double-stacked Christie Digital projectors onto a 25'×131' screen.)
Montage was still in development during the 2003 Starbucks show. So Starbucks, at the urging of AV Concepts project manager Jess Lawson (who had worked with Starbucks on previous A/V jobs), hired AV Concepts to use the CanvasMaster system for that show. The effort was so successful that before the 2003 conference had even ended, Starbucks officials were talking to AV Concepts about the possibility of having Montage available for this year's event, allowing them to up the presentation ante in 2004.
Brad Mace of Seattle's Production Support Services, who serves as production manager/creative director for Starbucks' shows, ran the idea of using more of the widescreen format past Marty Fisher, Starbucks' director of partner and culture engagement, and AV Concepts officials.
Teitelbaum recalls starting to plan for the 2004 Starbucks event at the end of the 2003 meeting. “We sat, had a drink, and I drew some options up on a cocktail napkin,” says Teitelbaum. “That sketch was the starting point for what we're doing (this year).”
Over the next several months, Mace and Teitelbaum kept in touch as plans for the Seattle convention developed.
Starbucks eventually chose an approach featuring three different types of meetings. At Key Arena, a large general session would take place. At that session, the widescreen presentation would be featured. The night before the general session, a large welcoming event would take place at Key Arena, featuring entertainment, including singer Brian McKnight. Breakout sessions — individual meetings covering specific business topics — would be held at two locations: the Washington State Convention and Trade Center (WSCTC) and the Seattle Center. (Neither facility had enough rooms to house all of the 23 meetings.) Finally, six awards banquets for each of the 1,500-employee divisions would be held over two nights in large ballrooms at the WSCTC.
Based on years of experience, both AV Concepts and Starbucks knew they would have to begin working together early in the process. “The key to the success of every program is not only having the best equipment, but getting the right people on the project, as well,” explains Teitelbaum. “The whole goal for any show is to reserve the labor as soon as possible.”
Since AV Concepts was scheduled to be extremely busy during the week of the 2004 Starbucks convention, that early planning proved crucial. The company had a number of large shows going on around the country the same week, including a Cadbury event in Phoenix; a convention in Washington, D.C.; the Photoshop World 2004 show and a Food Marketing Institute Show, both at the Moscone Center in San Francisco; plus other events. “This would definitely be our busiest week,” Teitelbaum remembers.
Teitelbaum shared his project diary for the Starbucks convention with SRO, and through its pages the course of events unfold, leading up to the show date:
Friday, Oct. 10, 2003:
Production manager Mace provides an equipment list for the banquet portion of the convention, and also asks Teitelbaum to suggest several different scenarios for those events. At this point, it hasn't been decided yet what configuration would be used for the banquets.
“They didn't know if each of the five or six regions would have its banquet at the same time or location or what,” Teitelbaum recalls. “Brad wanted to know the cost if we had one banquet for 1,200 to 1,500 people, or two banquets for 500 to 600 people, over one night or two. Starbucks upper management was still deciding if they wanted to do the international meeting, at this point.”
It was eventually decided to hold three, 1,500-employee banquets over the course of two nights. (In other words, three Starbucks divisions held large banquets. Three other divisions held separate activities offsite on those same nights.) Each banquet would feature an awards component for Starbucks employees, as well as some kind of entertainment — either a DJ, a small live band, or both, plus staff skits. Each room would require a sound system for speeches and dance music, as well as a two-camera, two-screen, IMAG projection system.
The video system would be used for IMAG, as well as playback of various prepared video materials. In addition, the banquet highlights would be recorded on Betacam for future distribution to attendees and others. All of this equipment would be supplied and operated by AV Concepts.
On Oct. 20, AV Concepts was given the go-ahead to proceed with preparation. The ball was officially in the company's hands.
Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003:
On this date, Mace calls with rooms, dates, and audience sizes for the banquets. (At that time, only five divisions were due to participate, a sixth was added later.) Three banquet rooms, holding 1,600 to 2,000 people from three Starbucks divisions one night and two the next would be required.
“Brad and I were talking back and forth constantly about the rooms and requirements — the amount of wireless microphones they'd need, what type of lighting, what type of scenic. It developed as the months went by,” Teitelbaum says.
Just prior to the show, in late February, Teitelbaum elaborated on this point. “This business is always in flux — it's always a moving target,” he said. “They add speakers, they take away speakers. They decide on panel discussions, how many mics, adding a wireless microphone here or there. Last week, we added 20-something wireless mics.”
Teitelbaum also speaks with Bill Jett, AV Concepts general manager, about setting up a meeting to begin discussing AV Concepts' own labor assignments from within its ranks.
“I schedule different levels of management for each of our programs,” explains Jett. “When we receive a confirmed event, we sit down, we schedule the project manager (PM), the in-house project manager (IPM), and the technicians for those projects. We initially get our internal labor in place on it as soon as we can, and then we look at what type of contracted labor we will need. We meet weekly and schedule internal labor.”
AV Concepts uses a unique arrangement of management for each project, Teitelbaum adds.
“Clients have three people that know their show,” he explains. The account executive (AE), such as Teitelbaum, is the primary contact for the client. One of seven PMs is assigned to run the show (there were two assigned to the large Starbucks project), traveling with it. A third team member, the IPM, provides a third point of contact — in this case, AV Concepts' Rick Shaul. The IPM provides support to the AE and PM, acquiring specs and client needs as soon as possible, and hiring freelance labor.
“(The IPM) is at our office, and he also knows the show,” adds Teitelbaum. “That way, the client has someone to talk with at all times.”
Monday, Nov. 24, 2003:
AV Concepts gets the finalized show dates: the convention is due to begin on Monday, March 1, with the opening entertainment event that evening at Key Arena. The general session at Key Arena would take place the following day, Tuesday, March 2, with the division banquets happening that night and the following night. The breakout sessions at the WSCTC and Seattle Center would take place each day except Tuesday during business hours. (As it turned out, they started a day early, on Sunday, Feb. 29, and continued through Wednesday.)
In his diary, Teitelbaum notes a discussion about load-in issues with Mace. A Sarah Brightman concert was scheduled at Key Arena on the Sunday night before the convention. The Brightman show was due to clear out of the arena at 4 a.m. Monday morning, at which time AV Concepts could begin loading in. However, the convention doors were due to open Monday evening at 6 p.m., leaving only 14 hours to load in, build a stage, hang lighting, construct the large screen and video system, and install and check audio.
“Normally we get two days to put everything in, and do a rehearsal day,” says Teitelbaum. “My original drawing actually had three widescreen surfaces, one 20'×65' and two 20'×45'. There's no way we could have put it in on time.”
Therefore, all of the various systems — video, lighting, audio — now had to be designed so they could be installed and up and running inside of 14 hours. Thus, Teitelbaum's triple widescreen plan, among other things, had to be scaled back to a single widescreen Montage system with two portrait-style, outboard 20'×15' screens for IMAG.
Of course, labor was also affected, as crew sizes had to grow by about 25% to 30%, Teitelbaum notes.
“What we have is two crews — a crew to set in, and then the crew that operates, with an overlap time in between,” he notes. “The operating crew comes in at 6 a.m. to prepare for the event.”
In addition, rehearsals and programming now would have to be done off-site. For example, the Montage system, normally programmed on-site, would have to be programmed a few days earlier at the AV Concepts warehouse and office in Tempe.
Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003:
Teitelbaum sends Mace an updated cost breakdown for changes required due to the effect of the Brightman concert on the schedule, including added trucking, lights, and labor.
Monday, Dec. 1, 2003:
Teitelbaum meets with the AV Concepts management team to decide on project manager assignments, labor, and various other team members. The company decides to have one PM for the Key Arena general session, and one to handle the three banquets. (At this point it was not known that AV Concepts would also end up handling the breakout sessions.) Jesse Lawson is chosen as PM for the general session, while Brian Mitrisin is selected as PM for the three banquets.
Other key crew choices for the general session are made: Tony Van Note as lead audio engineer (A1), Craig Montgomery as assistant audio engineer (A2), Larry May as video engineer-in-charge (EIC), Abe Hermosillo as Montage operator/programmer, and Richard Vinson and Charlotte Ibarra as projectionists. Similar EIC, A1, projectionist, and lighting director (LD) assignments were made for each banquet room, as well. (Freelancer Greg Scott, working directly for Starbucks, would serve as lighting director for the general session.)
“(In total,) there are about 60 people operating the show,” Teitelbaum notes.
The AV Concepts team also discusses the difficult nature of the load-in for Key Arena, which continues to be a source of concern. And Teitelbaum also talks to Mace about the contract rider for entertainer Brian McKnight, specifying the artist's technical requirements.
“He has very specific audio needs, such as for monitors, microphones, FOH, EQs, effects devices, the whole bit,” Teitelbaum notes.
Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2003:
AV Concepts learns it will handle the breakout sessions as well. Teitelbaum receives specs for those sessions. The sessions are expected to involve a total of 23 rooms, spread between the WSCTC and the Seattle Center, and will feature roving presenters who travel from room to room to address the groups on their particular topics.
“It's much better to have the presenters go from room to room, rather than have whole massive groups getting up and switching rooms — that would be a logistical nightmare,” Teitelbaum writes.
Each room would need three wireless mics, a projection screen, a VCR with 27in. monitor, and flip charts.
Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003:
Teitelbaum notes that he needs to get a confirmation from Brad Mace on his quote for the breakout sessions, now that they are part of the plan, to let him to begin reserving equipment and labor.
Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2003:
Teitelbaum receives CAD building drawings for the various facilities from Brad Mace's colleague, Greg Bakke.
“The CAD drawings are very important for planning,” he notes. “We can determine the types of lenses we need for projectors based on the sizes of the rooms, how much cable we need, hang points for trusses, etc.”
Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004:
Teitelbaum gives Brad Mace a count of the total number of technicians coming into town to operate the show so he can plan hotel space for the team — 65 crew members will need accommodations.
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004:
Good news: Mace wrangles a few more hours of load-in time out of the Sarah Brightman crew. Load-in will now begin at 2 a.m., instead of 4 a.m.
“A couple of hours is crucial,” notes Teitelbaum.
Mace then begins putting together a load-in and setup schedule for that early Monday morning.
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2004:
Teitelbaum emails Starbucks officials with a suggestion: crew jackets. “Crew jackets are one of those things that are just great for morale,” he notes. “They make people feel like part of the team.”
Starbucks agrees with the suggestion and jackets are ordered.
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004:
The AV Concepts management team meets about labor and equipment issues, including where to get some additional equipment. In the end, planners decide to locally sub-rent some entertainment lighting and audio equipment for the general session at Key Arena. AV Concepts arranges to partner with two Seattle companies to meet those needs.
“It's rock-and-roll lighting and sound, so we decided to go with an outside firm, Christie Lites, to handle (supplying the lighting gear),” Teitelbaum noted. “We also partnered with an audio company, Carlson Audio, to provide the house speakers and monitoring.”
It was also decided to add a video controller, a Folsom ScreenPro Plus system, for the two outside screens to the left and right of the center Montage screen.
Friday, Jan. 23, 2004:
Teitelbaum speaks with Greg Scott, Starbucks' lighting director for the general session. Due to the short load-in time, they agree that the rock-and-roll lighting approach should be simplified to service both the entertainment and the general session's business component. They determine the lighting rig will include 138 conventional lights, as well as moving lights and special lights for signs and other special applications. Scott also expresses his preference for a Grand MA lighting controller, rather than using AV Concepts' stock WholeHog consoles. Instead, the WholeHogs will be used in the banquet rooms.
Later, Mace calls Teitelbaum regarding one particular banquet room, 4B.
“It didn't have its own house lights, just fluorescents,” Teitelbaum explains. “That meant we needed to add more truss and 96 lights, just to have something dimmable for the audience.”
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004:
Teitelbaum receives the lighting specs from Scott for the new lighting arrangement, since the previous setup was based on the assumed longer load-in time. In addition, they decide to make use of the Key Arena's own moving lights, as a way to add some “ballyhoo” for the audience.
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2004:
Christie's lighting bid works well, but Teitelbaum makes a note to talk to the lighting team about cutting some of the moving lights from the system to help stay within the budget.
Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004:
Creative producer John Barry, who is producing the video content to be projected using the Montage system for Starbucks, requests Feb. 23 as the date for him to come to Phoenix and program the Montage system.
Later, Teitelbaum has a conference call with the production team regarding possible use of Key Arena's own cameras, instead of AV Concepts' video cameras, in order to expedite setup. Unfortunately, the Key Arena cameras are not set up in the correct configuration or placement for the needs of the general session, so the idea is dropped.
Monday, Feb. 9, 2004:
A conference call connects all production parties for a meeting, mainly to discuss logistical matters, such as parking, truck unloading order, and so on.
“With the tight timeframe, it gets very, very specific, almost like military precision,” Teitelbaum says. AV Concepts schedules four semis to handle its needs for the convention.
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004:
Teitelbaum talks to Mace about one other important issue: security.
“Security's a really big issue, one we can't ignore,” he writes. All the crew members are slated for background checks in order to participate in the event, per requirements of the venue and Starbucks security officials.
Monday, Feb. 23, 2004:
One week before show day, the creative team meets at AV Concepts' offices to program the video and other content into the Montage system. The Montage works much like a lighting controller, with preset “events” ready to operate in a desired sequence once programming is complete.
On this day, creative producer John Barry, graphic designer Joel Buchholz, assistant stage manager Paula Sanchez, and Montage programmer Abe Hermosillo carefully program all the content into the system.
Buchholz provides all the graphics needed for the business meeting — charts, graphs, and a range of graphics of various types — all stored as PowerPoint files.
Barry's video production arrives in the 1080i high-definition (HD) format, a requirement for projecting the images with clarity at such a large size. The image data is stored inside a QuVis QuBit hard-disc player and a Sony HDW-M2100 HDCam player, from which it will be played back on cue through Montage's ultra-widescreen processor, dubbed SourceMaster.
In the next couple of days, the equipment is loaded onto four trucks — a major load for any A/V company — and they hit the road. Destination: Seattle.
Next Issue: Showtime arrives.
Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer and regular SRO contributor who covers music, film, television, and the live-event industry for a wide range of publications. Email him at ByMattHurwitz@aol.com