Social distancing: London venue harnesses AV tech for safer events

One venue’s experiences in using AV technology to support its safe opening after the first England lockdown could offer some ideas as businesses prepare to open up once again.

As England emerges from its second country-wide lockdown we hear from Deborah Jones, AV/IT sales manager at London venue QEII Live on her experiences and the measures the venue took when it opened for (socially distanced) events this summer. She talks to Tim Kridel. 

TK: Are there any places/use cases where AV technology makes more sense than physical objects when it comes to implementing and enforcing social distancing? For example, arrow stickers on the floor, bollards and ropes are ways to ensure that people move in a certain direction or maintain a certain distance. Maybe projectors could achieve the same goals by putting icons and words on the floor or wall. One benefit of that is more flexibility to change routes, rules, etc., and no damage to floors and walls. 

DJ: Technology often makes a difference with physical distancing where routes and queues change daily as clients change overnight.   We have a registration foyer with 24 airport style desks, each one allocated to new clients on a daily basis.  We use our HD digital signage system (OneLan); NEC screens and Exterity for any IPTV content to brand and message our delegates so not specifically for physical distancing but we are going to encourage queues to stay separate using every other registration desk and screen.  

However, our suppliers, Projected Image are using their product for this purpose elsewhere. Their client obviously had fixtures and power overhead in the right places! In my experience, the technology is more impactful but is often backed up with physical signage merely as message reinforcement.   

There are a number of social distancing products targeted at organisers for their delegates.  These are typically lanyards or smart wristbands, which glow green at the right distance but turn red if participants get too close.  They work on Bluetooth or WiFi and can be re-programmed depending on whether it’s a 2m or 1m+ ruling.  They are principally designed for workplace colleagues rather than delegates at an event though, as using these runs the risk of publicly embarrassing delegates who accidentally contravene the rules. However, where our clients demand it, we can recommend these systems especially as Covid-19 marshalling increases the chances of contravening distancing as it increases the number of people in a space!

Obviously, the ultimate in physical distancing is online and hybrid events.  Technology was the only solution during lock-down.  

TK: Most municipalities have social distancing laws and guidelines due to Covid-19. Are there any other business-related or non-governmental factors that affect your interest in AV solutions that help with social distancing? For example, in a recent Inavate article, one person said, “I just heard that insurance companies might start charging different rates based on if they can prove they’re social distancing.” Another possible example is the flu and the common cold: After a Covid-19 vaccine is widely available, and social-distancing laws have been lifted, maybe you could continue to use these AV technologies to distance employees and patrons so they’re less likely to get sick. In the case of employees, I would think that part of the business case for these technologies is less sick time.

DJ: We have devised new seating capacities within our auditoriums in line with physical distancing guidelines using Revit software, and will use our IPTV technologies to relay sound and vision to overflow rooms where the clients’ original capacities no longer work.  This will form any live web-stream. 
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We use 3D Studio Max visualisation software to show clients how ‘intimate’ the space can be with various layouts and various furniture settings both on stage and in the audience, so they can decide what further distancing strategies they should incorporate.  

TK: Social distancing means fewer people per square meter. That can be challenging for schools and other organisations that have limited ability (including financially) to build or buy additional space to spread people out. Has that been a challenge for you? If so, how can AV help balance social-distancing laws and the need to maximize the use of existing space?

DJ: This is enormously challenging for venues as we only have a set amount of space.  To mitigate financial risk as a result of physical distancing we are:
 - Encouraging the use of additional space to incorporate the original delegate numbers with distancing and using our IPTV system to relay content.
 - Encouraging sponsorship of the web-stream landing pages, banner advertising during breaks etc online and sponsors and presenters as part of a video-conferencing solution.
 - Encouraging the use of virtual exhibition applications with exhibitor branding, engagement tools, live chat and analytics, including virtual and physical footfall.
 - Encouraging audience participation tools.  These are part of collaborative platforms already in use e.g.  Zoom, Teams, Webex, Blue Jeans etc. or they were in use before in their own right e.g. and Glisser.  Again, this relieves the pressure on getting as many people as possible into the same space.  They can all be in the same space using these collaboration tools.

Back stage, our technicians are wearing masks, they are using keyboard protectors, we are using disposable pop shields for our microphones and discouraging the use of lapels/lavaliers.  We have a supply of Perspex screens to isolate our on-stage presenters as necessary.

We are supremely confident that we can keep people safe once they are admitted to our site and that our technology will play its part in doing so.

Also, online, the AV collaboration companies have risen magnificently to the challenges of Covid-19 in terms of improving the tools, refining and increasing the security and participant capacity.  Cameras, software/hardware audio-visual products and services have also changed the workplace (and school place) landscapes.  We, the hospitality industry, venues, hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes have all been agile enough to adjust to the new social distancing, particularly the latter, producing apps so you can order without waiting to be served, contactless payments and key entry systems to reduce physical contact as much as possible.