Technology Helps Staffers Stay on the Same Wavelength

April 1, 2008


Technology Helps STAFFERS STAY on the Same Wavelength

By Julia M. Johnson

Meeting attendees usually get an earful about effective communication anytime they attend a team-building seminar. But they’re not the only ones who need to know how to keep the lines open.

Event staffers also must communicate efficiently on event day if they’re going to make sure those attendees receive the full benefit of each conference or meeting. Keeping the registration table, head planner, greeters, ushers, technicians and other event staff instantly connected is the best way to address problems quickly, serve attendees courteously and keep everything running on time.

“The more communication you have during an event, the better for everyone, especially with larger events,” says Ron Dake, president of Show-Me Audio Visual in Kansas City. “It is absolutely imperative that everyone be on the same page. When you can get a question answered in a matter of seconds with a push-to-talk phone or a walkie-talkie, everyone can keep moving and stay on schedule.”

To get an idea of how important instantaneous communication devices are, envision a conference at a major convention center with a large group of attendees. “Imagine the setup people are readying the room according to the diagram they have,” Dake says. “Now the audio-visual people arrive, but their diagram has the room setup facing in the opposite direction. Who is correct?

“Instead of putting 15 or 20 people on hold for half an hour while you go find someone in charge, you can get an answer at the push of a button, and everything keeps rolling. Twenty people on the payroll waiting around for 30 minutes can add up quickly.”

Push-to-talk phones and walkie-talkies are the two main types of technology best suited to a meeting staff’s needs, Dake says, but they have different capabilities and costs and don’t always make sense for the same situations.

Walk and Talk

Bob Schaper, rental manager for Wireless USA’s location in Maryland Heights, Mo., says walkie-talkies usually work best when your event is contained within one building, such as a hotel or conference facility. Walkie-talkies are generally cheaper to rent, but they also have a limited distance range, Schaper says. His company rents the units for $10 to $15 each per day, depending on the quantity required – the more units rented, the lower the per-unit price.

According to Dake, most walkie-talkie systems have about a two-block range, but that can depend on the terrain, concrete, metal and other structures that might be in the area.

Tim North, president of St. Louis Audio Visual Inc., says using walkie-talkies normally requires that you bring along battery charger units as well, especially if the event happens over multiple days.

Walkie-talkies are useful if you need to get your message out to more than one person at a time, and they can be easier to use for people who aren’t particularly tech-savvy, Dake says.

They can also be configured to be worn covertly if you don’t want it to be obvious you are wearing a radio, according to Schaper. “You can get them with earphones and surveillance microphones, like those used by the Secret Service,” he says. “You can also get them with headsets that help cancel outside noise.”

Pick up the Phone

But if your event covers more than one hotel or meeting space, or you need to communicate across the city between your venue and the airport, push-to-talk phones like those made by Nextel may fill the bill better, according to Schaper. They offer all the range you need, but they’re costlier to rent, he says – about $40 to $50 per unit per day.

“We use the phones for many outdoor events,” North says. “They can reach further, and the batteries are not a problem. The phones also are a good way of communicating with one client or staff member at a time.”

Nextel phones may be a bit more challenging for the technologically unsophisticated, Dake says, so be sure to ask suppliers if they can offer a few minutes of training for your staff.

Also remember to ask providers to make sure your event is within a strong coverage area. You don’t want to rent 50 phones and then arrive at the convention center unable to use them.

Push-to-talk phones usually come with a “group” function so you can radio every member of your staff at once, much like a walkie-talkie, says Mike Garner, Midwest regional manager for Visual Aids Electronics Corp. in Overland Park, Kan.

Both Ways

With either type of device, it’s possible – and advisable – to keep staff communications private and professional, says Jerry Bernard, vice president of sales with Kansas City Audio-Visual. Ask your supplier what kinds of wired or wireless earpieces and headphones are available for the type of unit you are considering, and find out which types your employees feel comfortable wearing.

“Both phones and walkie-talkies can be equipped with earpieces that preclude someone who is nearby from overhearing what is being said,” Bernard notes.

Still, push-to-talk phones may be your best bet if information security is a major priority, according to Bernard. “In the case of walkie-talkies, it is possible for others to tap in and hear information in the event they have a device that operates on the same frequency as the walkie-talkies,” he says. “With a phone, this is not an issue. There is no concern about tapping in and intercepting secure information.”

Communication etiquette is especially important when either type of device is used without headphones or earpieces, or when phones are set on “speaker,” according to Garner. “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother or your child to hear,” he advises.

If there’s any chance at all that attendees might overhear your employees’ spoken communications, devising a common set of code words for your staff is always a sensible precaution. “We use certain words for emergencies or special situations,” North says. “We don’t just blurt out that there is a problem or emergency. We don’t want to panic the attendees.”

For example, if assistance is needed with a difficult individual, employees might say “Code green;” if medical help is needed, “Code blue;” or if there’s a fire, “Code red.”

Opinions vary, but some providers say walkie-talkies and push-to-talk phones provide about the same level of voice clarity. “Nextel phones are digital, so they may have a little more metallic sound, but it’s not bad,” Dake says.

Whichever type of device you decide on for your event, make sure you provide your supplier with as much information as possible on your gathering and its logistics. A reliable provider will ask plenty of questions about your meeting audience, the location, the configuration of your space and your staff. He or she also should be willing to help your employees understand the devices and their capabilities, and be able to provide backup units quickly in case of loss or damage.

“Being able to communicate with your coordinators during an event is very important,” North says. “It can keep a minor problem from becoming a major one in a hurry.”  MM&E

(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)


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