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All things hybrid with Sujoy Cherian, Option 1 Event Services

In an exclusive conversation, Sujoy Cherian, Group CEO, Option 1 Event Services L.L.C, sheds light on his experience working with hybrid technology for leading government events, including the very recent Taqdeer Awards and what the industry can expect from the new normal.

How has Option 1 grown over the years across diverse markets in India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia?

We have organically grown over the last few decades. Our roots go back to our chairman’s origin, back in the mid-80s, where he was into AV production and manufacturing of audio systems, amplifiers and system integration. Our roots are very technical. We have never been the average event company. Although our license says events, we have always been audio visual creative producers. The goal of Option 1 was basically merging all these companies together including technical work, artist and event management using one platform that takes technology to a whole new level in event execution.

If you see our portfolio, it does not include regular events. Our work has been highly tech driven, with a lot of automation, robotics and the likes. That is why we tag ourselves for technology, events and content. Over the last decade, we have been growing business verticals that focus on working hand in glove with the demand of bridging the gap between how technology is used with content. Usually in the industry, you have specialists in content, and then you have the deck or AV suppliers. And then there is an event company that brings these two things together, but there is always that gap. What we have seen is you never get to push the limits of technology unless you know what technology can do for you.

We have got our own research and development department, which constantly works on investing, and exploring the capacity of new technologies in the market. We also work with our in-house studio that does the content. So we work around solutions that work with API’s to push the limit of technology, then come up with a solution that’s delivered in the market, rather than just saying, here’s a new LCD screen, or here’s a new robotic arm, and then the client has to decide what to do with an expensive piece of hardware. We package the solution and over the years, we have just gotten better at that. That was one of the advantages through COVID. Since we had our own software and content team, we had our own virtual platform quickly designed and deployed. It kept us ahead of the curve and we were able to deliver virtual hybrid solutions to clients who were stuck in a scenario where they had to take care of social distancing, restriction of people travelling, wanting to do a fancy event, but having to do it all virtually.

What are the challenges of working with hybrid models and keeping your audience engaged while at it?

It is always a difficult task to get people to engage virtually. We are constantly evolving on the corporate gaming platforms that we engage with for our events. Now, when you’re at a physical event, it is always a plus because you are face to face and there is that human contact. One of the things we focus a lot on is research and development in terms of usability. Our staff may be great at tech, but the end user may find it hard to navigate online platforms. To ensure we avoid any discrepancy there, we deploy it to kids and to an average user. Our group of testing buddies help us see if they can engage without asking us for assistance. We focus a lot on bridging the gap between the user interface and the user experience. This is also communicated to the client because sometimes there is no need to come up with something absolutely unique, rather one could just reinvent the wheel.

We bought things like your typical crossword puzzles and trivia games and things, which taps into the intellectual knowledge of the people involved in the event. For example, when building a medical conference, we choose topics that relate to them and make games around that. For the client, they have 10,000 people online. How do you know those people are actually content? This is where we add little touch points to engage people at various intervals during an event. They could play a game, enter a draw, get onto a leader board or win something. If a person pays attention, obviously, he goes through the whole thing. We give the client our own analysis and based on that, AI is used for quick reports that help support future proposals. Some clients are still difficult to convince when they compare results between a virtual event and a physical event. But it is totally different in the virtual space and it is taking some time to educate clients with this data.

How was your experience organizing the Taqdeer Awards?

Taqdeer was a six month process. The event was going to be completely virtual. Finally, because I was on the crisis committee, we worked with the government entities to give us an opportunity to show, that a large scale physical event could happen. And that it could succeed and become the current guideline. That is what happened – the day it finished, the next day the new guidelines for physical events were issued and agencies could do a larger event within a controlled environment. That was a big tick for us, to do a physical event with government entities including the police and the civil defense. PCR tests had to be taken, distancing had to be maintained between 1500 people and no crowding had to be ensured. Thanks to the team, it was perfectly managed and we pulled it off. The challenges were to get a fine line drawn between your client objectives and what is practically possible.

I do not blame the clients we work with. In fact, everyone will always compare their last physical event, especially if it was done for several years and only got better each year. Suddenly, you have to figure out this hybrid platform, and then there is an agency telling you to do things differently.


According to you, what is the new normal?

I assume that once things get better, everything is going to be hybrid. This has opened up a lot of channels for clients who spend a lot of money in massive production and just did it for the limited capacity of any venue. And then you did the social media edit, or you recorded the show, but it didn’t have the same value as watching it live. Going to a TV station and saying come and cover my show live is another level of PR, or budget in terms of putting your show on a mainstream channel. Now people have understood you can still do that, by doing simulcasting and relaying your show live at the same time on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook or Instagram. You can do an event for thousand people, but it can be opened up to an audience of millions parallel to your physical event. These hybrid options are never going to go.

Everybody is constantly looking at bringing it to a whole new level. And then we are also looking at advancing technology and bringing it into concerts. I remember saying a few years back, that there will be a time when people will be able to watch concerts virtually with VR glasses and 360-degree cameras placed strategically. It is about managing that streaming bandwidth. Technology is drastically advancing at a very high pace.

All the servers worldwide now handle a lot higher capacity than they used to – two years ago. And then there is the cloud which is a complicated space. A lot of people do not understand how important it is to consider where you are hosting and what tech are you using. What do you use to have a master and whether you have a backup? Few days ago, we had a situation where we were doing a virtual event and Amazon servers crashed. When something like this happens, the client realizes how important having a backup is and it doesn’t come free of cost. Obviously you are hosting on two different servers and you want to switch in real time on the backend. The tech and the people involved are a whole lot more. It has taken us a good one year for people to accept that fact. After choosing to go for a cheaper solution, one realizes the importance of having a strong team on the back end.

What about the financial viability of hybrid solutions?

The advantage is that once the solution has been deployed, re-skinning can be done at a low cost. You create a template for your platform and then constantly keep improving, which makes deploying much easier than a physical event. Each event is a build up from scratch. In a virtual event, each time we build a new feature, it’s like adding a module to the existing infrastructure already built in a virtual space. As we improve the platform, it becomes similar to managing a website on a CMS platform.

It is about re-skinning, rebuilding, watching and then just deploying it. Middle of last year, when virtual events had just started, we needed a month or forty-five days to do a full 3D interactive virtual event. Today, we can deploy that within three weeks and this is going to get even shorter. Our target is to have a low cost solution by the next quarter, because there is already an agency involved to provide the brand guidelines and artworks. All the client needs us for is event execution. So we plan to give them access to the CMS, where they upload all the materials to the back end, set the agenda, and on show day, we come in for rehearsal and execute the hybrid set-up, that can be deployed in a matter of few days. We are trying to reduce that timeframe, make it more template based, because the competition is so high. You go to a client saying you will do their work for say $100,000 and they say there is somebody doing it for AED 10,000. We want to find that in between space, where we do not compete with the cheapest, but also offer quality, competitive pricing and ensure a unique user experience. As we progress, changes are happening and the timeframe is getting shorter. I think that is what the future will be based on.

What are the challenges associated with governmental events, as opposed to non-governmental?

One thing is, obviously when working with the government, there is a lot of protocol involved. There is a whole new level of security, health and safety to look after. Earning the reputation with all this involved is indeed quite a task. It has taken us years to build that confidence and arrive at a level where someone sees us and says okay if they are on it, everything will be fine. It is a nightmare, when the protocol demands several changes that seem impossible to achieve within twenty-four hours. That knowledge needs to be considered within the design stage itself. One needs to think how are we going to be accessing the place, or the VIPs? How are they going to arrive? How will the crowd’s health and safety be controlled, where lights are being fixed? What would be that one big media moment?

Right from day one, everything needs to be designed that way – be it lighting, stage, or standing positions. The objective is to achieve the wow factor, satisfy everybody in the audience and ensure it’s a good show for the government. One has to satisfy the stakeholders, follow protocol, ensure compliance and make sure nothing goes against the law. Local experience is crucial because often what works in other countries, may not be the way things work here. And we have been doing all this from the beginning. We proudly say this, that we don’t have a sales and marketing department. Our clients have grown through the network we have created, references and recommendations. Over the last decade, most of our clients have been with us for over ten to fifteen years. So we must be doing something right to stay so long.

Who do you think is the most important person on the backend?

I would never be able to name one person, because of the way things are at events, but for sure – the stagehand. This person is always watching, observing, seeing if things are going to go offline, ensuring they switch to back up, but he is given the least importance. He/She is not at the airport, in the control room, or on the floor meeting clients. He/She stays backstage and if everything goes well, nobody thanks him/her.

Where do you think the industry is headed in the MENA region?

We definitely see a major cleanup in the industry because of the current scenario. The good thing for us is a lot of competition has gone off the map. I just hope the ones that remain are consistent in maintaining a price point to let the industry survive. The sad thing happening right now is – that in the desperation of wanting to get jobs, people are underpricing drastically in our industry. And those are the few who have not diversified. But today we are doing probably 20 percent events and the rest 80 percent is content, software, or virtual, but many do not have that option. So there is undercutting like we have never seen before. I just hope the industry maintains the price point, so that the agencies involved can grow and constantly reinvent by investing in technology for the future.

I am sure the industry is going to get better and stronger, there is a lot of tech out there. There is definitely going to be major integration of hybrid events. Virtual presence, panelists attending from different parts of the world, holograms and lot of other ways of engaging with people. That is going to be a whole new direction that we will see.

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