Necessity is the mother of all invention and two major Houston events businesses are taking it to heart.
Due to COVID-19, all major events have been canceled with little to no revenue coming in across the events industry. Enter LD Systems, one of the largest sound and lighting companies in Texas. The company has made its name with events such as RodeoHouston, ACL Festival, and Lollapalooza. Another organization pivoting is the Houston First Corporation, which operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. Both are switching gears with tricked out, professionally designed livestreaming studios, manned by some the best technicians in the business.
Both spaces feature extensive lighting, customizable stage set-ups with large screens, and video monitors capable of hosting anything from music performances, galas, and even church services. They include cutting edge technology and software able to blast productions to viewers around the world via an internet connection. The studios will allow businesses, non-profits, and performing artists a way to promote themselves and provide a much needed revenue stream in a creative setting during a time of COVID restrictions.
For LD Systems, a virtual and in-person event space was in the works for years at their north Houston campus, but the pandemic kicked those plans into high gear. As for safety measures, the resulting 5,500-square-foot Hybrid Event Studio has a dedicated load-in entrance, multiple hand sanitization stations throughout the venue, and high MERV rating carbon filters in their HVAC system.
“The intent is it becomes a cost-efficient room for clients to stage an event, whether it’s with live participants or remote participants and the technology would be here so they don’t have to rent a room somewhere and then have all the technology they needed brought in,” says Rob McKinley, president and general manager of LD Systems. “It’ll probably be part of the future in the industry of having this type of event or studio space, in addition to in-person gatherings or events.”
At the vast George R. Brown Convention Center, usually teeming with thousands of people from dozens of countries at any given time, the newly added Avenida Houston Virtual Studio is a 5,250-square-foot permanent studio. It can hold up to 4,000 in-person participants, streaming participants or audiences from the studio location, or multiple live locations into one production. There are a number of new permanent safety measures built in place to the tune of over $600,000, including thermal scanning, electrostatic spraying and sanitization, catering options, and its large size means social distancing guidelines makes in-person events an easy option.
"We're not just a studio, but a full-service hospitality partner," said Michael Heckman, CEO of Houston First Corporation. "In addition to technical support, we can offer catering, transportation, and a wide range of services as a one-stop-shop."
While the new studios aren't an end to the economic woes faced by the events companies in our vastly changed world, they are another means to keep going until the return of large-scale events. Since the coronavirus shut down all gatherings, hundreds of entertainment workers found themselves put on furlough, hotels are mostly empty, and the organizations that rely on events and galas for fundraising purposes scrambled to replace lost revenue. These new livestream studios step in to provide much needed help.
"HFC's primary role is to support the local Houston hospitality community," Heckman said. "In the March-April timeframe, we quickly knew we had to innovate and reimagine our business model. We’re really taking every precaution that we can to try and make it safe but really trying to get groups back and to be able to come in to do their business in the best way they can."
And it appears the virtual studios are here to stay in the long-term.
In the last few years, major events such as Lollapalooza and ACL Festival incorporated a streaming element with mixed results. Based on the prevalence of virtual events over the last six months, many industry insiders are predicting the virtual component to take on more prominence when live events return, perhaps with a price attached to tap into the performances. Both representatives from LD Systems and George R. Brown agree.
"That hybrid, it's going to come into musical performances, it's going to come into galas, fundraising events, several of which we've done already," McKinley says. "We're all set up where you can take that virtual audience and you can bring it into a live space and merge those two together - it's not one or the other. It can be both, that's what we see, and it's happening."