Taylor Estes and her husband Joseph started their company, Apple Box Solutions, in 2012. Apple Box is a boutique, Atlanta-based production agency offering consultation, experience design, and production management for live events. Taylor took time from her packed schedule to speak with us about the future of events, her perspective on the tech landscape, and why she has called hybrid events the new “vegetarian option.”
ConventionSouth (CS): You’ve shared in other interviews that you have a performing arts background. Tell us a little bit about that, and how it informs your decisions as an event producer.
Taylor Estes (TE): I was raised by musicians and grew up performing in the Atlanta music scene and around the Southeast in a mother-daughter trio. Some wonderful connections were made during this time in my life that also led me to work as a music festival stage manager and a production assistant for the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards.
After filling roles both onstage and backstage, I realized that I truly preferred the magic of working behind the scenes rather than onstage as a performer. But all of these collective experiences gave me a deep appreciation for the energy of people gathering together for a common purpose, and they fuel my belief today that events can be a catalyst for tremendous growth and positive change, knowing that human connection matters most. I pour all this experience and enthusiasm into the work that I do and the experiences that I design for our clients.
CS: Last summer, you said hybrid events were the “vegetarian option” of 2020, in that they are uncommon now, but in 10 years they will be the norm. What’s your perspective on that today?
TE: Just five or so years ago, having a vegetarian catering option at events was not common, but now it is simply expected and would even be a faux pas omission. I see that exact trend being the case with hybrid events.
However, my perspective has shifted slightly since last summer. Hybrid events won’t be the norm 10 years from now. They are now, and the expectation of eventgoers going forward. But the great thing is, this is a testament to how aggressive and fast-paced our innovation has been as an industry over the last year. We event folks are superhumans and have rapidly created the tools and gained the skills needed to adapt to these times. We have embraced this professional detour and are now equipped with the experience we need to design experiences for both in-person and online audiences on a regular basis.
Most of the events we produce are internal business meetings and corporate events, and my perspective on whether these events should be in person, virtual, or hybrid might be considered contentious. Organizations with a corporate social responsibility initiative need to lead on effectively addressing the issue of sustainability and decide during the pre-planning phase whether a given event should be held in person at all anymore. Well-planned virtual events can support the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit, and the ability of online events to be inclusive and environmentally conscious should not be undervalued.
CS: When you look at the apps, platforms, and other tech tools that have emerged for the events industry, what looks the most exciting and relevant to you in the shift back to an in-person model?
TE: I adamantly believe technology is the solution when it empowers us to do things that would not otherwise be possible, without ever standing in the way. This belief is why we named ourselves Apple Box. An apple box is a film industry term and tool for a simple wooden box that is used to prop things up on set. If we are doing our job right, then the AV, the tech elements, and our team are supporting and enhancing the event, but you’d barely know we are there.
The best event tech tools are going to offer this type of ease-of-use solution. In 2020, the best tools were easy to use and navigate and offered engagement tools like chat, Q&A, polling, and collaboration, but now we need to raise the bar in terms of expectations. I think the tools that will offer the most value to event teams moving forward will have three key strengths: real-time insightful data analytics, the ability to connect people either in person or virtually, and the ability to be a place for ongoing community building and engagement pre- and post-event.
The true power of our events comes from human connection, and the tools that can find ways to enhance this relational aspect, rather than detract from it, will rise to the top. I’m looking forward to seeing continued innovation on this front.
CS: You won the Greater Women’s Business Council “Pivot Award” in 2020. Reflecting on how your company adapted over the past year, what are your main takeaways? Would you say you’ve survived, or thrived, during this time?
TE: We were very fortunate to have years of online broadcast experience before 2020, and so we were well positioned to help clients make the sudden shift. But it has still felt like an absolute sprint for us. We had to retool our business and come up with streamlined processes, solutions, and partnerships to help us produce 100 percent virtual events rather than hybrid like before.
With a bit of luck, hard work, and God’s grace, we certainly found ways to thrive during this time. We’ve almost doubled our client base with this new service offering during the midst of a pandemic, all while home-schooling our children for the current school year.
My main takeaway is that difficulty breeds innovation, and that successful events managed by a remote workforce require high levels of collaboration, communication, and a healthy dose of laughter.
CS: When you look at the year ahead, what do you see?
TE: From an event design standpoint, I expect to see people designing digital-first experiences with multiple regional in-person gatherings. I hope to see continued innovation from the tech platforms/apps/tools out there, refined tech stacks, and a large wave and demand for in-person gatherings as we all move into the future. On a personal front, I look forward to hugging friends, loved ones, and clients again and safely traveling with my precious family of five.
CS: Event technology has allowed people to remain connected over the past year, but many planners have also faced enormous difficulty with tech that crashes during the middle of their event. What are your suggestions for mitigating and responding to that risk?
TE: Virtual events are technically complex. They rely on the power and internet of the tech team, every presenter, and every single attendee. This can be thousands of locations, depending on the size of your event. Things can and will go wrong.
Our job is to anticipate as many of the potential issues as we can and have contingencies for everything. An industry friend of mine uses the phrase “imminent execution” rather than “flawless execution.” It’s a small shift, but an important one. It emphasizes that things will go wrong, so instead, focus on fixing the issues before they become an apparent problem and keep this technical complexity in mind throughout your planning process. With this in mind, I have three suggestions:
Technical capabilities: Design an experience with your team’s technical capabilities in mind, or get help from an experienced production team.
Backup plans and backup gear: If you use an event platform, have a backup email ready to send with alternate Zoom links, or stream to a backup website in case of a platform failure. We also always recommend redundant internet and power options for your main hosts or presenters. Consider pre-recording lower priority portions of your event to mitigate risks wherever possible.
Keeping it cool: Lower the cortisol levels of everyone involved early on. If you intentionally design an upbeat, energetic, needle-moving experience from the start, with a great host and music playback, and you tell people the plan for if and when things go wrong, they’ll be more relaxed and forgiving when you hit a few bumps along the way.