When the pandemic shut down the live events and related industries last year, Signature Production Group saw an opportunity to expand its business, which provided audio, visual, and lighting solutions for in-person events. “Of course we didn’t see the opportunity at first,” owner Dave Schwarz said with a laugh. “Every couple of days we would get a phone call that this show was canceled and then that show was canceled.”
“We had no work,” like most production companies and others in the events, hospitality, and travel sectors, Schwarz told Convene, “Yet it was ‘all hands on deck’ as we adapted to the situation to come up with a service we knew our clients would need.” Signature, based outside of Chicago in St. Charles, Illinois, specialized in medium-sized events with between 250 to 5,000 attendees hosted in ballrooms or conference centers. Schwarz said the company mostly worked with agencies doing events in the pharmaceutical, medical device, food service, tech, and banking sectors.
With all that production equipment for in-person events sitting idle due to COVID-19 cancellations, Schwarz and his team had a chance to reassess its business model. Because he had “the perfect combination of team members” with knowledge of online broadcasting and its systems and his own experience in traditional broadcasting, Schwarz and his team adapted to the new reality. Between March and April 2020, Signature created its first virtual broadcast control room and began doing demos with agencies and their clients. But that proved to be too forward-thinking for some, who said, according to Schwarz, “This is really clever that you figured that out, but we do live events. We’re waiting for live events to come back.”
His team wasn’t discouraged, Schwarz said, and they continued to hone skills and do more research and development on what they could produce for clients. And they pitched more potential clients. By mid-April, Signature did its first virtual events — a series of continuing medical education programs taking place multiple days of the week over several weeks. While doing these programs — which they still do — the team realized they would need more control rooms and more employees with specialized skills, Schwarz said.
The hiring started with “a world-class networking guy,” Schwarz said, and eventually led him to triple the number of employees working at his company. He also invested in equipment and infrastructure, building 10 broadcast control rooms — five in a brand-new, second building that now houses an LED studio/XR stage for hosts or live presenters who are broadcasting to a virtual audience. The expanded team also has developed its own software to smooth glitches in the broadcasting and virtual presenting areas. The company continues to invest as it prepares for the return to in-person meetings and the expansion of hybrid events.
Making the decision to invest in the company during a nearly complete close of business didn’t come without some doubts. “To commit to making those types of purchases, those types of investments when we had [no money] coming in was,” Schwarz said, “a little nerve-racking.”
The risk paid off, however, and those agencies who initially hadn’t seen the importance of virtual came back because “they realized their clients needed more than Zoom meetings,” he said. The company has quadrupled the number of agencies it works with, he said, and it increased its sales significantly in 2020 over 2019.
That success has created a ripple effect, Schwarz said. Signature has contributed to the economic recovery in the area, he said, because the company is located minutes from DuPage Airport and Flight Center, which services corporate flights. That allows easy access for event speakers and hosts coming into the area to present from Signature’s LED studio/XR stage who sometimes have to stay multiple days in local hotels.
But what he prizes most about the company’s journey over the last year, Schwarz said, was that he did not have to furlough or lay off any employees, and was able to let them explore abilities they may not have used on the job previously, or learn new skills.
“I appreciate how our team worked together, and everyone played a very specific and unique role,” he said. “As a business owner, to be able to keep that many people employed and hire more and contribute to the local economy is something I never would have imagined,” he said, “because I was always thinking that my little world was just the ballrooms and the conference centers.”
Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.