Greener, Cleaner, Leaner: THAT Event Company and the Hybrid Revolution

Photo: John Cairns

Like everyone in the events industry, Oxford-based production supplier THAT Event Company (TEC), is looking forward to the resumption of real live events, where real people get together in real venues to celebrate the arts and culture, and are granted the freedom to enjoy themselves in a carefree fashion.

TEC Founder, James Walton’s team have missed the challenges and the satisfaction associated with a busy hands-on event schedule, but even in the midst of the most turbulent of trading conditions, he believes that the Coronavirus experience may have signposted the way towards a more diverse and resilient future for events in general.

“Long before COVID-19 struck, the drive towards sustainable, environmentally-friendly events had gathered irresistible momentum. Organisers were asking a wide range of questions about ways in which they could stage events that had the very least environmental impact possible, and looking for greener, cleaner solutions. When the pandemic brought everything to a standstill, the questions shifted towards how it would be possible to stage anything at all, and somewhere in the middle of those discussions, the two elements came together. Virtual events, at one point, were the only possibility, and we worked hard on developing our capacity to stage those. Obviously their very nature places them at the greenest end of the spectrum, and this began to fire the imagination…”

The TEC team quickly learned from their experiences, and rather than seeing themselves moving ‘back’ to pre-pandemic norms, the company sees a future where virtual and hybrid events occupy a much larger space in the market, as organisers choose to mix and match them with physical events depending on their specific requirements.

Walton continued: “Through the Virtu8 division of our company, where we use cutting edge IT and AV technologies, we can create event presentations that are pretty much unlimited in their scope. In short, some of the restrictions forced upon us by COVID have accelerated the virtual sphere and widened the possibilities across the sector. Physical events are still the life and soul of our industry but the advantages of virtual can’t now be ignored.”

A comparison of three recent TEC-serviced events illustrates Walton’s point.

The Sustainable Wedding Alliance, an industry organisation dedicated to helping its members conduct business in an ethical and sustainable way, recently held its first National summit, inviting members from across the UK to join in a discussion forum. Founder Michelle Miles contacted TEC to consult over an entirely virtual event to be recorded for streaming. The motives behind Mile’s choice were obvious – what better way to illustrate serious green credentials than by taking the summit to the participants rather than inviting delegates to add to their carbon footprint by travelling across the country. TEC deployed green screen technology for the event, creating a striking and vivid backdrop to proceedings, having first visited Miles to film her presentations and introductions. Contributor footage was then recorded via video-conferencing platforms, and edited into an end-to-end package before being streamed.

Miles, who is also an events coordinator at Fusion Events, commented: “I’d worked earlier in the year with TEC on a virtual awards ceremony staged by Oxford University, and immediately saw the potential for staging the summit in an effective, environmentally conscious way. The results looked excellent and really engaged everyone who took part and witnessed the event.”

TEC enjoys a close relationship with Oxford University and has worked with the institution on a wide range of events. Taking a step away from the fully virtual, the opening of the Roots to Seeds exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library celebrated the 400th anniversary of botany at Oxford, and was presented in person by a small panel of distinguished guests to an entirely online audience. For what was the first exhibition opening at the Bodleian in more than a year, Librarian Richard Ovenden described the hybrid event as a fitting way to resume such events, celebrating the internet’s power to connect an audience of more than six hundred around the globe. The panel, including Nobel Prize-winner Sir Paul Nurse received a very favourable reception from the online viewers.

Developing the theme further still, the Women Making History Event 2021 was, according to Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson in her opening remarks “a truly hybrid event, truly a first…” which celebrated one hundred years of women’s admission to Oxford, and was an occasion for which TEC provided all the production. Streamed live to an online audience of many thousands, the event took place at the Sheldonian Theatre in front of a smaller socially distanced gathering, during which Reeta Chakrabarti interviewed three eminent guests onstage.

Walton reflected on the day: “It was great to actually experience a live show with an audience. We supplied all the necessary audio and video production elements to meet the needs of both the audience in situ and those watching live online. It’s easy to see that as we move forward, any number of ‘normal’ events can benefit from this combined approach to delivery. On this occasion, there was the added pressure of doing everything live including the streaming, but it went off without a hitch, with more than two thousand ‘outside’ viewers joining proceedings.”

Necessity has always been the mother of invention, so the pandemic has forced events organisers and suppliers to innovate. Virtual and hybrid events, as far as Walton is concerned, are now very much part of the landscape, with ‘normal’ service set to expand rather than just resume.