There will never be a day when the planners of large conventions won’t need to wear comfortable shoes during their events. But a few years back, the planning team for the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s annual congress found a way to reduce the need for event staff to walk several miles during four days at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio. The technology initiative also reduced the mental stress of monitoring and troubleshooting every aspect of a 6,000-attendee convention with 200,000 square feet of exhibits. What’s more, the SCCM team’s achievement—creating the kind of communications and command center you’d see in an action film—is one that many other meeting-planning staffs will probably want to replicate before long.
In short, here’s the SCCM blueprint: Twenty wireless video cameras positioned high atop poles in the corners of the ballroom, the 10 breakout-session rooms, the exhibit hall, the break areas, the registration area, and the entrance foyers, all running through a virtual local area network to 14 video monitors set along the walls of a breakout room far away from the show’s bustle. Also in that room: Two managers from SCCM’s events team, a rep from each major vendor supporting the show, and a staffer from each convention-center department. And on the event floor, two SCCM staffers plus a rep from each vendor, all using their mobile phones to communicate with home base.
Here’s how SCCM’s command center came to be, and how it performs during the show.
Doing the Grunt Work
For Pam Dallstream, CMP, CMM, director of education for the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the command-center project was two years in the making. “Our CEO no longer wanted our team running around the event all day, every day,” she says. “The goal was to keep us together and able to handle on-site situations more efficiently. We had to plan out what a command center would need technologically, who was going to be in there, and what it was going to look like, because we had to start working those costs into our budget.” The initial cost estimate: $50,000.
At the conclusion of SCCM’s 2017 annual event, Dallstream went to San Antonio and conducted a site visit of the convention center along with several of her tech vendors. “My first question was whether or not we could tap into the facility’s security cameras and watch those feeds during the event,” she recalls. “The center said no.” In hindsight, Dallstream realized that the flexibility of having dedicated cameras that her team could swivel and zoom at will was more useful for their objectives.
The next task was deciding which room to use as the command center. “We definitely wanted it to be down the end of a wing, where attendees could not easily find us,” Dallstream notes. Once the room was chosen, she and Barb Gould, CMP, SCCM’s meetings manager at the time, sketched out how the room would be set up in relation to the video monitors: The locations of Gould and her assistant; of vendor representatives from GES (general contractor), ETS Productions (audiovisual), Smart City (networks), and Attendee Interactive (software); and of reps from the facility’s convention-services, catering, and security departments. SCCM’s planners would occupy a table set on an 18-inch riser in the middle of the room, allowing them to view the wall-mounted monitors at eye level, while event vendors sat at tables between the riser and the monitors.
Dallstream created several spreadsheets that included instructions for the technology as well as protocols for actions taken in the command center. As the event-management software provider, Attendee Interactive developed flow charts to monitor systems such as registration and speaker/slide management. “When we got on site the day before the event, everything was ready to go,” giving the team enough time to test all the components inside and outside the command center.
When the Rubber Meets the Road
On opening day of SCCM’s 2018 annual congress, the 10 people stationed in the command center were able to view the 14 monitors that gathered the feeds from the 20 cameras. “Our meeting manager and her assistant had a lot going on, looking at each monitor for a minute or two to assess how things were going in each area,” says Dallstream. In addition, they were able to follow an overlay of data on some of the video feeds which showed if presenters had arrived in the city on time, checked in at registration, and loaded their presentations in the “speaker ready” portal. But the vendors assisted the planning team by keeping watch on the monitors where their particular services were most in play. “We needed all those people in the room so that someone could keep looking at the monitors while our staff was answering a text or call from our two people on the event floor.”
In the past, all four SCCM event staffers roamed among attendees and exhibitors, using two-way radios to communicate. “But now it’s easier for all of us to use cell phones to text or call each other because not everyone has to be in on every conversation,” Dallstream says. When a message comes to the phones of the two staffers in the command center, one volunteers to handle it, zooms in a camera on the area of concern, and then alerts the vendor responsible for that area. “If our floor people relay to us that coffee is running low in a break area or the exhibit hall has an issue, our meeting manager turns to the catering rep or GES rep and says, ‘Please get someone out there with what is needed.’ In the room, she is positioned like a captain would be at the helm of a ship.”
The most common situation the event team had to deal with: overflowing breakout rooms. “We often have topics that draw 650 people to a 500-person room,” Dallstream notes. “It used to be that we wouldn’t know a room is full until there were a few dozen people standing outside as the session was starting. We’d scramble to get someone there to direct people into an overflow room with video and audio. But now we can see that a room is nearing capacity and get a security person over there sooner to guide people to the overflow room. This keeps the session on schedule and keeps attendees from becoming frustrated.”
How It Performed
The purpose of using an event command center is twofold: To ease the strain on event staff as they troubleshoot the convention’s moving parts, and to improve the attendee experience. With the first, the SCCM team knew right away that the command-center approach was making a difference. But assessing the outward results was more difficult.
Nonetheless, Dallstream had a source that could provide clues on attendees’ perceptions: their Twitter posts using SCCM’s event-related hashtags. “Our audience is usually on those Twitter feeds to talk about what’s being presented in sessions and other things they find interesting at the show,” Dallstream says. Like at any event, however, some attendees will use the platform to gripe about logistical glitches: overflowing sessions, climate-control issues, food-and-beverage quantity or quality, hotel-shuttle delays, and others. As a result, “we brought our person who watches those feeds into the command center, so we were able to see in real time what attendees were focused on. We saw no logistics-related tweets this year, so attendees were focused on what we wanted them to be.” What’s more, post-event surveys saw higher scores for the overall educational track; Dallstream feels that the new system contributed to that result by removing potential attendee distractions.
In terms of system cost, the final number for the 2018 event came in at $60,000, versus the $50,000 originally budgeted by SCCM. “We just had no idea about what might change from the start of the budget process to when we finally arrived on site,” Dallstream says. “The increase was mostly extra labor cost for having a rep from each vendor with us all day—at the beginning, we didn’t know how many vendors we would need alongside us in the room.”
Creating Version 2.0
For the following year's event, Dallstream sought to make a few changes to the structure and capabilities of the command-center system. First, “we added a few cameras so we can see down more hallways on the far edges of our event space,” she notes. Next, because team members use Skype for Business for many of their interactions with each other throughout the year, Dallstream looked into how that application might act as a central repository for messages coming in from the show floor, and for communications back to personnel on the show floor.
In fact, the show-floor personnel now consists entirely of vendor reps; the two SCCM team members who walked the event in the past were moved into the command center during the convention. “With all four planners in one room, we can assign each person a few monitors to look at to ensure that our meeting manager isn’t overloaded. So, it is our vendors taking care of the problems on the event floor that are related to their areas of responsibility.”
And with more eyes watching the monitors, there are now several more of them up on the walls of the command center. “We thought the 44-inch units would be good enough for the size of the room, but they turned out to be a bit tough for seeing detail, so we went to 53-inch monitors. And you have to think about the best way you can view all your important data as well as the video images.”
In the end, Dallstream and her CEO are quite happy with the system that they, Smart City, and Attendee Interactive collaborated on to build. For other organizations and planners, she adds that “it’s a pretty exciting project to take on, so just jump into it even though it might seem overwhelming at the start because there are so many moving parts. It won’t be perfect the first year, but you’ll learn a lot from that and make improvements.”
“The old-school ways of logistics management, where everyone is walking the floor, is not just exhausting but it also doesn’t solve problems better than this system does,” Dallstream concludes. “And the technology is just going to keep getting better.”
Building the Command Center’s Technology Backbone
The vendors that worked with the Society of Critical Care Medicine to map out and install the behind-the-scenes technology powering the command center were network services provider Smart City and audiovisual/production firm ETS Productions. Their job was to make sure that the video from the event-floor cameras as well as real-time logistical data from event-software programs flowed seamlessly to the wall-mounted monitors in the command center—and even to planners’ mobile phones plus SCCM’s home office in Mt. Pleasant, Ill.Guillermo Huerta, customer service manager for Smart City, has worked in the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio since 2007 and knows how technology systems are best configured across the event space there. To start, he suggested that SCCM use an internet bandwidth circuit of 6 Mbps in the command center, “which is actually at the lower end of the spectrum,” he notes. Then ETS brought in equipment to channel all the camera feeds into the command center through an intranet, and then out of the building through an internet connection only SCCM personnel could access.Huerta connected the cameras to the intranet through cat 5 wiring he ran into the data-connection plates in the floors of each event room. However, he recommends that planners use their site visit to double-check all camera locations. “They might look fine on paper, but then in person you see that some wires have to lay across walking aisles to get to floor plates. That can work, but the wires need to be secured really well.”One other interesting element: Each monitor in the command center could be split-screened, allowing either two video feeds or a data feed plus a video feed to flow to any monitor.