A Case Study on Hybrid Conference and Rally Planning
ArchiteX produces National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington Institute conference in a post-pandemic world
National Council of Jewish Women meets every three years for their Washington Institute Conference, which convenes members from around the country in Washington, DC to learn from experts, strengthen advocacy skills, connect with activists, and travel to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and their staff on critical issues. After holding their gatherings virtually as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2022 marks the first large scale hybrid Washington Institute Conference in the last two years. ArchiteX has been producing NCJW’s high profile virtual offerings throughout the pandemic, including their 73 Forward Abortion Access campaign launch and Broadway Benefit concert. Through close cooperation from NCJW, the event planning organization 3 Pillars, the Capital Hilton Hotel and the Capital Police, we produced a large scale, fully hybrid, three day conference culminating in a rally at the US Capitol Building.
The conference began with two days of in-person meetings at the Capital Hilton hotel, with two plenaries on the main stage each day and multiple workshop sessions in breakout rooms. To tie in the virtual audience, all programming on the main stage was designed to be live streamed. Ample care was given when integrating the virtual and in-person audiences by introducing polling and special designed virtual only workshops to the online platform. For the final day of the conference, attendees met for a rally at the Capital reflecting pool lawn, and were joined by attendees at home on the live stream. ArchiteX provided the technical design, infrastructure, and management to integrate the two worlds.
Designing the Main Stage
With an estimated attendance of 300, we designed the General session with two goals in mind: to provide an engaging experience for in-person attendees and an accessible, professional looking, stage set for records and simulcasting. In order to achieve these goals, we specified two 13’x7’ outboard screens for IMAG, graphics, and playback and a 24’x13.5’ center screen, flush with the stage. The center screen allowed us to fully customize the backdrop of the stage on a session by session basis, which allowed for clear branding as the background of all camera shots. Furthermore, it allowed us to display pre-recorded segments on all three screens, giving an ‘on stage’ feel to prerecorded sessions.
The lighting system was designed with maximum flexibility in mind to accommodate any last minute set or program changes. Hybrid fixtures with full shutters provided a stage wash and side light, with intelligent moving washes providing hair light. Video and lighting teams worked in concert to ensure that all stage wash was even and color balanced.
The audio system was designed to provide separate mixes for broadcast and the in-room PA, with additional sends to talent holding backstage and fold-back monitors on stage. We provided enough wireless handheld and lavaliere/headset microphones to accommodate all talent requests.
Our team requested proposals from a number of external vendors and the in-house production provider. We assessed each of these proposals, paying attention to how well the cost, equipment listed, and operational style of each company matched with NCJW’s needs. After narrowing it down to two closely matched vendors in pricing, ultimately, we recommended the vendor with the most flexible operational style to best accommodate any last minute changes.
We specified separate video switchers for in-person screens and the virtual audience, paying specific attention to which sources would need to be synced across both switchers and which could be loaded independently. In order to achieve audio sync with the audio console, camera feeds and video playback were routed through a matrix and sent to both switchers. Additional sources were routed separately to each switcher as described in the graphic below.
In addition to sourcing and managing the local equipment and labor vendor, our team also provided a show-caller, stage manager, and technical director/producer. The show-caller and stage manager worked in concert with the technical crew to execute all cues at a high level. The technical director/producer focused on ensuring that the build was on time and within budget and interfaced with NCJW’s team to communicate any programmatic changes while the show was running.
Accessibility was at the forefront of design for both the in-person and virtual world. The main stage was outfitted with a ramp fitting ADA standards, and the direction of the ballroom orientation was designed to allow the room’s accessibility ramp to serve as one of the two audience entrances. While we did price out a backstage wheelchair lift for the stage, NCJW’s priority was to always make accessibility a visible priority as part of their advocacy work. Captioning was also available in multiple ways - live on the outboard screens of the main stage, available virtually in the live stream video player, and available on a mobile-friendly webpage for attendees who self-identified as needing access to either larger text or compatibility with a screen-reader app.
Producing a Passionate Rally
While one production manager was dedicated to the hotel conference, another was working on the rally from inceptionthrough all of the hurdles including location changes, permitting issues, technical difficulties and security concerns. The Rally for Abortion Justice was originally slated to take place in front of the Supreme Court, a location made more poignant by their leaked opinion just two weeks before the conference. However, due to the increased security measures undertaken at the Supreme Court, access to the area was no longer possible. NCJW staff worked tirelessly to apply for permits at other high profile Washington, DC, locations that could accommodate the 1000 person estimated attendance and the stage and audio equipment necessary to support such a crowd. Our producer worked with the Capital Police to provide a thorough production plan and eventually secure the logistics for staging the rally at Union Square. This new location in front of the Capital reflecting pool framed the Capital building as a powerful backdrop.
To bridge the gap between the virtual audience and the in-room audience for the plenaries, we integrated a remote polling platform accessible on everyone’s mobile device. This allowed us to poll both groups together simultaneously. This made sure both groups’ choices, ideas, and votes were part of the data collected. The platform we selected for this was Mentimeter, an interactive polling platform, for its ease of use and customization options. NCJW’s team was able to custom design both multiple choice polls and custom write in questions that we displayed as graphs, charts, and word-clouds being filled in and voted on in real time on the main stage screens.
The remote ArchiteX staff included technical support for the virtual platform in the form of a platform manager and two platform technicians, along with two Zoom technicians managing the virtual workshops.
The technical event platform for this conference, InEvent, was built, designed, and managed by 3 Pillars. This allowed our team to focus on the live streams in the platform and the in-person technical design. ArchiteX did provide some platform technical support but did not build out the back-end of the platform ourselves. This made it more difficult for our remote team to to troubleshoot issues when they arose. In retrospect splitting the platform management in this way, with one team as the ‘IT’ team and the other as the design team, could have worked better had the team providing support also been the team who managed the creation of the sessions and their links within the platform. We would recommend in the future that one team takes on full platform management, or that the technical team take on programming all streaming elements.
In addition to our technical team — both in-person and remote — we had a documentation team onsite capturing the experience through both photography and videography during the conference. This allowed them to roam separately and take candid, still, and motion capture of the event, while also formally capturing award moments, photo ops at donor events, and high profile speakers. Our team’s graphic designer for the conference was also the event photographer, allowing him to be onsite for last minute graphic changes without adding any additional cost to the bill for another role, or extra travel costs. We look for opportunity to combine roles on our team. This allows the team members most involved in pre-production with a thorough understanding of the event to help execute and solve problems quickly onsite.
Cost-Saving Measures & Best Practices in Hybrid Conference Production
Working with a production firm that will manage AV vendors and send out Requests For Proposal can allow non-profits to source competitive pricing and get the best equipment for the best price
Find opportunities for integration between in-person and virtual audiences through shared polling and simultaneous sessions
Consider accessibility for both in-person and virtual attendees as part of event design throughout the pre-production process
Budgeting for a smaller staff to manage workshop sessions, both in-person and virtually, can save money on staff head-count but anything less than a “1 technician : 1 session” may lead to delayed support for speakers and attendees when multiple spaces need assistance simultaneously. If this reduction is necessary, very clear communication and expectation setting is critical to avoid upset attendees or speakers. Though you may be saving some money on staff head-count in the moment, it is always our recommendation to have that dedicated technicians to each space.
Consistency in the pre-production and onsite technical management team allows for a through-line between design and implementation and on-the-fly adaptability, and we encourage creative doubling of roles, such as our team’s graphic designer serving as the event photographer onsite
For outdoor events, have backup plans such as a fully secured and permitted secondary location to account for possible weather or other unforeseen challenges that may render the primary location non-usable.
For more information on NCJW, visit https://www.ncjw.org/