Technology Site Inspections: Thinking INSIDE the Box
Jeff Loether, ISHC
Nothing says QUALITY like QUIET (SM)
There are several factors that go into the selection of a venue for a meeting or event. But one that is often overlooked is the ability of a venue to support the technical requirements of the function. When we say this, we are not referring to the capabilities of the in-house provider or an outside service, but rather the physical environment of the meeting space itself. How does the room sound when it is empty? Is it quiet or is it noisy? Can you hear sound coming in from adjacent areas? How much can you hear the HVAC system?  Large meetings often require the production specialist servicing the event to attend the site visit and evaluate these conditions, but these items can also impact smaller meetings and events that do not have that luxury. In this article we will address why “the box” matters and what to look and listen for during a site inspection.

Sound Basics: Hearing and Intelligibility
Since a meeting is fundamentally people communicating, the ability to hear AND understand the material being presented is critical. While hearing is a function of volume, understanding is based upon intelligibility. And intelligibility is heavily reliant on the acoustics of the room. Hard surfaces in a room: wood floors or walls, windows or glass, hard ceilings, and tile floors can reflect sound, causing reverberation (echo). If you stand in the middle of the room and clap loudly one time how many echoes of that clap do you hear? This is a good test…try it. If you get multiple echoes of the clap that means that sound is bouncing all over the room. Now imagine being in that room when it is full of people creating even more background noise and all attempting to understand a presenter. Providing a microphone will increase the ability to hear the presenter (volume), but this only adds more sound to bounce around the room. Understanding (intelligibility) will not be improved.

Acoustical Issues: Noise Annoys
Speaking of noise, how did that empty room sound? Depending on location and season it almost certain that the HVAC system will be used to either heat or cool the space. Is it on during your visit? If not, ask for it to be turned on. No systems will be completely silent if on, but what do you hear? Air movement, fan noise or rattling, mechanical noise through the ducts? Of course, as with any mechanical system, performance will vary over time. But listening during your visit will provide a good indication of what to expect during your event.
Another major concern for meeting planners and venues alike is sound that comes through the walls from the event in the next room, or from the service hallway. If you happen to be visiting when another event is in progress, listen to see how much you are able to hear in the next room. If looking at a meeting space that is divided by operable partition walls, there is an “eyeball” test that will help identify how well it will perform in keeping out unwanted sound. Have the lights in the adjacent room turned on full, and then turn off the lights in the room you are in. How much light do you see leaking around the operable wall, or through gaps in the panels? The more light you see, the more sound will pass through.
Since lights are typically always on in any adjacent service corridor that same test can be performed to see how much noise can invade from the service area. Some things to look for are whether the facility has sound lock vestibules between the meeting spaces and the service corridor. This is additional protection from noise intrusion by having two sets of doors to pass through, ensuring there is always at least one closed door between the space and service area. Some facilities lack the vestibule but will have a thick curtain that can be drawn to provide some insulation from sound and light intrusion. Some may also have a “Meeting in Progress” light or sign to indicate to the staff the need for quiet.  While you are in the service hallway, look at the floor. Is it carpeted, smooth concrete, or tiled with grout lines?  Imagine a large cart full of dishes being pushed down the hall. What will the wheels have to run over?

New Considerations
Hybrid events, the combination of face-to-face meetings with virtual attendees and presenters, are the new reality for both meeting planners and venues as we move past the pandemic. While the virtual attendees are not physically in the space, their experience is still impacted by the room acoustics. For the virtual attendees to hear the meeting, microphones are required. But while the in-person attendees have ears with some capability to shut out background noise, microphones do not. So, if the room is noisy or full of reverberant sound the remote attendee experience is negatively impacted to a greater extent than the attendees in the room.

When we boil down the reason for bringing people together for a meeting it is typically to communicate a message. It is important to ensure that the environment you are choosing to hold your event in will help, not hinder that goal. Spaces that let sound in from adjacent rooms and service areas, have noisy HVAC systems, or are filled with hard surfaces for sound to bounce around in are stressful environments, and not conducive to communication. The suggestions above are easy ways to identify potential challenges so that you can find ways to resolve them or gives you the time to find alternative venues. By answering the questions above while are you choosing a facility to host your event you can avoid unwanted distractions for your in-person and remote presenters and attendees, leaving them free to focus on the message.