With the onset of COVID-19, the demand for broadcast-quality virtual events has risen tenfold. Early adopters of the new age of virtual events, recently surpassing a million delegates for its virtual event solutions in 2020, is creative communications agency, DRPG. The company’s bases in the Midlands, Windsor, the North and central London include 4.2 acres of production facilities, eight fully equipped edit suites, two state-of-the-art studios, digital innovation labs, a dedicated print facility, 3D projection cinema, construction centre and contemporary design suite – consolidating the firm’s growing reputation as a virtual events virtuoso.
Before COVID-19 tossed the proverbial live events prep sheet out of the window, DRPG was among the few firms seeking ways to improve internal processes in the company, exploring what communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams, SharePoint and other Microsoft Power Apps could offer the creative communications agency and its growing list of clients.
While overseeing the firm’s transition to Microsoft Teams in a bid to streamline internal communication, DRPG Production Manager, Andy Melsom discovered that his remit was beginning to snowball, as such, he was named the Head of Systems for company-wide departments during the COVID-19 crisis. “Essentially, supporting the business while IT was dealing with the transition to remote WFH setups and other systems,” he clarified. “We had reached a point where most of our ‘live’ team were using Microsoft Teams. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were at an advantage.”
Given the company’s developing knowledge of Microsoft Teams, Melsom assisted with the roll-out of new and revamped systems, introducing HubSpot’s free CRM platform along with Microsoft SharePoint to create an integrated platform for the business.
“As a PM, I’m familiar with problem solving, which helps with the IT systems required for this role. While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the live events industry, we have devoted this time to innovation,” he remarked. “Surprisingly, without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity or time to move their systems online.”
Shifting from an on-premise server which requires VPN to access files, DRPG now operates in the ‘cloud’, which means everyone can work from home with no connection issues, helping with the delivery of virtual events amid the lockdown of in-person audiences. The company’s bespoke platform, built by an in-house design team, caters for the rising demand for virtual and hybrid events going forward. “The infrastructure of our virtual events, such as bringing in delegates and presenters, is built from the Microsoft Teams platform,” Melsom explained.
DRPG typically produces around six virtual events a year, however, over the course of six months last year, the firm oversaw over 450 live programmes broadcast from its studios, with audiences varying from 70,000 to just 100 delegates. Daily programmes included conferences, debates, leadership development, award ceremonies, exhibitions, product launches, experiential, team building, music and food festivals and game shows, among others.
“Our heritage is based firmly in film and video production, combining this with our global events experience, digital solutions and creative content development, we were able to expand our virtual offering overnight,” commented DRPG CEO, Dale Parmenter. “It has meant considerable investment in the creation of more physical and virtual studios, plus we have continued to recruit new team members and retrain existing ones.”
With a dedicated creative services department which handles digital, live and communications, the company strives to improve and develop new ideas. “With us having the studios, creatives and kit in house, we are able to innovate without the overheads of outsourcing from a third party,” Melsom reported. “However, one thing we are finding difficult is keeping the engagement of virtual audiences.”
That’s where DRPG’s in-house team comes to the fore, generating ideas to keep people engaged. “It’s difficult to maintain the attention span of virtual audiences, however, what we can offer is the ability to provide immersive Q&As and gift packages to keep audiences engaged at home, so it feels like they’re part of a wider network.”
In addition to catering for corporations, DRPG prides itself on delivering virtual solutions to several local businesses and charities during the ban on mass gatherings.
Of equal importance to DRPG, Melsom underlined, is supporting the next generation of live events and AV professionals through its academy of learning. “Our academy hub is a driving force to upskill people and use this time where some people, certainly those involved in live events, don’t necessarily have as much to do. We want them to learn as much as they can during this downtime and make sure there are highly skilled people able to do a range of jobs when it is safe to do so.”
Melsom believes that despite the difficult situation the sector finds itself in, there will be a huge variation of job opportunities available to industry newcomers when the industry returns to its full capacity. “We are essentially considered an ‘invisible’ industry to the masses. People realise the hard work which goes into building an event, from a conference to a music festival, and we need those skills to deliver live events, which is a driving force in the UK economy.”
So, what is his advice to those looking to break into the sector at this tough time? “Keep communicating and networking with companies, friends and colleagues. There are lots of free resources out there – you can deliver these events without having to invest too much,” he added. “Use this time to develop your skill set because, when the industry returns, it’s going to require skilled individuals to cater for the demand for live experiences.”
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE LIVESTREAMED
DRPG staff and key decision makers have embarked on secondments amid the crisis, operating in other areas of the business – providing a workforce that is not only multiskilled but an agency which is multifaceted. The venue sourcing team has been collaborating with the research and insights team, project managers involved in live events have transitioned to virtual events and upskilled.
While live events with audiences will eventually return stronger than ever, audiences and clients in the meantime are weighing up their current options. “Hybrid events will be even more important and increased engagement with audiences will be crucial going forward. Businesses have had to turn their usual delivery of events on their head with at-home audiences, so there is more of a focus to be reactive and put processes and procedures in place to acclimatise to the market,” Melsom theorised.
Key to DRPG’s success is presenting an authentic experience for clients, whether that is virtual or live. “We have embedded a holistic approach to all of our projects going forward to create a bespoke experience for those at home. With our team moving around and filling in any gaps, we can bolt-on livestreams and virtual options to the physical event when it is safe to do so, providing us with an opportunity to push the boundaries and eschew the pre-existing conventions of a live event.”
While COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the live events sector, it has also highlighted the importance of technology to communicate and deliver alternative events. “We can use technology to get better results,” Melsom stated plainly. “We’re seeing conferences and live events rely on the likes of Fortnite and other online video game platforms to immerse audiences in their content. It’s also about public confidence, for those who do not feel comfortable congregating when it is safe to do so, therein more empathy for technology and the various options available.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, for all the devastation it has caused, appears to have shown businesses what can be done; as opposed to an upsell, there are benefits to adopting the likes of VR, XR and virtual events. DRPG webinars are now seen as miniature TV shows, high-quality broadcast events. “Although creating virtual events can be a big initial investment, we have already seen it pay off. There’s a growing confidence of clients exploring the parameters of what a live event can be,” Melsom said.
Parmenter concluded: “It has been a tough year and there are more challenges to come, but we have proven in 2020 that by working together flexibly and remotely, we are still able to achieve great results and remain a safe, secure and trusted partner, delivering great results for our clients even in times of crisis. We face yet more uncertain times in 2021, but it is a credit to the team that we face it from a standpoint of stability, and ready to take on the challenges.”
This article originally appeared in issue #258 of TPi, which you can read here.