A new kind of company crossbreeds creative, technology, and gear-provision services for live events.

As technologies continue reshape the industry, new they demand fresh ways of doing business. A good example of a company doing just that is Visional, a production and rental house with locations in Atlanta, Denver, and Orlando. It takes a different approach, being dedicated to helping clients with all things visual; as part of its unusual business model, it partners with other production companies, providing supplemental services. In doing so, it is very much of this moment.

Visional’s mission is built on five pillars: creative, production, environmental, experiential, and virtual The company has a solid presence in the corporate events and meetings market, but also supplies touring and other live sectors. Because of the flexibility built into its structure, it may be uniquely placed to service an industry still emerging from the pandemic.

Visional was founded by Kyle Means and Jim Steurnagel, both of whom have long-running experience in the live events industry. “I worked in hotel AV for PSAV in the American South and in Europe,” Means says.

“Then I started working freelance for the company that David Goldman, our CFO, was at—which is how I ended up meeting Jim.”

“I started at San Francisco Opera in 1995,” Steurnagel says. “Then I was hired by a booking agent who had been a teacher of mine, and I started working for Bill Graham.” He eventually ended up in the archives of Bill Graham Presents, “going through all the old ‘60s and ‘70s stuff while doing shows six nights a week, cutting my teeth with good old hippies who had a lot of experience creating events. I also opened a little production company down the block. But, after 9/11, I lost everything and took a full-time production job out of Detroit. Then I met Kyle.”

Both men had operated their own self-named firms but were looking to do something bigger. The result was Visional, with its innovative business plan. Let’s say you are a corporate client looking to do an event. “We can do the creative, plan the whole event, do the branding, the website, and the virtual experience,” Means says. “We can do the show, run the show, call the show. And we can provide lead operators.” Steurnagel adds, “And we can provide higher-end gear, the stuff that adds pizzaz to the show, like media servers and motion control.”

Again, the firm is collaborative rather than a competitive approach.

“If you are a production company, we can fill in any items that need additional support,” Means says. “Some AV companies don’t have robust video or creative departments; they rely on us for that.” At the same time, he says, “Our boundaries are important. We want to keep those production companies as clients. Often, we are a backstage entity; we have worked with 90% of the Fortune 500 companies but [because Visional is a quiet collaborator] they don’t necessarily know who we are.”

Although the last year and a half has been devastating to many production houses, Visional’s expertise in creating virtual events has allowed it to thrive.

“We have an internal marketing person with web design experience who we leveraged as a virtual event designer,” Means says. “This allowed us to pivot pretty quickly. What we were able to offer was different. Everyone else was using [the online platforms] Visibo and Swapcard; we could build custom websites and give a fully branded experience.” By seizing this opportunity, “we had no employee furloughs,” Steurnagel says. “We’re really proud to say that not only did we not lose anyone, we hired three people,” Means adds.

Both men feel that, even as live meetings return, virtual events will continue to play a significant role.

“Vaccine mandates go a long way, but hybrid events aren’t going away,” Means says. “They’re treated differently now,” Steurnagel concurs. “Once, you’d have somebody show up just before the show started with a line to plug in and stream it. Now, virtual presentations are a big part of the initial thought [behind any event].”

It’s a matter of treating everyone equally, Means says: “For the virtual attendee, it’s the whole experience.

When you think of the attention paid to the in-person experience, you have to do the same thing for the virtual one. Wrapping our heads around that took some time.”

Growing pains and pleasures

Visional is small but expanding; by the end of 2021, it will have 11 fulltime employees, with at least ten more to come in 2022. Also, Means says, “We’re extremely committed to growing the next generation of production staff.” This is a vital goal, he says, and not just for Visional. “A lot of people left the industry during the pandemic, and the technology was already changing.” And, he adds, just as workers everywhere are reviewing their career commitments, so too are those who work in live events. “We are very serious about creating jobs for people who don’t want to work in the gig economy. It’s about our growth but also a response to an industry in need of new minds and good people. You can’t turn on the TV without hearing about the ‘great resignation.’ Production is one of those industries that flies under the radar,” but it faces the same challenges as any other.

“Prior to the pandemic,” Steurnagel says, “we were serious about creating training opportunities, but we have doubled or tripled down on the investment in that.” Initiatives include “a quarterly rotation of training classes in new video production technologies, apprenticeships for young people who don’t know how to use their skill sets from a related industry, but which are useful for production.”

Both men recognize that training opportunities remain scarce for careers in the live events industry. As Means notes, “There are theatre production and music production programs, and video production courses that are all about broadcast.” He adds, laughing, “We’re trying to provide structure for an industry that rejects it.” But maybe not; as people return to work post-pandemic, they may very well be looking for different and more stable opportunities of the kind Visional aims to provide.

Recently, Visional has done events for various clients, including a major newspaper and a sales training firm, the training firm. “That one was 1,600 people in person and an equal number virtually,” Steurnagel says. The Q&A section was staged with both live and virtual audiences,” Means adds. “We had live and virtual presenters interacting with each other.” He notes that, these days, many presenters are virtual, too. “Many keynote speakers and performers would rather present from their homes, as in the case of Leslie Odom, Jr. whom we had on a show a few weeks ago.”

Visional’s product inventory consists mostly of video processing gear and media servers, not screens or projectors. “It’s the stuff that nobody wants to have in their inventory because it doesn’t get used that often,” Means says. “But that’s what we do.” The available gear comes from a few key companies. “We’re big fans of the Avolites ecosystem of consoles and media servers,” Means says. “The open architecture of what they provide is really cool for us.” “We feel the same way about Christie,” says Stuernagel, who cites that company’s Spyder line of video processing gear.

Spreading the word

A key new hire is Tyler Wise, a production industry veteran, as managing director. “I’m here to expand the portfolio,” he says. “I’ll be reaching out to get us into more installation work and experimental, high-technology projects. Also, to grow our vendor relationships and show that we’re a good partner. Visional has a good history of that and we want to expand it.”

Although Visional has been in existence since 2013, Means says, “In terms of market awareness, this is a sort of post-pandemic coming-out party for us. We have been backstage people for so long; we’ve never made any noise about who we are and what we do. But, with the shift into virtual events and seeing problems that we didn’t see before, we feel it’s time to talk about the things we provide. The production industry has real problems. We want to offer solutions to them.”

Pressed to expand on that point, he returns to the issue of employment.

“When the pandemic happened, it wasn’t upper management that got furloughed or laid off. Middle managers got furloughed and freelancers didn’t get called. The industry shed so many of its production people. It cut off the path for people in the industry. That’s why we want to offer training, apprenticeships, and qualified labor.”

With its unusual lineup of expertise and offerings, Visional currently holds a unique position in the marketplace.

“We’re not a traditional AV rental house,” Steurnagel says. “We’re a production-focused creative agency. It allows us to do a lot without gear clogging up warehouses and offices.”

Means adds, “We’ve been intentionally noncompetitive from the start. Every company that we might see as a competitor, we see as a partner. It’s not just something that we say, it’s something that we have to live out.”

Further expansion is in the cards, Steurnagel says. “When we added Tyler, we counted it as an expansion to Orlando. We’re looking at opportunities in other cities, too.” As the Visional website notes, “We’re engineers with endless imaginations.”

And, in the next few years, they are poised to do some mighty interesting things.


By David Barbour  |  Business Profile Lighting&Sound America: http://plasa.me/lsanov21