‘How has the past year been for you?’ It’s a question that I’m sure most have asked and answered countless times since COVID-19 became such a dominant force in our lives. However, when speaking to a representative of a global company such as 4Wall that has a presence in a wide variety of sectors, the answer is far from straightforward.
“It’s a tricky one, as all of our offices – from New York and LA in the US, to Blackburn and London in the UK – have different specialisms,” began 4Wall Europe Managing Director, Ryan Walker. “So, it’s hard to give a simple answer about 4Wall as a whole.” He went on to give the example of the company’s New York office, which is focused heavily on the film and TV industry and has been working at almost full capacity since the initial lockdown due to the demand of that sector.
Although each office has experienced the pandemic in different ways, there is an overarching theme, which appears to have disseminated from CEO, Wes Bailey, that the company will roll with the punches and tackle each challenge as a collective. “There has been an element where the pandemic has presented an opportunity to diversify within the group,” stated Walker. “With that, we have the ability to redeploy resources across the globe to where they’re needed the most.”
While looking back at the past year, as well as adapting, the group has grown with the acquisition of Smart AV – a deal that was brokered on 2 March 2020, two weeks prior to the UK’s lockdown. The addition of Smart AV expands 4Wall’s presence in the UK, with the company having taken ownership of HSL back in April 2019.
“Some saw this as a distress sale,” said Founder and Former CEO of Smart AV, Darren Poultney, who now holds the position of Director of Global Client Strategy for 4Wall. “Alas, like most people realise, these kinds of deals take months of negotiations and it was the right time for us to sell. We were at a crossroads at Smart AV where we had to either open a new satellite operation or join a larger group.”
Choosing the latter option seemed ideal for Poultney, who saw a real affinity with 4Wall and its CEO, Bailey. “It’s all about the people when it comes to the events industry and I really liked the fact that 4Wall has purchased 10 companies in the past five years, and all the ex-owners are still involved in one form or another. That says a lot about 4Wall and it made it a much easier choice for us at Smart AV. Of course, having the backing of a large, US-based company certainly opens a number of doors to us.”
One such “door” that opened to the 4Wall UK team during 2020 was that of virtual events. “If we are being completely truthful, virtual events were not something we looked at seriously within 4Wall until COVID-19,” stated Walker bluntly. “We had offered some streaming options at conferences but, prior to 2020, we were never asked to provide anything where a speaker would be on an LED stage with a virtual environment around them.”
As with any innovation such as extended reality (XR) stages, half the battle is trying to make customers understand the technology and how it can be used. Poultney explained that there was one pop culture phenomenon that certainly helped customers’ understanding. “The filming of The Mandalorian and what they were able to achieve with XR has been a huge advantage to us, because people now understand what can be done with the technology.”
Although fully capable of reproducing a SmartStudioXR stage at any location, the 4Wall team has made a HQ for this new branch of the business at Royal Lancaster London. Having worked with the venue for several years, once COVID-19 hit, 4Wall’s European Technical Director, Scott Tompkins, phoned the hotel’s General Manager, Sally Beck, to pitch the idea of using one of the venue’s spaces to set up a semi-permanent XR studio. The studio features a 10m wide stage, with LED backdrop comprising an Absen 2.5mm LED rear wall with a ROE Visual Black Marble 4.76mm LED floor, along with a number of broadcast cameras and TV-ready lighting. The studio also has an extensive disguise media server backbone.
“Although disguise’s xR technology has been around for a while, the workflow is still very much in development and our whole team at 4Wall had to repurpose the media servers in the way we usually work with them,” stated Tompkins. “It was certainly a steep learning curve but an incredibly exciting project to be involved with.”
Along with the disguise xR technology, Tompkins also outlined his delight at the opportunity to learn about other technologies – specifically Unreal Engine. “That is one of the proudest points I have from this whole lockdown period,” stated Tompkins. “We’ve had people from our team who are now working in totally different roles than they were prior to COVID-19.”
He explained that once 4Wall went down the road of a virtual offering, it put the call out to its internal technical team and then the extended freelance network to see who would be keen to be involved in learning about the new workflows. “It’s created new careers and really turned some people’s lives around,” he enthused. “We have focused a lot on training and with disguise being so close to us, they’ve really aided in the development of this digital offering.
As well as learning a new workflow, Tompkins also highlighted the importance of finding 4Wall’s niche among all the other companies offering virtual studio solutions. “We looked at the market and we saw there were enough companies offering artists a space to perform in a converted warehouse, but few that were offering an environment where a CEO of a corporate company would be happy to present from. The fact we are set up in a luxury hotel means our corporate clients are in a familiar setting.”
So far, 4Wall has hosted over 50 customers, ranging from one-day events to conferences that span a whole week, and the team has had extremely positive feedback from the number of companies and individuals that have already used the studio.
Having got into the groove of virtual events, 4Wall discussed what the future might hold for this offering and gave its unique take on the term ‘hybrid events’. “Between the two lockdowns in the UK, we experimented with a hybrid setup when we were allowed a few people into the studio,” reflected Tompkins. He explained by the time they accounted for crew, this meant they could bring 15 extra people into the studio space. “The only issue which I constantly tell our clients is that for those on site, it will be like visiting a TV studio.”
Walker added: “It’s one of the biggest challenges for a speaker to essentially ignore an audience member in the studio and to focus on the camera. The issue is, this might mean ignoring the top 15 people in your company. The main problem you have with hybrid events is if a presenter tries to perform to both the in-person crowd and the camera, it takes something away from both mediums.”
According to the team, the idea of a hybrid event would be better thought of as a multiple stage setup. Using the company’s arrangement at the Royal Lancaster as an example, the team would have the XR stage for an online audience, which might be streamed to the main conference, then simultaneously have a more traditional stage setup in one of the hotel’s other event rooms, which could also be streamed. “Hybrid events using an XR stage are possible, but I think what we are more likely to see when we are able to have in-person events is something in the middle,” stated Walker.
Along with the in person support being given to customers, throughout 2020, 4Wall’s development team were busy creating the company’s virtual event platform, Virtual Event Pro. Entirely cloud-based and with the latest virtual production suite, Virtual Event Pro enables virtual events to run like a physical live event, with robust live streaming, presenter tools, including a virtual prompter and PPT advancer, and the ability to customise the platform, add in sponsorship opportunities and extract live analytics, as well as an array of other features.
A LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Despite opening new avenues, the team at 4Wall were very forthcoming about the future and the uncertainty of the time ahead. “I think every person at 4Wall would have a different answer as to how the next few months will look for the entertainment market,” stated Poultney. “For example, in the UK, one of the main concerns is how this year’s festival season will look; full-service rental houses are gearing up for these events, although there is still somewhat of a question mark over them.”
4Wall in the past few months has shown its own signs of preparing for this potential demand by announcing a strategic partnership with Transition Video. “Our 4Wall Blackburn location has worked alongside Transition Video for many years and already work with their high-quality kit and understand their service offering,” stated Poultney when the official announcement was made. “We are excited to be able to work even more closely with the team at Transition to further extend our offering to our client base. This alliance will also enable us to increase our capability as a one-stop shop in the UK for the festival, concerts and touring sector.”
Despite the uncertainty of the live events market, two sectors that Poultney and the rest of the team seemed fairly certain would remain steady are the corporate conference market along with the TV and film markets. When it came to the corporate work that 4Wall had been involved in, he predicted that the virtual element to these shows would continue despite the slow easing of restrictions, due to its ability to both save money as well as be more environmentally friendly.
“As everyone is aware, there have been a lot of people that have left the industry during this time and gone into other sectors,” stated Poultney as he spoke of 4Wall’s intention to ensure that new talent would be brought in to take the places of those that may have moved on during this time. “At 4Wall, we are looking closely at recruitment and working out how to bring on new people and ensure they have the right training to hit the ground running when the events industry returns to full force.”
This wish to bring on trained new people feeds into the ethos of 4Wall as a whole. “4Wall isn’t just looking at the next six months; we’re looking at the next five years,” concluded Poultney. “We want to expand which, no doubt, will involve acquiring other companies and expanding into other regions. It’s not about being the biggest; it’s about bringing in the right people.”
This article originally appeared in issue #261 of TPi, which you can read here.