If you have a low budget and high expectations look to lighting, writes Ian Whitworth.

Events are an eternal battle between the impact you want to make, and the inadequate budget you have been given to do it. There are endless nice things you’d like to have to make the room look and feel great. You can’t have them all, so how do you prioritise?

Part of the issue here is that events are usually planned around a table, in a regularsized room. Clients pick up table centrepieces and individual décor items, and think ‘Wow! These are so on point! I simply must have them!’ And maybe they should. But this approach ignores the actual scale of the event, and how people experience it. To get really focused on small items is like viewing the Grand Canyon through a microscope.

Your guests decide what the event is going to be like in the first few moments they walk into the room. Their memory holds a massive slideshow of all the events and live experiences they’ve ever attended, and they subconsciously compare yours to all of them, based on the look and feel.

The lighting and decoration might remind them of that concert they loved, some club where they partied like rock stars, or a favourite theatre show. Their reptilian brain says “yo, party time”, and it becomes a selffulfilling expectation.

Likewise with business events, if there’s a set or stage design that looks like some authoritative news source, they’ll take the content more seriously.

These decisions take seconds. So if your budget is tight, focus your budget on large-scale things they notice the moment they walk through the door. You could have an amazing spectacle happening on the back wall, but they won’t see that until well after their impressions are fully set. Likewise the micro detail that you fussed over for hours back in all those planning meetings.

If you’re really stuck for budget, spend the money on lighting. It’s the cheapest way to fundamentally transform a large room. Sets, props and fabric are great, and if you have the money then go for it. But they’re labour-intensive and hence cost more to get the level of Oh-My-God!-ness you want.

Lights can cover very large areas of wall and tables, and with haze, create massive threedimensional shapes. And they can change instantly, so you can get a whole range of different looks out of the same budget.

The other important thing about lighting is that done well, it makes the people on stage look nice, and that’s important from a communication perspective. Bad stage lighting gives presenters scary raccoon mask shadows, their eyes disappearing into a dark void. We’ve been trained since early childhood not to trust people if you can’t see their eyes. Good lighting means better message delivery.

For a large show, there is no person more important in making it look great than the lighting designers. Not to be confused with lighting operators, or AV people in general. Designers plan the whole lighting experience in advance, and will get twice as much impact out of a given budget than technicians. Designers can create a world of emotion and excitement, and take the audience on a journey over the course of the event. AV operators know how to push the buttons, but what they create is often a kind of swirly lighting soup, big on mad movements and low on style and flow.

A lighting designer can create intrigue, mystery and beauty for your show’s big moments, rather than just lighting things to make them visible. Sequences that just look and feel perfect don’t happen by accident. The audience will never go “that was an elegant crossfade between the video and the product reveal”. But they understand it at a subconscious level and go: that was one stylish, memorable event.