OFTEN, EVENT planners have a fairly consistent set of questions on their mind: I have a limited budget, yet I need AV — how do I set priorities in my budget? If I want lighting, sound, video, staging and decor, should I just give each part of the production a smaller piece to make sure I get some of everything?

STEP ONE: TALKING MONEY

When setting the budget for production, your first call should be to a producer or production manager you trust. You can also call two different production companies to get a good sense of what your money will get you.

In turn, the first things we will ask you are: “What is the event budget? How many people are coming? Where is it? Is there a theme?”

I realize that some planners are reluctant to get into budget discussions this early. But you absolutely need to. Why? Because some production companies specialize in large-scale events and some in intimate gatherings. Some do both and need to get a sense of which an event will be, whom to assign within their companies, and what resources to provide.

As producers and production managers, we need to know if we are dealing with the Olympics or with a dinner party for eight. The general scope of the budget will dictate a lot of decisions about the elements that make up your event. I know producers who can deal with hundreds of staff and dozens of subcontractors. Yet put them to work on a party of 30, and they break down. It's a very different mind-set.

Other questions that your production company will ask: Is the event indoors or outside under a tent? Is it here or across the country? Is it in the United States or overseas?

Some production companies are regional only. Some are national. Some are international. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. A smaller company will get you personalized service. A larger company may get you a better price on certain things, but may not be as focused on your individual event. Large national companies may be able to provide anything, anywhere, but sometimes at a big cost. Not all companies are the right fit for your event or for you.

STEP TWO: SETTING PRIORITIES

Next, how do we set the priorities in our budget? Let's review the basic production elements for most special events: lighting, sound, video, and scenery and decor. There are other elements, such as choice of venues, caterer, insurance, etc., but that's beyond the scope of this article.

LIGHTING

How do you know whether you need lighting? Try these two steps: Go into a ballroom and turn all the lights off; next, start the event. My guess is, the client won't be happy. On the other side of the spectrum (sorry, couldn't resist!): Go into a room, turn on hundreds of flashing and spinning lights, and try to conduct a board meeting. The CEO will definitely not be happy.

SOUND

Go into a well-lit ballroom, start the meeting for 1,500 people and have the presenter whisper. Or, go into a breakout room for 50 with a massive sound system for the Rolling Stones … then watch the attendees as they head for the doors! Here's a scenario that is frequently missed: In a large meeting, a board meeting or perhaps a product demo/marketing session, there is often a question-and-answer period at the end. It's very hard for anyone in the audience to hear the questions without microphones for the Q & A. And the presenters need to hear the question, so they need their own loudspeakers. The point is this: If you have information about the event, share it with the production team. Don't worry about the actual equipment; the production people will take care that.

VIDEO

In a large ballroom, you need more than one screen. The people in the back can't read the small print in the PowerPoint presentation on a screen that is 40 rows away! Use smaller screens in the back of the room. Use flat panel displays. But be careful: Too many screens can be distracting. There is such a thing as video overkill.

A large screen requires a sizeable distance from the projector to be effective. You end up losing more than half your room to production. Put a 15-by-20-foot screen or even a 10 1/2-by-14-foot screen in a small breakout room and watch the results. That close up, nobody's face looks good!

SCENERY AND DECOR

The room needs to be dressed appropriately. Florals can dress up a room. Yet thousands of florals would be absurd. A set, props and decor will carry the theme for a sales meeting or product rollout. However, scenery or props are probably not appropriate for a somber discussion of layoffs, a product recall or financial disaster. I would probably also not recommend them for a political announcement or press conference — those events are all about the speaker!

I can design a very exciting show, with all of the latest and greatest high-end video and lighting. But recently, I was at an event that made me stop and think. My doctor — a surgeon — was at the meeting to get the latest information about some surgical technique. I am glad this event had smooth, even, crisp lighting and high-definition video. I want to make sure this guy was not distracted by moving lights or fuzzy video, and that he could hear all of the words of the presenter! Make sure the production elements fit the event. Don't try to overdo the flash. The last thing I would want is to need that surgery one day, only to find out that my doctor was distracted by the production effects on Step 4 of the procedure, and only remembers from Step 7 on!

So, how do you set priorities for event elements in your budget? The answer is: You already know!

WHAT'S THE GOAL?

Somewhere along the way, either the client or you in cooperation with your client defined a set of clear goals and objectives for the event. These days, everyone wants a return on investment. Well, that's why we have a goal, and here's one of the “metrics” that can be counted. Divide your budget based on the objective of the event.

Is this a celebration or party? If it is, spend more on the scenery, lighting and props. Hands down, you get more bang for your buck with lighting and scenery during a party. We've taken a large sterile warehouse and made it into a party. For one event, we turned off the fluorescents, lit up the place with theatrical lighting and placed some strategic scenery around, and even the bank's corporate officers were smiling!

Is this a product rollout? Then high-energy lighting and sound are very important. To get the sales team fired up and the press corps bouncing in their seats, punchy music and lighting will get them moving. And if they really enjoy themselves, the reviews of the product will show it.

Is this a medical meeting to teach new techniques? Then high-definition video and clear, even lighting are key. Do you need to have handouts and giveaways, or is the presentation itself the goal? Is this something where the information is king, or is stirring up energy and emotion the goal? Decide these things, and talk to your production staff or contractor.

START EARLY

Communicate, e-mail, phone, talk, talk, talk! I can't stress enough the importance of getting together early on with production people about the event. Rarely do we say, “Oh, man, I wish I didn't have this much information about the show!” Instead you hear, “Oh, man, it would have been nice to hear about that before we got to the venue!” By working together early on, you each get a sense of what the goal of the event is, and what the production elements needed are.




Greg Poulos is head of Belmont, Mass.-based Bluefin Events, which provides audiovisual production and staging for corporate special events. The company can be reached at 617/489-7258; its Web site is www.bluefinevents.com.