Q&A

Houston entrepreneur turns focus to digital connections during COVID-19 outbreak

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

It's no secret that the events and conferences of the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for a Houston entrepreneur who's worked for over a decade in event production, she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, has had to reinvent the way brands and companies could interact with their audiences and get their message out.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

InnovationMap: You’ve previously said you became a business owner, almost by accident. How did you decide to start a business?

Tracey Shappro: I never intended to be a business owner. I started the company, simply out of really a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. I had been working at another production company on staff for 13 years as their senior producer. One day the owner announced that he was shutting the doors down literally that same day, and I, like everyone else that worked at that company, was suddenly unemployed.

But at the same time, I was in the middle of producing all of these important projects for clients. There was just no way I was going to let these people down, and I put my own money into starting a company really quickly. I just thought I was going to finish these projects and then look for a full-time job. But, you know, fast forward that was 10 years ago.

VISION is celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a very impressive client roster started with one employee and we've grown to 10 people who are very talented producers and editors and the animators, and we have creative visual artists on staff. And through that time, we've also expanded our service offering from our core in video production to all types of event production services, and we've expanded it to interactive and virtual reality and augmented reality, projection mapping.

IM: VISION has been creating immersive experiences for Greater Houston Partnership, major sports events from the Super Bowl to the Houston Rodeo. How has technology like virtual and augmented reality and 3D mapping influenced Houston’s biggest events?

TS: Well, we're in the business of what I call experience design. We look at all the stakeholders, the clients, sponsors, attendees as the stakeholders or the audience, and we understand storytelling and the producing of content. We use all of that to create perspective and to create an experience and in tandem with that, we seek out the right presentation technology to exceed that goal to use technology to persuade, and influence opinions, change perceptions.

For all the clients that you just mentioned, we use appropriate technology, but it's not technology just for technology's sake. It has to have to work and it has to work for the audience and the intended audience, whether it's a live event, or a side of a building where we're doing projection mapping. These days, we're doing more streamed events or a pre-produced packaged event.

We're doing a lot of permanent installation and interactive touch and, and even augmented reality, which is taking off for a lot of corporate clients who are wanting to really showcase their projects or their products and how they work.

IM: The cancelation of the Houston Rodeo has affected many vendors and business owners. How has this affected VISION and its employees?

TS: Well, it's really strange and surreal across industries, many businesses and organizations are right now facing you know canceling or postponing their events or their meetings or conferences. These are engagements that they really depend on. All of these companies still have a need to get their message out and they still have a need to engage their customer and they need to sell the products or services and they need to enlist support for that.

None of that goes away. Right now this is an opportunity really for VISION to do what we do best. We help companies engage their target audiences in innovative and effective ways. We're encouraging our clients now to really shift their thinking. Instead of canceling their event, we're showing them how to reinvent their events into an alternate format.

At times when you can't meet face to face, it puts a need on more of the other things like pre-produced package events, and marketing and virtual meetings and all types of streamed events. All these things become even better business tools, and we have been in this business for a long time. It's really working with our clients to protect developing business.

We're taking the same experience that they want it to originate through live event execution and crafting it and reshaping it into a visual and sensory experience that they can still engage their audiences with remotely or bringing a brand to life remotely.

IM: As the coronavirus outbreak continues and people take social distancing measures seriously, how do you see this affecting projects for this year? How will you adapt?

TS: We actually have a pretty robust plan, in anticipation of all of this we assigned teams. We have a communication strategy, and it's in full gear for two to four weeks. So we were prepared to do all of this from home and remotely.

The thing that changes is some of the tools we use. Obviously, live events are not going to be the main focus right now, but there are other tools like staging and production. And so again, we shift to our virtual service offerings. And no matter what we're doing, clients will need our strategy. They need our producer services, they need our production management, and they need our expertise. It's just the end deliverable.

IM: How can technology help during this crisis? Does this expand or contract business?

TS: Technology is evolving. We know, it's our job to keep abreast of it. And we strive to stay one step ahead of it. And augmented reality and virtual reality is a great example. Several years ago, we went down the path of virtual reality and helped clients really understand that type of immersive experience. And then augmented reality really took off.

We've been leaders in offering all types of augmented reality services. It's really very exciting. It's like surfing the world, if you will, with your own layer, augmented reality over it. The possibilities are just endless.

But now looking at the situation we're in with the coronavirus all of these technologies are even more important. We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences. And I think this position is really, going to help our clients make the right decisions and they can have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences. We're working right now with two clients in a very progressive manner.

IM: What are those two projects and how have they pivoted?

TS: We're working with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Every year we produce their 1,800 attendees annual luncheon, showcasing Steven Kleinberg's renowned Houston area survey, which is a coveted piece of information and data that helps steer the community forward. We've shifted into producing and packaging their thought of it now into a pre-produced virtual experience that will air at the same time as the original luncheon. It will be available online in perpetuity for probably a year until the next one.

We're still able to use technology to still engage their audience and this will actually extend their audience to new audiences that may not have participated before, and we're also in pre-production of a broadcast version of the Holocaust Museum Houston's Moral Courage Award. It will be just like turning on a television show — we're taking them from the original goals of the live event and producing it into a 60-minute show that they can now send out to their attendees, who can still participate and we can still honor all these great amazing people who are deserving of the moral courage award. We can help them grow their audiences through virtual technology.

So again, what is the need? What is the goal, what is the best technology to use to create impact and to share brand stories? We can use our storytelling and capabilities and our production value for a really great experience for viewers at home who are watching this to be engaged in.

IM: What's next for VISION?

TS: We're going to do everything we can to help our clients in these very strange times. We're going to be leaders in helping them push out their objectives. We're going to step up and do what we can to help people communicate with you times like these, you know, communication is key. We do this for a living and we really want to help make a difference. We care. We know our clients care, and right now we're going to focus on helping our clients connect.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Rice University's annual global student startup competition named the startups that will compete for over $1 million in investment prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice

After receiving applications from over 440 startups from around the world, the Rice Business Plan Competition has named 54 startups to compete in the 2021 event.

Touted as the world's largest and richest student startup competition, RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, takes place April 6 to 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC will be virtually held.

"In the midst of a chaotic year, I'm excited to bring good news to deserving startups," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business, in a video announcement. "For the second year now, we'll bring this competition to you virtually, and while we'll miss welcoming you to Houston, we see this as an opportunity to lower the participation barrier for startups."

Per usual, the competition will be made up of elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants will also receive virtual networking and mentoring.

"The virtual competition will still bring with it the mentorship, guidance, and, of course, the sought after more than $1 million in prizes, including $350,000 investment grand prize from Goose Capital," Rodriguez says in the video.

Over the past 20 years, the competition has seen over 700 startups go on to raise $2.675 billion in funding. The 2021 class — listed below — joins those ranks.

The 2021 RBPC startups include:

  • Candelytics, Harvard University
  • Paldara Inc., Oklahoma State University
  • Bruxaway Inc., University of Texas
  • Smoove Creations, Northern Kentucky University
  • Flowaste Inc., University of Notre Dame
  • Polair, Johns Hopkins University
  • Kit Switch, Standard University
  • Kegstand, Colorado University at Boulder
  • Bullyproof, University of Arkansas
  • AI Pow, Texas A&M University
  • Solbots Technologies, BITS Pilani
  • Lelantos Inc., Columbia University
  • Early Intervention Systems, George Washington University
  • Phenologic, Michigan State University
  • AI-Ris, Texa A&M University
  • Lira Inc., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Shelly XU Design (SXD), Harvard University
  • Transform LLC, University of Virginia
  • Almond Finance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Aspire360, Columbia University
  • Mindtrace, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Renew Innovations, Chulalongkorn University
  • MentumQR, University of Western Ontario
  • Hubly Surgical, Johns Hopkins University
  • FibreCoat GmbH, RWTH Aachen University
  • LFAnt Medical, McGill University
  • GABA, Morehouse School of Medicine
  • EasyFlo, University of New Mexico
  • SwiftSku, Auburn University
  • Floe, Yale University
  • blip energy, Northwestern University
  • Cerobex Drug Delivery Technologies, Tufts University
  • M Aerospace RTC, CETYS University
  • NASADYA, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • Flux Hybrids, NC State University
  • ANIMA IRIS, University of Pennsylvania
  • Big & Mini, University of Texas at Austin
  • OYA, UCLA
  • ArchGuard, Duke University
  • Padma Agrobotics, Arizona State University
  • VRapeutic, University of Ottawa
  • SEAAV Athletics, Quinnipiac University
  • Adatto Market, UCLA
  • Karkinex, Rice University
  • AgZen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Blue Comet Medical Solutions, Northwestern University
  • Land Maverick, Fairfield University
  • Anthro Energy, Stanford University
  • ShuffleMe, Indiana University Bloomington
  • ElevateU, Arizona State University
  • QBuddy, Cornell University
  • SimpL, University of Pittsburgh
  • Ichosia Biotechnology, George Washington University
  • Neurava, Purdue University

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