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2 August 2014

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Organiser's guide - Spotlight on screens

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Offering big screens, plush seats, plenty of space and excellent AV, cinemas and auditoria are leading the way in comfy conferencing. V&E checks out the best.

IMAX 4D THEATRE - 4d_theatreRESIZED.jpg

Hollywood might be guilty of many things, but scrimping on its productions isn’t one of them. In pursuit of big-screen success, the likes of Universal and Warner Bros clamour to sign up A-list talent, pour millions into production, then primp and polish every film to glistening perfection. And when each new release is packaged up and ready to unleash on the world, it is delivered to the public via the most sophisticated and powerful AV medium in the world: the cinema.

So when a company wants to deliver a message – whether that be to its employees, customers, investors or directors – harnessing the presentation powerhouse of the big screen makes sense. Not only does it ensure that the message will be communicated – loud and clear – but that the recipients will be receiving it in comfort and style.

‘For comfortable seating, sound and projection, you can’t beat it,’ says Sarah Margot, marketing and events manager at advertising agency BBH. And in these straitened times, the one-stop shop approach ticks the all-important budget box too. ‘Clients like the fact that, with an auditorium, you generally need very little staging or equipment as it’s all there for you,’ explains Samme Allen, head of sales at Barbican Conference Centre.

The other good news is that here in London, there are auditoria aplenty; whether you’re looking to capture the glitz and glamour of a movie theatre, harness the impressive acoustics of a concert hall or give proceedings a sense of history with a Victorian theatre or council chamber. We’ve got it all.

Hi-spec tech

SCREENING ROOMS TWICKENHAM LIVE - 1006_Twickenham_Live_Room_(2).jpg Talking of equipment, one of the biggest draws of an auditorium is the AV kit that tends to come with it, not to mention the services of knowledgeable and experienced in-house technicians, generally all included in the venue hire charge. ‘You benefit from simpler AV set-up as auditoria tend to be built with lighting rigs and viewing galleries included,’ says Malcolm Padley, corporate communications director at Rentokil Initial which has organised several events at The Live Room at Twickenham Stadium.

Built-in LCD projection comes as standard but venues are now starting to invest in digital and high-definition projectors, along with 3D in the larger cinema chains. Delegates can even experience the touchy-feely qualities of 4D at Merlin Events’ Stardome 4D auditorium within Madame Tussauds, featuring an eight-minute interactive show for up to 250 guests.

Look out for useful little extras too. The auditorium at newly opened 30 Euston Square has an in-seat voting facility, while in the Lecture Theatre at IET London: Savoy Place, each seat comes equipped with a built-in microphone for audience participation. Simultaneous interpretation booths are on offer at the Barbican Conference Centre and the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum, and many auditoria provide infra-red hearing loop systems for the hard-of-hearing.

Local, global

SCREENING ROOMS ODEON WEST END - Odeon_West_EndRESIZED.jpg Many auditoria can also facilitate live streaming and multi-site projection, whether internally, nationally or internationally, with satellites beaming out simultaneous content to your chosen venue. Cinemas are particularly adept at this. For example, hold an event at Cineworld in London, making use of its 3D Powerpoint technology, and beam it out to one of the chain’s 79 cinemas across the UK and Ireland. You can do the same at any of the 100-strong venues in the Odeon chain and use live satellite link-up to include worldwide keynote speakers.

Teaming your presentation up with the latest blockbuster is also a good way to drum up delegate enthusiasm and boost attendance (particularly if you book a pre-release screening). Project manager Claire Renno of DCM (Digital Cinema Media) is a fan of Cineworld for private screenings. ‘The client can showcase their content on the big screen before watching a film; the feedback has always been very positive,’ she maintains. As hosts, you can tailor the decor, the drinks and the catering to fit with the theme of your movie.’

The lure of the big screen can also give dry presentations, such as company results, an enticing spin: maximise this by booking one of London’s two giant IMAX cinemas: the BFI IMAX  or IMAX at the Science Museum. You won’t have a single delegate squinting to read your PowerPoint when it’s projected on a 20 metre screen.

The extras

SCREENING ROOMS OLD VIC - 1012_Old_Vic__VIL3836_lo_resRESIZED.jpg An added bonus of hiring an auditorium at a venue like the Science Museum can often be behind-the-scenes guided tours. For example, hold a conference in the Flett Theatre at the Natural History Museum and as well as wandering the galleries and exhibitions during breaks you can enjoy talks from top scientists.

London theatres can also provide innovative added extras to liven up a conference – try music-based teambuilding sessions at the home of We Will Rock You, the Dominion Theatre or organised backstage tours at The Old Vic. (Remember, however, that Victorian theatres were not necessarily built for comfort: minimal leg room, sometimes vertiginous tiering and lack of air-con may make them unsuitable for longer conferences.)

Another benefit of using a theatre auditorium is the equipment that comes with it. Samme Allen recalls a housing company who chose the Barbican’s Theatre for its internal company conference. Adopting a Wizard of Oz theme, the conference climaxed with the COO flying in on a stage harness, dressed as Dorothy, with a rainbow projected onto the screen behind him! ‘It’s not something many conference venues could cater for but it’s all in a day’s work for a state-of-the art theatre,’ says Allen. Large backstage areas are another bonus of hiring a theatre, with dressing rooms, green rooms and VIP speaker access via the stage door all helping a conference run smoothly.

Finally, former council chambers and lecture theatres might sound unprepossessing but their interiors can add ‘wow’ factor and an evocative sense of history to a conference: check out the elegant Victorian Lydia and Manfred Gorvey Lecture Theatre at the V&A and the London Film Museum’s Debating Chamber, housed within historic County Hall (as well as the main retractable projector screen, the room houses four further screens).

Listen up!

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‘Excellent acoustics in a venue always add to the power of an event,’ explains Dominic Mahony, Hachette UK’s group human resources director. But what exactly are ‘excellent acoustics’?

‘Good acoustics are made up of a combination of different characteristics, says Helen Butcher, acoustic consultant for design and engineering outfit Arup. ‘One is the acoustic of the room – what sound sounds like in the space – but it can also mean that it’s quiet enough to hear, so there’s no distraction from noise outside. And for conferences, the most important thing is hearing the natural sound of speech. You can put speech through a loudspeaker and you’ll hear it better, but you want intelligibility with a natural sound.’

Different types of space all come with their own acoustic pros and cons. Cinemas, for example, score particularly highly on sound insulation, meaning that a conference can run immersive AV experiences side by side. ‘Separation between adjacent rooms is a given in cinemas, where there might be an arthouse film showing in one screen and Transformers next door,’ explains Butcher. This gives them the edge over conference centres in multi-purpose venues, which can be let down by travelling sound.

On the other hand, if your conference doesn’t involve multi-media fireworks, you’re best off with a regular auditorium, for the sake of your speakers. ‘Cinemas are very acoustically dead environments; they’re designed this way so that all the information the audience receives comes from the soundtrack,’ says Butcher. ‘But these can be very tiring rooms to speak in, because it’s like speaking into a vacuum – you’ll get nothing back from the room.’

If you want to test acoustics, use the good old fashioned speech test. ‘Go into an empty hall and listen to someone speaking from a lectern at the front. If you can pick up the natural sound of their speech, the acoustics will work well for a conference. They will improve further when you get lots of people in there.’

If acoustics are your top priority – for an extended programme of spoken presentations, say – you can guarantee perfect sound in one of the capital’s world-renowned concert halls. The largest are the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre and the Barbican Conference Centre. If you’re after a modern venue, look at Kings Place, where a Guardian critic described the acoustics at the opening concert as ‘warm, clear and absolutely merciless’.

Sitting comfortably?

SCREENING ROOMS ONE GREAT GEORGE STREET - One_Great_George_Street_Godfrey_Mitchel_TheatreRESIZED.jpg If you’ve ever developed a crick in your neck from craning over your colleague’s head during a lengthy presentation, you’ll know how important raked seating is and all auditoria have it. Some provide more versatility (and welcome budget savings) by making the seats retractable, such as The Live Room at Twickenham Stadium, where just under 300 seats can disappear within five minutes. The venue also has a double-height ceiling – a characteristic common to many auditoria – which not only improves acoustics but also gives a feeling of space. ‘One of the benefits of using an auditorium is scale. There’s almost nothing worse for an attendee than a cramped, hot room with low ceilings,’ says Rentokil Initial’s Malcolm Padley.

As well as the optimum sightlines, comfortably padded seats and plenty of leg room that purpose-built auditoria offer, the tiered seating also makes for easier note-taking: chairs invariably have armrests and some, such as those in the Godfrey Mitchell Theatre at One Great George Street incorporate fold-down writing tables. And if you’re running a question and answer session, an auditorium broken up with a couple of aisles between seats, such as those in the Henry Wellcome Auditorium at the Wellcome Collection, can make it easier for the facilitator to move around the room.

Fast food

Jazz up your cinema conference with some movie-themed catering:

  • Keep it simple with rustic pizzas, à la the Godfather trilogies –personalise them with company logos printed on the boxes – and serve with a nice Chianti.
  • Take a (chocolate) leaf out of Willy Wonka’s book with a lavish dessert bar, piled high with sweets and cake pops.
  • For drinks, how about James Bond’s martinis or Pulp Fiction’s extravagant milkshakes?
  • Alternatively look to the location of the film for help, a Greek mezze for Mamma Mia or get the chopsticks out for Jackie Chan’s portfolio.
  • Tailor the food around new releases, 1920s for The Great Gatsby or hearty Shire food and apple cider for The Hobbit.

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2012.


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