Ten or 15 years ago, if you had some moving lights and some fog at a corporate event, that was awesome. “Nowadays clients are looking for something more,” says Brendan Gray, cofounder of New York-based Number Nine lighting and design consulting firm. “Lighting rigs and scenery have trickled down to weddings and bar mitzvahs, so you have to come to the table with a high-end environment. It has to be better than the last wedding you went to.”
If you need any more proof of this trend, take a look at the MTV series My Super Sweet 16, where the production values of some teenage celebrations rival those of major rock tours back in the 90s. The public is almost continuously exposed to entertainment technology, which can be both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, clients don't need the level of education about show possibilities they once did. Gray says brand names for specialty lighting fixtures “are the Kleenex and Xerox of our world; everyone knows the lingo.” It also means clients are looking for new ways to engage an audience and are willing to go in a more innovative direction than just a few years ago. On the downside, expectations for technology have risen, and “innovative direction” can frequently mean out of the ballroom and into the zoo/aircraft carrier/atrium/(insert your own nontraditional public space here). As Gray notes, “If you're trying to engage the public, you need to go where the public is, and that's not always going to be in a theatre.”
Working in nontraditional spaces can present some unexpected challenges. Tempe, AZ-based AV Concepts recently staged an event for 5,000 attendees on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway and another on the pier at Santa Monica. “Both of these events required complex power distribution, special permitting, and high-security protocol as well as AV systems custom configured and protected for these extreme situations,” says Warren Tash, account executive at AV Concepts.
At the planning stage, these days producers and designers not only have to ask “Will it rain?” but “Will it sink?” and “Will someone trip over my power cable?”
The experiential nature of these events means that attendees are much closer to show elements, from video screens to lighting fixtures, sometimes in pop-up stores where temporary retail venues are inserted into nontraditional locations or in brand environments where members of the public are exposed to a product but may not necessarily be able to buy it, as with the Samsung and Audi showfronts in New York City. Gray says much greater importance is now placed on a high quality finish to themed elements. He explains, “When you are doing an event on a stage or in a hotel ballroom, everyone looks at it from one direction. Now people walk through displays or are in a lounge environment, and that affects the mechanics of how you focus lights and run cables. There is no backstage area to hide things.''
Because of this, he adds, “We need light sources that are small and can fit inside things, that are cool, and don't require a lot of power.'' Gray predicts that low-power LEDs, wireless power supplies, and wireless control solutions will be even more important in the future.
Howard Werner, a principal at Lightswitch, agrees saying, “LEDs have made their mark on the way we design things,” and he frequently uses Element Labs' VersaTube® and VersaTile® fixtures. He recently created an event for BeautiControl at the Gaylord Texan Hotel in Grapevine, TX, where the set was almost completely built of VersaTiles. “By sending different video signals, we could change the way it looked pretty easily,” he says. Werner, who also used LED fixtures at an event in the Lincoln Park Zoo and for the launch of the new Boeing 787 at the Washington State Convention Center, and praises them not just for their flexibility and low power usage but for ease of set up.
Audience interaction is becoming more valuable to most clients, even if the public is watching a presentation rather than walking through a themed environment. AV Concepts can now provide event attendees with their audience response system, a wireless keypad that enables them to respond instantly to questions from a meeting facilitator.
In terms of technology, the 800lb. gorilla in the room is video, not just as a giant chalk board on stage but on plasma screens in themed walkthroughs and projected on buildings and scenic elements to create a saturated environment. Tom Stimson, president of The Stimson Group, advises his lighting supply clients to broaden their scope, noting, “If you are not handling the video as well, then you are never going to be the turnkey supplier.'' He also suggests industry clients are very sophisticated and are looking for expedient solutions rather than money saving ones. He says, “You have CEOs who don't understand why they can't get the Internet up on a giant screen instantly because they can do it at home.''
Stimson describes why clients have become more technologically demanding: “For most of my adult life, professional technology came first, and consumer technology followed a few years later. Now consumer technology comes first.'' Think: flat screen monitors and home entertainment set ups, making even industry outsiders very sophisticated clients. Tash agrees, saying, “The vast majority [of our clients] now have high definition devices at home and understand clearly the need for high-tech equipment and qualified technical support.”
Werner says his company is focused on staying up to speed on media servers and video technology as the needs of the market change. He points out that, 20 years ago, people in the industry needed to know about elliposoidals and PAR cans, but now they have to work with hundreds of different fixtures plus video products and know how to network all the different elements together. “The advent of Maxedia, MBox, and Hippotizer have made our lives much easier in terms of programming,” he adds.
Environmental concerns are now starting to be addressed in the industry, as well. Gray says, “Anything that reduces our electrical footprint [such as low power fixtures] is great.” Even surprisingly simple changes can have an environmental impact. For example, AV Concepts encourages clients to send pre-produced show content such as “brag reels” to their FTP site. Over the course of a year, this eliminates the need for hundreds of plastic hard discs and the gas it takes to transport them.
As Gray says, “Flash and trash no longer wows the corporate world,” so both events producers and their clients are working to upgrade the flash, and reduce the trash.