Lessons learned providing citywide conference photo & video coverage

 (Julian Haber)

Be Bold – Cisco Partner Summit 2015 theme image

I’ll preface this by saying I’m an experienced conference photographer and know the difference between a breakout session, general session and collaboration lounge but working on a citywide convention across multiple venues with a fleet of photographers is an order of magnitude more complex when it comes to conference photography. How is it different and what did I learn?

Let’s start with a baseline (or just skip down to the end of you want the 6 key takeaways)

What’s needed to provide standard conference coverage?

A normal conference may require one to three photographers. The conference will take place in one of the designated conference centres of your city (in Montreal’s case, that’s usually the Palais de congrès, though sometimes a commodious hotel like the downtown Sheraton, the Delta on University or the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth).

General Session at Palais de Congres (Julian Haber)

General Session at Palais de Congres

A regular conference has a general program with a few designated speakers, a keynote welcome address and wrap-up remarks, panel discussions, Q&As, and smaller breakout sessions. Depending on whether the conference is academic or business oriented, there may be more or less focus placed on networking and meeting sessions, though all conferences comprise scheduled blocks of time for formal networking, along with looser time and space for informal meetings and networking. Presentation areas with booths, posters and product displays of participating members or sponsors will also be included.

As a photographer, the general mandate is to cover all scheduled events on the program. This kind of coverage should include “beauty shots” taken of the various venues before attendees are in the room, shots of the speakers on stage from all angles, high quality images of rooms full of attendees looking interested and engaged, and any particular activity that takes place on stage such as award ceremonies.

On the topic of “beauty shots,” clients enjoy seeing photos of the spaces they’ve created, before and after attendees fill them up. This would include general meeting areas, as well as designated lounges, eating areas, registration desk and any sponsored booth or presentation area.

There are often social events that feature as adjuncts to the conference. These may or may not be organized directly by the conference organizer. Typically they are cocktail receptions, followed by dinners and occasionally parties and even after-parties. They may take place in the conference venue, or offsite at a preselected restaurant or club. In Montreal most of these kinds of events take place in restaurants or event spaces like Centre Phi, The Montreal Science Centre, The Belvedere, and Windsor Station and tend to be within walking distance of the main conference centre. But trendy restaurants/bars like Joe Beef, Newtown, the Burgundy Lion, Drinkerie,  Verses Restaurant, Time Supper Club, Scena, Le Pois Penché, Café Ferreira, l’Autre Version, Auberge St Gabriel, Galerie MX, Cirque Eloize, le Windsor, New City Gas, Dominion Tavern, Loft Hotel, le Plateau (W Hotel) ,the Rialto TheatreCabaret le Lion d’Or, are also popular venues for post-conference parties, too.

A typical shot list will include:

  • Images of the venue(s) with and without people
  • Attendees mingling, networking, attending sessions, making contacts, doing business and having fun
  • Speakers at podium (shot from front, side, near and far)
  • Award ceremonies including individual recipients being granted their trophies and group shots of award-winning teams
  • Executive group shots
  • All sponsored and branded items, including booths and posters (if the conference is academic or scientific)
  • Cocktail receptions / VIP events

How does a citywide convention differ from a regular conference?

The difference between a regular conference and a citywide convention, to state the obvious, is scale.

Where a regular conference may take place over one to three days, a citywide convention may span a week, with pre-conference activities starting well ahead of the general sessions.

As well, there is a much higher order of project management and coordination skill required as many events will be taking place simultaneously across multiple venues.

 Seth Godin, speaking at Cisco Partner Summit 2015 in Montreal (Photo: Julian Haber)

Seth Godin, speaking at Cisco Partner Summit 2015 in Montreal

While providing complete coverage for the recent Cisco Partner Summit 2015 in Montreal, at one point I had over 10 different photographers/videographers fanned out across the city covering awards ceremonies, cocktail parties, and a slew of various auxiliary events for clients from around the world.

Managing and creating the schedules for the photographers and ensuring each on-site client had all the information necessary as well as providing the same to the photographer alone takes a few days of coordination. Communication is critical, particularly when there are (which there always are) last-minute changes to the schedule and additional requests.

One particularity of working for a global enterprise like Cisco is the level of professionalism required. There is no room for error when covering an event that comprises over 50 different events needing coverage and a traffic flow of over 4,000 attendees. Execution must be customer-centric, flawless, and timely, and that’s precisely what my team and I delivered.

We set up an on-site office, staffed with technical support, just to manage the intake and processing of the over 35,000 images generated from the coverage. All of these images needed to be edited, sorted, categorized and uploaded to shared drives with a variety of clients requiring access to the images within 12-24 hrs of them having been shot. This always-on, near-instant turnaround on such a heavy volume of images is one of the key distinctions between this kind of massive convention and a smaller scale conference. Things like connectivity, upload speeds, etc. become critical.

World class client service is also paramount. For an event at this scale, there is not just one client – there are numerous clients, all requiring the same level of service and attention to detail:

  1. There is the ultimate client, Cisco, within which there may be 10 or more individuals with photography or videography needs that must be met.
  2. Cascading down there is the event management company that creates and manages all the logistics of the event, who may be the direct client, within which there are also a number of event specific clients.
  3. Then there is the AV team, responsible for the screens, sound and lighting; managers responsible for the interior and exterior signage; food and bev directors, caterers, decorators all of whom may need specific images for their own purposes which may all fall under the responsibility of the core photography team.

I personally dealt with more than 20 different clients, all of whom are equally important even if only a few are actually paying for the service.

With the management, coordination, pre-show preparations and post-show post-production on images, and after-market service, one citywide convention like this can require a month’s worth of work, compared to a week or less for a scaled down single focus conference.

It can be exhausting, with days stretching from 5 am to well past midnight, and stressful, but it is also hugely satisfying to complete. Because of the high level of organization and the size and scale of the client, everyone working this kind of event is at the top of their game. Professional, organized, supremely competent and almost invariably a pleasure to work with.

So what did I learn?

  1. As the old adage goes, the client is ALWAYS right. Courtesy, respect, delivering on time and within budget goes a long way towards ensuring the experience is positive for everyone involved. So does being responsive to last-minute changes and providing the same level of highly customized service before, throughout and after the event

  2. Keeping the team of photographers in the loop and informed of all client needs and requirements is equally important. While photographers tend to be independent self-starters, they benefit from and appreciate being made aware of the bigger picture (no pun intended!).

  3. Establishing and maintaining clear and open communication with clients is essential at all times. The way I do this is through active listening, identifying the client’s needs, and proposing innovative solutions to potential challenges before they even materialize.

  4. Providing visual examples of the types of images needed to your photographers helps guide their inherent creativity towards the client’s specific needs.
  5. Online collaboration tools like Box and Dropbox are necessary to ensure wide distribution of images to all clients.
  6. Keeping focused on the end purposes of the images helps navigate the editing process to ensure timely delivery  —this is especially true in the case of the Cisco summit where, as mentioned, we needed to process thousands of images in a very short time period.

Taking on a citywide conference mandate is not for everyone. Many photographers are excellent at what they do but lack the interest or the skills required to manage an operation of this scale. But getting to play in the big leagues means you have to step up and move outside of your comfort zone, no matter what business you are in, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Check the images below for a sampling of Cisco Partner Summit 2015.

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