“When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things.
All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script?
That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, ‘OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?’ ”
MITCH HEDBERG | Comedian
Disclaimer: The events team for my MPI Texas Hill Country Chapter is a great group of hardworking volunteers. They put on exceptional networking and educational events. I love each and every one of them. What follows is an anecdotal case study meant to inform, educate and allow others to learn from our mistakes. It’s my least intention to make anyone look bad.
We’re very active in Meeting Professionals International here at Attendee Management. We have several members on staff. I’m a volunteer on the board of directors, but we’re also contracted to manage our chapter’s website, event registration, electronic communications and administrative duties. This sometimes forces us operate in a gray area between volunteers and paid contractors. Honestly, I don’t know if this is even relevant here. I guess I’m just in a disclaimer/disclosure kind of mood.
The task of producing a live hybrid event (that people would actually pay to see at a remote location) wasn’t exactly thrown at me a week before this event. It was thrown at me a week before a different event. I was asked to “operate the camera,” which seemed pretty reasonable at the time. Then I started asking questions. Who am I working with? Are we working with an A/V company? What system are we using to broadcast the webcast?
The answer: “We tried to get a sponsor but couldn’t. So we decided to do it ourselves. That’s why we bought a camera and asked you for help.”
I began to get nervous. My team and I are (self-proclaimed) event technology experts, but our expertise lies in registration and Web technology. Producing a livestreaming event is a whole other barrel of monkeys. It takes equipment, software and know-how that we simply didn’t have.
In an amazing stroke of luck, the next day a professional production company stepped up to sponsor this first hybrid meeting. That didn’t get us completely off the hook, but it did buy us some time to figure out how to put the pieces together for the next one.
“If I’m going to be asked to cook the meal, I’d like to be able to pick the groceries.”
BILL PARCELLS | NFL coach and Super Bowl winner
With the vision of many more hybrid meetings to come, the board had approved a $1,200 equipment budget. The events team did ask someone in the industry for advice on what to buy. Unfortunately, when we got our hands on it for testing, all we had was $1,200 worth of problems.
While testing, the $900 Canon VIXIA HF G20 HD Camcorder recorded videos of my kids in brilliant high definition, but it was too high for our DIY streaming setup. The tripod arrived broken (easy fix), and the lavalier mic was corded and intended to be plugged directly into the computer powering the webcast. This is challenging because the speaker is onstage, tethered to the computer by a mic, and the camera needs to be plugged into the same computer and placed at an appropriate distance from the stage to capture the action.
Hope was not completely lost for our super camera. After some Googling, we purchased a Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Recorder that would convert the HDMI video output to a Thunderbolt (Mac) input, thus giving us an input we could work with … in theory.
It seems to work exceptionally well when you power up each device in the correct order, the stars are properly aligned, and you ate Lucky Charms for breakfast. That’s why we threw Plan B into the bag: a high-quality Logitech Pro 9000 Webcam and some duct tape. It lacks the ability to zoom, pan and frame the shot giving the professional feel we hoped to get from the Canon, but it works every time. I duct-taped that sucker to the top of the newly replaced tripod and was up and running in seconds.
For sound, we used a MXL AC404 USB Conference Microphone. Ideally, you could plug it directly into the venue’s sound board. This would let you use the same audio feed that the in-person attendees hear through the venue speakers. Since this was a small meeting and we didn’t have a chance to do a trial run at the venue, we decided to be 100 percent self-supported. The USB conference mic worked well enough. We ran a long extension USB cable and placed it on the lectern.
At the speaker’s request, we handled all questions from the remote location through chat messages to minimize disruptions. That was a bit of a relief because it’s really easy to create a terrible feedback loop when everyone is mic’d up. However, for a true dual location hybrid meeting, we’ll need to pull this off. At this particular location, there happened to be an audio input to the venue’s sound system in a convenient location. Worst-case scenario, a decent pair of computer speakers would do the trick for a simple Q&A session. If you go this route, make sure you can mute other mics to avoid feedback.
Overwhelmingly, the choices we made in equipment erred on the side of caution, familiarity and reliability. This mantra didn’t change with the software. GoToMeeting provides a reliable platform with built-in videoconferencing and screen-sharing. This allowed me to use my computer for the video stream of the speaker. Additionally, the speaker joined the meeting and screen-shared her PowerPoint presentation with the remote audience.
At the remote location, we had one team member dialed in to GoToMeeting on a laptop and connected to a flat-screen TV. This person could switch between the speaker’s video and the presentation notes or see both simultaneously. GoToMeeting also features a built-in recording option for editing and/or posting later.
There are tons of other options out there. Google Hangouts, Join.me and Skype all play in the same arena as GoToMeeting. There also are dedicated applications for mixing and producing streaming content like Xsplit Broadcaster and Livestream Studio, but that’s beyond the scope of what we were trying to accomplish.
Remember that professional production company that bailed us out of the first meeting? Guess what software they use? If you said GoToMeeting, you’ve won a free hug.
Just make it happen
The road to hybrid success is often booby-trapped with poor Internet connections, uncooperative venues and crazy freewheeling speakers. We once had a speaker become irate about being taped — after he’d given his presentation clearly in front of a camera and signed a contract saying it might be recorded. Some like to roam the audience or shout instead of speaking into the mic. This may play well in person, but it’s completely lost to a remote audience.
This all might sound a little haphazard and amateurish, and it totally was. None of us had ever attempted anything quite like this. We’re members and volunteers of the chapter, not A/V contractors. The reasonable budget we’d had was spent on equipment we couldn’t use. What we did have was a smart and diligent team and the will to make it happen. The feedback from the remote location was nothing but positive. For the next meeting, the size of the room at the remote location has already been extended, and we’ll only be better.
It seems appropriate to close with one more Mitch Hedberg joke: “I’m a hard act to follow,” he says, “because when I’m done, I take the microphone with me.”