VAI shares its perspective on the changing nature of the corporate event market based on its 21 years of experience.

The ways in which American corporations communicate with their employees and customers have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Driven mainly by advancements in presentation and display technology, corporate events are bigger and more sophisticated than ever before. They are also more creative and reflect a deeper understanding of the importance of communicating a coherent message to foster a company’s success and growth.


For the SUN Microsystems "Americas Sales Meeting," VAI created a seamless video image across a 90-foot screen at two times HD resolution. (Image courtesy of VAI).

Naturally, this evolution in corporate events has had a huge impact on the staging and rental industry. In the past, corporations turned to staging and rental companies primarily for help setting up and maintaining slide projectors, speakers, lights, and other equipment. As slides gave way to video, the demand for technical support grew. And it wasn’t only technical support that corporate America required. Production companies and rental and staging firms are called upon to handle virtually any and all aspects of producing an event, including developing the concepts, writing the scripts, designing the sets, and lining up a venue. Now that events are more lavish than ever before, those production responsibilities have become even more complex.

One of the companies that has a good perspective on the changes that have reshaped the corporate event market is Video Applications of Tustin, Calif. (www.videoapps.com). Founded by Gary Standard in 1981, VAI specializes in corporate events and has helped some of the world’s biggest corporations make the transition from slide projectors to digital video. Today, Standard remains the CEO of VAI, even as he spends more and more of his time focused on the creation of a new, related business venture.

VAI is one of the only rental and staging companies started in the early ‘80s that is still owned by its founder, says Darrell Hennegen, VAI’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Hennegen is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.


The booth VAI created for Seagate at a recent Comdex typifies the trend toward business theater. (Image courtesy of VAI)

VAI established a separate audio division - Audio Applications - in the mid ‘90s. Hennegen says the company has understood the importance of audio from its earliest days. "There was always a sound system," he says. Audio remains a key component of any successful staged event. "Sound is the most important part of the equation," Hennegen says, "because if the audience can’t hear my client’s message then nothing else matters."

DELIVERING THE MESSAGE

If there is a single factor behind VAI’s longevity, it is that the company and its 25 full-time employees recognize one key truth about any corporate event - the client’s intended audience is the true target. "In every communication, there is a sender and a receiver," Hennegen says. "Our clients are always the senders of the message being communicated. Our company slogan is ‘vision brilliantly received.’ We hold ourselves accountable for how the message is received."

The core question for his clients, Hennegen says, is "How do you move an audience?"

Meetings and events have a specific purpose. The clients need to convince analysts and journalists of the value of their companies. Or they need to raise funds for new ventures. Or they need to launch products. To accomplish these goals, says Hennegen, "We collaborate with our clients and with event producers to create new types of events, using new types of technologies in new kinds of environments."

Hennegen says that studies have shown that a viewer retains about 30% of the information that he or she hears. But the same person will retain about 80% of a given message if the sound is accompanied by compelling pictures. That, in concert with advancements in technology, has fuelled the growth of corporate events to the place where many now rival entertainment productions in terms of both production values and budgets. Hennegen says total budgets for corporate events today range from a low of half a million dollars to as much as several million dollars.

"If my clients are going to be successful, they have to ‘enroll’ their audiences," Hennegen says. "And by ‘enroll’ I mean causing people to choose what the speaker wants them to do. It’s about motivating people to a specific task or cause, about creating a particular mindset. It has to be more memorable; it has to have more impact. We need to create an environment and absolutely immerse [the audience] in the client’s message."

VAI has worked - and continues to work - with an impressive list of corporate clients including: Acura, BMW, CBS, Coors, Nike, Infiniti, Merck, MTV, Oracle, Seagate, Sony, and Sun Microsystems. Hennegen takes pride in the fact that many of them have been coming back to work with VAI for many years. As a result, he says, "We have a pretty intimate relationship with our clients."

Based on that long track record, Hennegen and his counterparts at VAI believe that there are at least five key trends that have developed over the past ten years that have had, and continue to have, an impact on corporate events.

THE FIVE TRENDS

#1 - THE MOVE TO BUSINESS THEATER

The move from A/V to business theater was a natural transition, says Hennegen, that was driven in large part by the evolution from slides to computer-based graphics and video. "Clients recognize that their message will be better received if they create an immersive environment," he says. "If they do that, they can most effectively move an audience."

Hennegen says the question becomes, "How can I enhance the message I want to deliver?" Sometimes, particularly at trade shows where the challenge is to attract people to an exhibit, the solution is literally a theater. "If I can pull people into a theatre, then I can get their attention and direct that attention to the product or service I want to sell," he says.

At a recent Comdex, VAI worked with Seagate in Las Vegas on just such a venture. "We helped create a standing theater. They showed a seven-minute film that required the audience to wear 3D glasses," Hennegen says. "And after the film there was only one exit, through the product showcase."

The production company for the event was advertising giant Foote, Cone & Belding, working with designer Tom Hennes of Thinc Design.

"The client knew that they wanted to create this huge presence on the convention floor that they could use to draw people into the exhibit and keep them there," Hennegen says. The seven-minute film had a dramatic story line that pitted a hip, young, agile technology company against a stodgy, old, bureaucratic establishment company for a key contract. Hennegen says, "The story was engaging and well acted and produced so it held people’s attention. Of course, embedded in the story were all of the hot-button topics that Seagate was trying to push to position their ‘next generation of memory products’."

Seagate and FC&B recognized that, if they could draw the audience into the space with an entertainment-type piece, they would have an advantage in holding the attention of the attendees and subjecting them to their pitch. "We worked with THINC to design this open, standing theater with a 50-foot screen that featured 3D laser elements and this movie," he says. Much of VAI’s work involves proprietary production and presentation techniques, and Hennegen is sometimes reluctant to share too many details. Of the Seagate project he does say, "There was a great deal of R&D that went into this design. We had to determine how to create the image with adequate resolution for near-field viewing at an extremely large size. This involved not only exploring different projection designs but also numerous production techniques."

"Once the attendees were in the theater, they were virtually captive until the film was completed and then the only way out was through the product exhibit area," Hennegen says. "It was all very shrewd on their part and it worked beautifully and practically every showing was full."

The exhibit won the "Best of Show" award for that Comdex.

#2 - THE CLIENT AS PRODUCER

Clients today are much more comfortable with technology than they were ten years ago. In those days, Hennegen recalls, "Clients were insecure about technology and how to use it. They required more handholding. Today, they better understand what they need to support their needs and there are more options available to them. "


CBS, for whom VAI staged an affiliates meeting, is an example of the new breed of sophisticated clients who are deeply involved in the details of event production. (Image courtesy of VAI)

Although this is still a developing trend, Hennegen says he’s noticed that more clients are producing their own events. Ten years ago that just didn’t happen, he says. But now, clients are sometimes the ones who pull all the resources together. "Clients are much less dependent. They know, for example, that they can get lights from twelve different people. They don’t need us anymore to do things like that," he says. "They know they can contract production services directly from numerous places and some end-users are beginning to bring that capability in-house in order to become more self-reliant. Consequently, our job is to bring more options and solutions."

One VAI client that produces its own events is CBS. VAI recently worked with the network on two events: the annual Upfront meetings in New York where the fall line-up is presented to prospective advertisers, and the annual Affiliates meeting in Las Vegas. It was the ninth year in a row that VAI has worked with CBS on these events, and Hennegen praises the network as, "Our client with the most exacting standards."


This UAW event staged by VAI exemplifies the trend toward wide-screen displays. (Image courtesy of VAI)

CBS’s challenge at the Upfront program, he says, was "to convince the Madison Avenue executives who fill Carnegie Hall to purchase advertising time on their network." He points out that "it is natural for the networks to self produce given they are in a content production business and that’s their product on the screen."

"With the CBS event, we were supporting multiple audiences simultaneously. We had a live audience at Carnegie Hall, and we had remote audiences in L.A., Chicago, and Detroit viewing the event via satellite," Hennegen says. "Obviously, CBS is a very sophisticated client that produces countless hours of news and sports. They brought in a production truck for the satellite feed, and they used us for delivering the images to the live audience at Carnegie."

Hennegen says the live Carnegie Hall audience was watching playback of the new shows and presentation graphics. The screen was large and the graphics and tape playback needed to be of the highest quality both because of the screen-size to viewing-distance ratio and the fact that CBS is extremely particular about the quality of its images.

"CBS creates very elegant presentation graphics produced by some of the best graphic designers in the business," Hennegen says. "When they hit the screen, they need to be razor sharp. So, we took the graphics feed from the computers direct to the screen in high resolution and scan-converted the feed to video resolution to send to the truck so that it could be cut into the satellite feed. The tape playback came to us from the truck in composite, and we did precision decoding and enhancement for the send to the projection screen. Put another way, we handled the high-res, switching, image processing, and the projection, and the truck cut the show for the remote audience."

Hennegen says the projectors had to be whisper quiet since the projection position was in the center balcony box in the back of Carnegie Hall. "We had audience sitting on either side, above us, and below us in an environment that is world renowned for its acoustics," he says. "The projectors needed to be the brightest available, which usually means a great deal of fan noise. We used Panasonic PT-9600 projectors, which produce 12,000 lumens at 1280x1024 resolution. These projectors are unique in the 12K category because they are so quiet that you can be standing next to them and not know that they are on. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that Panasonic has designed in several levels of acoustical and electronic noise cancellation that are remarkably effective. In addition, their light management system enables them to produce 12,000 lumens while using a lower wattage bulb than their competitors. This means less cooling and less fan noise."

Asked how it differs to work with a client that self-produces rather than one that works with an outside production company, Hennegen says it’s essentially the same except that many, but not all, self-producers can sometimes require a bit more support and consultation during the process. "They generally don’t employ as elaborate a creative process - set design, graphic design, the production of video modules for use during the show, etc.- as clients who use a production company to create the look, feel, and mood of the event," he says. "Self-producers tend to be more content driven."

#3 - WEBCASTING VS. LIVE EVENTS

During the dotcom heyday and, later in the aftermath of September 11, people were predicting that webcasts would soon replace live, in-person trade events. However, says Hennegen, that has not happened. That isn’t to say that corporations aren’t using the Web as a presentation tool; they are. "Using a webcast enables the end client to extend their reach and offer the content to a wider audience than the group assembled in the room," he says. "This is a major trend that is gaining a lot of speed. At least 25% of our events are webcast, but by far the majority of the users are still the technology companies.

"We did the Oracle Applications World in April for 7,000 people and all the keynotes were webcast," Hennegen says. The event took place at the San Diego Convention Center. "Sun Microsystems also does a Developer’s Conference called ‘JavaOne,’ which is also webcast," he says. "These software companies are trying to ‘enroll’ the developer community in developing applications utilizing their software, and they want to connect with as many developers as possible."

He believes the number of companies incorporating a web element in their events will increase over time and that it will include businesses outside technology. For example, Hennegen says, "Merrill Lynch recently held a conference in San Francisco that was webcast, but it was available only to institutional clients with password protected access privileges."

#4 - DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENTS IN TECHNOLOGY

The overall improvement of presentation and display technology, as much as anything else, has fuelled the growth of corporate events. In particular, the flexibility and performance capabilities of projectors in the past ten years have astonished even an industry veteran like Hennegen. Projectors are lighter and brighter and easier to use than ever before and they are being made with an ever-growing list of features. He especially likes edge blending inside the projector itself.


The Oracle Applications World conference streamed all of its keynote addresses. (Image courtesy of VAI)

There are several manufacturers in the industry who make ever more sophisticated up and down converters and Hennegen believes it is a key trend in corporate events. "They give us the ability to scale disparate [visual] sources so that I can mix and match them anyway I choose and still maintain a quality picture. I can maintain a very high resolution on the display while combining computers with video," he says. "We can control images in such a way that we can dissect them, spread them out over multiple screen areas, and stitch them back together in a way that gives the appearance of a seamless blend."

Hennegen says the video blending technique was used successfully in German car manufacturer BMW’s launch of its 7-Series. The event took place at the Herbst Pavlion in San Francisco. The highlight was a high-definition video of the new cars produced by Jack Morton Worldwide, Los Angeles. The event opened with two 35’ wide 9:16 screens supporting the playback of a high def piece produced by Jack Morton. As the show unfolded, the screens morphed into 70’ wide 32:9 screens for the playback of a dual HD playback module which revealed for the first time images of the company’s new 7-Series model.

"The 70-foot wide images were viewed by audiences sitting as close as 35 feet away and required the highest resolution possible," Hennegen says. "Minimum viewing distances for high definition are generally one times the screen width. In this case, the audience was as close as one half the screen width. To compensate, we developed a four-image blend that optimized source resolution and projector brightness. This image was created by interfacing two HD feeds - one for the left and one for the right side - and splitting them amongst the four image areas. The seams where the pictures blended together had to be transparent and the images of the cars had to be perfect."

"Everyone was impressed," he says, "with both the automobiles and the show."

#5 - WIDE-SCREEN PRESENTATIONS

The advancements in screens and scalers and projectors are literally changing the shape of corporate events today. Instead of the standard 4x3 shaped screen common for television and computer monitors, corporate presenters today want the wider screens more typical of Hollywood feature films. More than any other trend, this is the one that excites Hennegen the most. He likes the wide-screen trend, personally, because it offers new creative challenges.


VAI took advantage of today’s sophisticated video blending technology to create this 70-foot long display at BMW’s launch of its 7-Series cars. (Image courtesy of VAI)

VAI recently did a series of corporate events where the main screen featured a single image nearly one-hundred feet across. "It brings a completely new look to events by reshaping the canvas," Hennegen says. "It is an ideal shape for the type of environments where meetings are held which are generally very wide, deep rooms with low ceilings. Right now we’re at the beginning of this trend. But it is only going to get more popular."

The first event to utilize this new capability was the Sun Microsystems "Americas Sales Meeting," held at the San Diego Convention Center. The production company was the Kenwood Group.

"We usually manage to confine our appetite for new challenges to the merely difficult," Hennegen says. "In the case of our collaboration with the Kenwood Group, however, the bar was set closer to impossible. We were asked to create a 100-foot video image, something that [to my knowledge] had never been done before."

Hennegen says the client was asked, "Do you want multiple images across that 100 feet or a single, continuous image?" The answer, he recalls, was, "Yes."

The technique VAI developed for the Sun event was the same one it later used for the BMW 7-Series launch.

"These are the only two shows that I know of where full-screen video played across a four-image blend," he says. "Most of the groups doing wide-screen work now are creating static backgrounds with picture-in-picture windows or computer graphic backgrounds from a system called WatchOut." Dataton developed the WatchOut software package, a multiple CPU graphics platform designed to support wide-screen or multi-screen presentations. Although VAI has used WatchOut and Hennegen likes the product, it was not used on either the BMW or the Sun event.

"What makes the BMW and Sun events so unique is that we worked with the production companies to develop production methods that would enable them to create videos that could run full screen and still retain high resolution," Hennegen says. "In the case of the Sun show, we achieved a single image that was 90-feet wide and, at the BMW event, 70-feet. Both events required video resolution that was 2x HD, and in the case of Sun, required the development of a unique production technique that allowed us to create 2x HD horizontal resolution on a single HD tape. I don’t believe that you will find anyone else that has created video images this large."


Nick Dager is a freelance writer based in Nyack, NY.


SIDEBAR

VAI Cherishes Pioneering Role

The The rental and staging business has seen some dramatic changes in the past decade, and as a pioneer, Video Applications has been involved in its share of "firsts." VAI was one of the first to interface projectors with computers. The company has also been a leader in numerous technological advances, including the use of high-definition video in live events, electronic cinema, 3D projection, moving screens and floating images, signal processing enhancements, and other innovations that have created a large canvas of options for the event designer.


VAI provided the technical support for Microsoft’s recent launch of its new gaming console at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. (Image courtesy of VAI)

Through its audio division, VAI was among the first to bring surround-sound presence to large venues in the mid ‘90s. The company has also developed what it calls "line-array" technology to take advantage of advances in speaker technology, providing greater clarity and impact with fewer speakers.

At back-to-back NAB conventions in 1998 and 1999, VAI created and produced the industry’s first demonstrations of electronic cinema. On June 18, 1999, on screens in specially equipped theaters in Los Angeles and New Jersey, VAI presented, for the first time, the all-digital, high-definition version of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. - ND