YOUR LOOKS — IF YOU'RE LUCKY — may not have changed much in 10 years. But it's remarkable how much the special event industry has. This point came home recently to event producer Halle Becker-Henkin, head of New York-based Comet Productions, who produced the 100th anniversary celebration of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1991 and the 110th anniversary bash in September.

For one thing, technology breakthroughs unimaginable in 1991 made producing the 2001 event more efficient. For example, 10 years ago, it was essential to make personal trips to the event site.

Technology advances over the last ten years have significantly changed the way an event is produced.

“In 1991, the IBEW centennial was in St. Louis, and we had to fly there a lot because everything had to be done and viewed and approved on site — seeing the set, auditioning the dancers, casting the talent,” Becker-Henkin recalls. “It was great for frequent flyer miles but bad for time management.”

Since then, a number of new innovations have significantly changed that requirement. Among them:

E-mail is now used to send set renderings worldwide almost instantly.

By burning music on handy compact discs, music can be sent digitally as well.

Pre-programmable and WYSIWYG lighting enable crews to preview and program all lighting cues in a studio by viewing a computer-generated rendering of the stage set. For the 2001 event, the closing evening concert with country superstars Brooks & Dunn, did not load in until that day, Becker-Henkin notes. “So,” she says, “we had their lighting designer send a disc of his lighting program, and we were actually able to pre-program his show, which was imperative to us to be ready on time.”

Wireless phones were around ten years ago, says Becker-Henkin, but “mine looked like an overnight bag, and it didn't work.” Today, with her tri-band phone, Becker-Henkin says she's constantly reachable.

Putting the impact of these tools into perspective, Becker-Henkin says, “I must have gone to St Louis 15 times in 1991. I went to San Francisco [site of the 2001 event] three times, and all the rest was done via e-mail, digital mail and cell phones.”

Showier Shows

In addition to the efficiency improvements they've wrought, technology advances have also made the shows showier.

Ten years ago, the stage production at the IBEW event featured a slide show. But since then, says show director David Carlin King of The Carlin Company, “We brought the IBEW into the video world.” Further, the 2001 video program featured multiple camera shots on multiple screens thanks to the Folsom switcher.

Technology has upped the ante, King says. “Clients are much smarter and their pencils are much sharper,” he says. “Their eye is better because TV and sound are so much better. We owe the audience a lot more than we used to.”

IBEW executive secretary Nancy Cleary was pleased with the 2001 event: “It was absolutely superb,” she says. But she does not believe that technology has significantly shortened the event production process. “Even though we have the latest technology, there are too many things you have to do and plan in advance,” she notes.

Similarly, Carlin stresses that technology can never replace artistry. “Even with the new tricks, there still has to be a body that understands art,” he says. “Dancers still have to know how to dance. There still has to be an artistry that flows through that.”

In the end, technology doesn't make the event, but serves its ends. “As a producer, I not only look out for the bottom line for ourselves and our profit, but also the bottom line for our clients,” Becker-Henkin says. “That's how you keep business — by working smart — and technology has given us the tools.”

Lisa Hurley is editor of Special Events magazine.