A tour of Austin Convention Center (ACC) begins in the solar atrium on the ground floor. Sunlight cascades through a large array of floor-to-ceiling windows; a glance upward reveals a dizzyingly high ceiling. Exhibit halls 4 and 5 are situated down a corridor to the right; to the left, an escalator leads to upper-level ballrooms and meeting space.
We go right. The exhibit halls are vast and cavernous, a blank slate awaiting creative vision. It is difficult to get a feel for how the space transforms during an event, but luckily there are sample photos on hand. A collection of trade show setups and theater-style conferences showcase the space brought to life with lights, freight, and people.
A set of doors on the far side of the room leads back out to a side foyer. There, an art installation composed of colorful metallic blocks climbs playfully up the wall. We are told it is a piece by Austin artist Margot Sawyer, called Index for Contemplation.
This is the convention center’s 360-degree virtual tour, a comprehensive immersion into the look and feel of the facility. It is as experiential as one can get from behind a computer screen, just one step shy of virtual reality. During the era of COVID-19, it is also a lifeline for meeting planners who are forging ahead to select sites for events scheduled for the next several years.
“We wanted something powerful and easy to use and navigate,” said Paul Barnes, deputy director and chief operations officer at the ACC. “It is a great online tool and asset to have, since it is increasingly important to have virtual site visits with current and potential clients.”
“The virtual tour may be the norm for quite some time, until a vaccine becomes available,” said David Bruce, managing director of CMP Meeting Services and founder of the Alliance of Independent Meeting Professionals (AIMP).
Especially when it comes to looking at a property either to eliminate or add, Bruce sees virtual tours becoming more necessary than ever.
“We’re seeing people using them a lot more now than they have in the past,” agreed Denise Cole, director of sales and marketing at Georgia International Convention Center (GICC), Atlanta’s newest convention facility. “It is keeping the business going. People are still engaged with our sales team, they are still getting an idea of what we have…. We are not stopping because they cannot physically come to the property.”
Building a virtual experience
Circlescapes is the production company behind the tour of both the ACC and neighboring Palmer Events Center (PEC). Since launching the company in 2008, owners Lisa Franzino and Jared Varon have crisscrossed the country producing virtual tours of event spaces, schools, and offices.
While some venues use Google Street View technology to create virtual walkthroughs which venture along every hallway and stairwell, Franzino and Varon instead focus on showcasing a building’s key spaces.
“We think about it in terms of, if somebody were to come in person to tour your venue, where would you take them? What would you show them? What would you say while you are walking around?” said Varon.
The duo produces their 360-degree panoramas in three phases.
First, they set up a tripod and a standard camera outfitted with a fisheye lens, and they rotate the rig to capture seven angles of a room. They then stitch the images together to create a single, seamless 360-degree view, brightening dark corners and darkening blown-out windows.
“Your eye will make it so that you can look both out a window and in a room at the same time. That is what we are trying to achieve,” Varon said.
Finally, they load the finished panorama onto an online interface. A customized floor plan, image galleries, and information buttons add detail to the final product.
“I think people are realizing that having a way to show their space online without people having to actually be there is very valuable right now,” said Franzino. “I think people are wondering if there will be some element of this that continues even when things go back to ‘normal.’”
Bruce cautioned even properties with existing virtual tours will need to take additional steps to make their online interfaces useful to planners.
“The properties that have already built a virtual system are a step ahead, but nobody is going to sign any future contract without knowing what the setup is going to look like,” he said.
He stressed planners need to know how venues plan to revise occupancy rates to allow for social distancing, and what additional safety measures they have in the works to ensure public health.
“This may not go away,” he said. “It may lessen, but it may come back. And if it comes back, how do we handle it?”
For properties that do not already have professionally produced virtual tours, a temporary tour comprised of existing photos and videos may be the next best option. Franzino said some clients have even gone into their spaces on their own with a cell phone and made their own 360-degree videos simply by spinning around in a circle.
Franzino and Varon can then add the clients’ media to a pre-designed interface anchored by a map or a floor plan, just as they would in a regular virtual tour.
“I think it is acceptable to do some of that and not be amazingly professional with your photos right now, just as a stopgap for getting something out there,” she said.
Sourcing By scrolling
In another piece of the digital equation, planners are increasingly turning to online sourcing platforms to find venues, scrolling through them the same way vacationers scroll through Airbnb listings.
HopSkip, a newcomer in the venue sourcing game, went live only a year ago, but interest in the platform has increased significantly since the start of the year, said Luke Whalin, vice president of the company’s eastern region.
“Over the last 10 weeks, we’ve probably grown 30 percent,” he said.
He attributed the growth to people having the capacity to explore new technologies during the pandemic.
“People are working from home, they have more time, they have seen some of the flaws in their practices, and they are open to new ideas,” he said. “We think we’re turning this crisis into something of benefit for our community, because we want to show them new technologies and new options.”
From a planner’s perspective, Bruce said platforms like HopSkip, along with similar tools from the likes of Cvent and Aventri, are a useful conduit for reaching hotels. However, he stressed to be useful, information on those sites needed to be updated to reflect current conditions.
“You can’t have theater-style seating for 500 in a room that’s maxed out at 500 anymore. You may only be able to put 250 in that same room. So, diagrams are all going to have to be redone,” he said. “A round of 10 may be a round of four. I guarantee you’re not going to be able to put 10 people at a round. At this point, it’s just not going to be legally or logically acceptable to the industry.”
Whalin said hotel operators’ rooms-to-space formula on HopSkip “will definitely change.” This is in addition to several other planned updates that reflect current conditions; templating contract clauses, bringing a lawyer aboard as a resource for planners, and incorporating hotels’ virtual tours into their interface, to name just a few.
“We never stop evolving, and we never plan to. We don’t want to be a legacy company. We need to change with the times, and we do that every single week,” he said.
Creating New Connections
While online tools are, by necessity, rapidly evolving and expanding, digital interfaces have yet to fully capture certain intangibles of face-to-face site visits.
“Virtual is good, but actually standing in that space, looking at it, touching it, being physically there, you’re still not capturing it,” said Denise Cole of the Georgia International Convention Center.
“I do not know why, but I think when you have a person face-to-face, you are a little bit more engaged…. If you are just on the phone walking through the space, you are not really seeing the full picture,” Cole stated.
“I think we are losing the element of seeing their expressions. In person you get a better read on what they are thinking and how they are feeling about a space,” she said. “When you are having a conversation on the phone, you are not really getting the visual.”
Still, her team is strongly encouraging clients to use their virtual tour in the absence of other options.
“Now, we are on the phone with clients walking through, and we are engaged with them. We are not face-to-face, but we are still having that dialogue.”
Bruce said he expects venues will have to invest in virtual tools if they want to remain competitive.
“The fact of the matter is there will be companies that build a whole new division from this. But we have to start moving today. Even though we may not start meetings until June, maybe July, August, or September, that does not mean we are not considering booking meetings next year, two, three, or even four years down the road. We are. So we have to look at those with new eyes.”