Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 2012

Online: Going the Distance

By Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP


When travel issues threaten to keep a key speaker from your meeting, here’s how technology — and planning — can bridge the gap.


You’ve identified the perfect speaker for your meeting — one whose message will resonate with your audience and have them hanging on every word.  But there’s a problem: Time or budgetary constraints prevent you from having that speaker at your meeting.

Such was the dilemma we faced at Convening Leaders in San Diego in January.  We were keen on having game designer Jane McGonigal as our opening general session speaker.  McGonigal is world-renowned for creating games for organizations including the American Heart Association and the International Olympic Committee.  “We knew that Jane would make an impact within the Convening Leaders community,” said Brad Lewis, executive director of the PCMA Education Foundation and PCMA’s head of education for the 2012 meeting.  “We also knew that getting her to San Diego would be a challenge.”

McGonigal’s presentation would only be 20 minutes long, and making the trip from the San Francisco area, where she is based, to San Diego was less than optimal.  “Jane is very protective of her time,” Lewis said.  “She’s very selective with her engagements and how they affect her schedule.”

Then Jennifer Bird Bowen, an agent with The Leigh Bureau, which represents McGonigal, proposed that the game designer deliver her remarks via a remote broadcast.  “I was open to the suggestion,” Lewis said.  “I thought it could fit into our mantra of innovation and risk-taking, while demonstrating another way to deliver a general session.”

The idea of using Skype was quickly discarded; the platform, prone to lags, is not compatible with the IMAG projection system that PCMA was using at the San Diego Convention Center.  And production values for the 3,100-person session were high: McGonigal’s image would appear on two 11-by-20-foot screens at the front of the room and two 9-by-16-foot screens placed over the audience.

Technicians with Freeman, PCMA’s technology partner, couldn’t test the on-site connection before their arrival in San Diego a few days before the January meeting.  Instead, they tested it the Friday before the Monday session, and then early that morning.  Freeman also flew a producer to San Francisco to double-check the connection at the videoconferencing facility where McGonigal would be making the broadcast.

The presentation would be live — but not without a net.  Freeman was ready in the event that the audio or video (or both) failed.  If the video dropped out, the audience would hear McGonigal talking them through her slides.  In the worst-case scenario — that both video and audio failed — a clip of McGonigal’s 2010 TEDTalk was on standby.  An alternative script was loaded onto the main stage teleprompter, to minimize potential disruptions to the session.

Fortunately, Plan A worked.  Not perfectly: Bill Knight, a production manager at Freeman, noted that there were occasional audio challenges for McGonigal, and that the conference-room lighting in San Francisco could have been improved.  Still, the session demonstrated that technology can deliver a powerful meeting experience.

Breakout: The Specs

Remote broadcasts can solve a number of problems, but they aren’t inexpensive: meeting organizers can expect to pay about $25,000 to produce a remote broadcast similar to the one delivered by Jane McGonigal at Convening Leaders.  However, expect to reduce speaker fees by as much as 75 percent, and eliminate or minimize a speaker’s travel expenses.

This list outlines the technology and production needs for McGonigal’s presentation.  If you’re producing a hybrid meeting, chances are you’ll have some of this equipment already budgeted:

On-site
  • Rented Polycom HDX 8006 videoconferencing system from VER
  • T1 line with dedicated 6 Mbps and 2 drops
Off-site
  • Lifesize Room 220 videoconferencing system
  • Remote producer fee/expenses
More Resources
Watch Jane McGonigal’s TED presentation — PCMA’s contingency plan in the event of a total video and audio failure — at convn.org/ted-mcgonigal  

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