2020 has been a year of pandemics, pain and pivots for the events industry. Festivals, corporate events, and gloriously spectacular Awards Galas like the 2020 Women in Digital Awards had to go into COVID-induced hibernation or switch online. But with Zoom fatigue at an all-time high and people craving the social enjoyment that in-person events bring, how do you bottle that energy up and create an engaging, atmospheric and memorable high-end virtual event?

Honestly, as we began planning the 2020 Women in Digital Awards we did not have the answer. Every year we set ourselves the auspicious task of going bigger and better than the year before but there is nothing that will knock the wind out of your large-scale-event-planning-sails quite like a global pandemic.

Back to the drawing board, we knew that we wanted to capture the Women in Digital Awards in all of its glory and not lose a teaspoon of the special sauce that makes the night (click here to watch the 2019 Women in Digital Awards video, you’ll see what we mean).

So we called in our favourite AV-partner, the team that helped us execute the awards last year, and asked them “how are we going to do this?” They have held our hand every step of the way and we are excited to sit down with Gareth Percey, Director of Scene Change, today to ask him all your virtual event planning questions.

Get your notepads ready.

What a year! Before we deep dive into creating a high-end virtual event we want to first ask – how are you doing?

As with all businesses within the live events industry it has been really tough especially during the early stages of COVID. It was hard to see literally hundreds of events that we had been working on for a long period of time disappear almost overnight. But with every situation, you need to focus on the positives and look for opportunities for us to pivot the business so we could survive. We have certainly experienced every emotion possible over the past 8 months but we are still here and still producing events, just a little differently now.

When 2020 first kicked off – what did you picture your year would look like?

At the start of the year we finally had the opportunity to reflect on how big a year 2019 was for Scene Change not only here in Brisbane but right throughout the group. Plans were being put in place to further expand the business and restructure our staffing to accommodate, we had identified some key staff acquisitions that we were lining up. Everything was looking rosy. I said to my business partner “I’ve got a great feeling about 2020, we are going to take this thing to another level, things are starting to come together”…… well it’s fair to say it went to another level just not in the right direction, how wrong I was hey.

And then March hit – and overnight all events were shut down and you saw your calendar going from being entirely booked out to empty. What were those initial few days and weeks like?

Those early days were horrific, it got to the point where I didn’t want to open up my emails or answer my phone, each call or email was another event cancellation. My initial thoughts were that this was a short term shut down and we will be back to “normal” in a matter of months, sadly I was wrong. Our first instinct was to formulate a plan to keep our team together. Over the years when you put together such a strong group of AV professionals you need to hang on to them so that was our focus.

Okay – so onto your comeback story. Tell us, how did you go from being an AV company to an all-in-one production studio for high-end virtual events overnight?

For us, once we got over the initial shock of what was going on, the focus turned to our staff and keeping them active, using this opportunity to catch up on the training we always wanted to do on that new piece of gear that we never quite had a chance to organise.

Similar to Stage Kings we had a team that had their own skill sets that were used to deliver the traditional corporate events day in day out. We had audio specialists, video specialists, lighting specialists and IT specialists, and we were unable to utilise those skills in the normal way due to Government restrictions. So we needed to cross-train our staff and create more-rounded technicians. Our video technicians now know how to operate lighting systems and our audio team can now run complex video systems. It’s been something they have really embraced and are better technicians for it.

It became obvious pretty early on that in-person events were a long way from coming back and that there was still the need for people to communicate, share ideas and stay connected, it’s what we humans do.

So the question was how do we help people do this with a warehouse full of near-new equipment that is not being used and a group of talented technicians with a lot of spare time on their hands? What started off as a training exercise ended up turning into a fully equipped class-leading online event studio. One day the studio included a simple LED Wall backdrop and stage, the next it included a concert-quality PA System, fully programmable LED backdrop and an intelligent lighting rig to make any production manager happy. It’s fair to say we got a little carried away and the spec could be seen as a little excessive, but hey if you’ve got the technology you might as well use it.

It has been such an exciting time to see this all come together and for it to be so successful in such a short amount of time. Our technical team are the real stars here, they have been the driving force on this whole journey pushing every boundary possible.

What has been the most surprising thing for you during the pivot process?

How long it has taken people to embrace this new method of communication. It’s something that has been a part of traditional events for a long time however now it’s at the forefront rather than being a small piece of the puzzle. That and the fact people accept low-quality video call platforms as being the standard way to communicate at a corporate level.

You run tens to hundreds of events each and every year. What have been some of your favourite events this year? And what did they do particularly well to adapt to the virtual format?

Well the Women in Digital Awards of course!

It’s always fun to stage an event that has a real strong element of human connection to it. My favourite part of the event is when the doors open and guests enter the room for the first time. It makes the whole thing worthwhile to see people’s amazement and hear their comments about how the room looks. I have really enjoyed producing the online awards nights we have been involved in for a similar reason, in this case winning an award or being recognised for something and being able to capture that initial reaction in real-time. It is priceless and this was something that we were able to capture this year for the WID Awards. A lot of people are suffering from online fatigue so to do something special and something that evokes a raw emotional response is amazing and to provide that experience is a privilege.

To someone planning a virtual event, what would be your three key pieces of advice?

  1. Keep your mind open to new ideas and concepts and be willing to drop the traditional format of events.
  2. If you don’t already have one, find a production team that you trust and listen to them. They know how to get your message across and will be able to guide you through the design and delivery process. Please please please engage with your technical team as soon as you can, as soon as the idea pops into your head.
  3. Embrace the technology. Have fun with it, get creative, push boundaries and be prepared to invest a larger portion of the event budget into the technical. Traditionally only a few hundred delegates can be involved in an event. Now you have the ability to reach just about anyone around the globe, it’s an exciting time so why not run with it.

This is a pretty broad question but in a couple of sentences, where do you start? can you explain how an organisation might move their in-person event online, and what they need to consider before doing so?

First step is to consider what you want to achieve with the event, is it to recognise staff? Is it to communicate with a broader audience? Is it educational? Are you selling a product? Or is it just to stay relevant with your industry peers? Think about what features you need to incorporate. Do you need to interact with your audience and at what level? Do you require additional features such as Q&A or polling to do this? Do you need to interact with your audience in real-time?

The next step is to consider what you want the end users experience to be like how will the features be accessible to them and what will the website or platform look like, can you include branding that sort of thing, but most importantly get your technical team involved early, I really can’t stress that enough.

What are the benefits of an organisation pushing ahead with an online event instead of postponing it?

Staying relevant and engaged with your audience, this new platform allows you to reach a bigger audience than ever before. Your reach is only limited by the effort you invest. There are a lot of organisations that have battened down the hatches and stopped communicating. Here is your opportunity to take advantage of their negative approach and get a few steps ahead of them ready for better days.

How far in advance should you start planning for a large scale event like an Awards Gala?

An awards gala has many moving parts so it’s best to start planning as soon as possible, maybe three to six months out. With WID we started the process just over 6 months from the event date and that was plenty. For a simpler event format, we can turn them around in a matter of days if required.

Would the organisation planning the event need to provide the venue or do you organise that for them?

It all depends. The beauty of this technology and the way we package it up is that we can deliver an online event almost anywhere, well anywhere we have access to the internet. Having said that, we do also have a purpose-built studio full of all the gear you need to right on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD so we can assist with providing a venue for you if required.

What equipment does Scene Change provide/have?

Large screen video, audio, lighting, staging, cameras and all the back-end systems for streaming events online and bringing in remote presenters.

What sort of team does the company need to have (ie. event coordinator, admin coordinator etc.) to pull off this type of event?

We can obviously supply all the technical crew required, audio, video and lighting specialists, webcast technicians, camera operators, technical directors, producers, autocue operators and stage managers, basically the full event-tech team. From the other side of things, it’s best to supply a single point of contact like an event coordinator as a minimum, if you have an inhouse or preferred graphic designer or creative team that knows your brand they can be brought on board to design the visual assets required. The bigger the project the bigger the team is required to share the load as there are a lot of moving parts and elements that need to be coordinated.

The ol’ Live Stream vs. Pre-Recorded debate. In your professional experience, which one is better? Or is it a blend?

This is a good question with a simple answer, it’s about creating a balance and understanding what style of event you are wanting to produce. In the case of the WID Awards, it was a blend of both but heavily weighted to the pre-recorded content. Pre Recording key speeches and other elements allow you to rerecord it until you get it right. Prerecording content also reduces the risk of technical issues and relieves some of the pressure on your technical team. But you still need to have that live content in there as well so that it doesn’t feel too sterile. This live element will enhance the human connection and provide personality and that’s the key, getting that balance.

Something a lot of virtual events feel like they are missing is the atmosphere. Do you have any tips for creating an engaging and enjoyable virtual event?

Incorporate some of the elements found in traditional events such as lighting and visual effects, stage sets also add an extra element. Think about how you can provide that atmosphere by including audio grabs of audience noise, applause that sort of thing but above all have fun it, enjoy the experience and don’t get bogged down in being too serious, by the way I do love a good bloopers reel so consider packaging up the outtakes to add some humour.

In the initial meeting, what kind of information do you need from an organisation to help them plan their event?

Where? When? And why? If you can answer those questions then we can guide you from there. The most important is why, you need to know why you are staging this online event. The rest is simple.

Is there anything we have missed that you think we (and other event-planning people) need to know?

Embrace this new platform and be prepared to push the boundaries of what you believe online events to be. Most importantly have some fun.

You have now set up your Brisbane Virtual Event Studio in the Hotel Grand Chancellor – how can people get in touch with you if they need assistance producing their own high-end virtual event?

My phone is always on so give me a call, whether you are thinking about staging an event with our team here at Scene Change or just want to learn more I am more than happy to have a chat and answer any questions you may have.

This new vehicle of communication is here to stay so the more you know the more you embrace it as a legitimate platform and the more you understand how this can be incorporated into your corporate events the more successful your event will be.

Thank you so much to Gareth and the team from Scene Change for chatting to us and of course, their support in helping us navigate a virtual stage during a pandemic!

For more on Scenechange, read our blog with Gareth on diversity in AV and don’t forget to check out everything they do on their website, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.