Radio hire for events
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Two-way radio hire is the grease that lubricates the gears of the UK’s thriving events sector.
Sam Fenwick looks at what’s involved from the perspective of both organisers and their suppliers

There is no doubt that the events industry – especially in an age in which music-streaming services have shifted the music industry’s focus to live gigs and people thirst to see their idols in person – is big business; as illustrated by the way that tickets for next year’s Glastonbury sold out in a mere 34 minutes. It is also growing fast, according to Steve Luscombe, director at DCRS: “Over the last few years we’ve seen the event and exhibition industry grow, and the events are more frequent and getting larger. New festivals [frequently pop up] and are well attended by the public.”

Given that the success of an event hinges on perfect and seamless co-ordination between many people (who are often scattered across a large venue) and the need to ensure the safety and security of attendees, two-way radios are an essential tool.

With this and the increasingly busy event season in mind, when is best to start thinking about hiring radios for your event? “Most people start to think about this towards the back end of the [year prior to their event] or certainly the January/February of the year of the event,” says Matt Bostock, project manager at Roadphone NRB. “We’re already starting to plan our purchasing for summer 2020 for our hire fleet and making sure that we’ve got enough stock. The earlier the better is always what we say, but generally once March comes round then we really need to have dates in place, [as we need to make] sure that we have stock reserved for all of the key events that take up a large proportion of our [inventory].”

Luscombe says: “Currently [late September – Ed] the season is starting to wind down, but we already have orders for the next two to three years from our larger customers, and you tend to find that exhibition organisers will start contacting us in late autumn for events in the next summer.” He adds that one large organisation that ran a new event last year that DCRS provided comms to has already started planning meetings that will take place in July 2020.

“As stock is always low in the summer, [DCRS advises that event organisers] start finding [their radio] supplier and agreeing contracts as soon as possible. It’s never too early to enter into negotiations and start looking at plans for site surveys and channel plans, [though of course the latter] can be altered and amended nearer the time to the event.”

He adds: “Once a contract has been agreed we’d like an outline of requirements as soon as possible to help us forward plan for the amount of equipment we’re going to need for each event.” Luscombe also says that the requirements need to be finalised around two to three weeks prior to the event where possible, “but we always can assist with those last-minute orders or additional equipment if clients require this”.

One reason it is important to have a clear understanding of requirements early is that large events may require additional spectrum (beyond the radio hire channels available to two-way radio suppliers under an Ofcom supplier licence) to avoid co-channel inference, and Luscombe says it can take up to six weeks to obtain these.

Of course, it is not just event organisers who have to plan ahead. Luscombe says that at the end of the busy radio hire season, DCRS services its hire fleet to make sure it is all ready for the start of the next one and that this includes replenishing batteries and accessories. In addition, “prior to each contract, all equipment is tested to specification prior to delivery and then checked at the end of the hire period”.

Bostock goes through some of the key considerations, namely how many radios and channels will be required, and how the necessary coverage will be achieved – can this be delivered just with back-to-back radios, or will infrastructure be required? This hinges to a large extent on whether the organiser requires everybody to talk to each other across the whole venue or whether they can get by with localised areas operating back-to-back within their venue. He adds that coverage requirements can get quite complex, especially in the case of multi-site events, where backhaul via the internet or microwave fixed links may be needed. “It’s a process of us working with the customers to look at what their requirements are and then doing site surveys and prediction and tests to advise them as to the best way to [meet these].”

Both Bostock and Luscombe emphasise that it is not just about getting the right equipment on-site and set up. “It’s best practice to always get a bit of training in,” says Bostock. “People often think they can just pick up their radio at the morning of the event and try and use [it] – that’s where mistakes can occur. So they need to take a little bit of time to [familiarise themselves] with it, make sure that they’re wearing their earpiece properly, and to get wired up with any audio accessories that they have. Speaking clearly into the radio helps especially during an event, when things can often get fairly high pressured quickly.” In addition, users need to make sure they charge their radios overnight.

Luscombe makes many of the same points, while emphasising the need for radio protocol/discipline, the need to ensure that “the organisers understand the feature sets, the channels that are in place, who is using which channel”, that each user knows which channel they should be on and that “if they’re using an external microphone on an external earpiece kit [and have] the microphone too far away from the mouth, the audio becomes quite muffled”.

Speaking of accessories, Luscombe adds that his event customers are starting to use Bluetooth audio accessories, as “many of the Motorola products now offer a low-cost reliable Bluetooth headset that can be provided [as an alternative to] traditional wired accessories”.

Bostock highlights the importance of simply getting the kit to the event on time. “The thing that catches you out the most is failures from the delivery chain. [There are] some days in the summer we’ll be sending 50, 60 shipments out, and if two of those go wrong, then you’ve somehow got to try and rectify that.” As he points out, it is no good if the kit gets delivered a day late if that’s after the event has taken place, so managing the delivery process is crucial.

While we're on the subject of logistics, there is also the formidable task of managing the vast amount of kit that gets hired out and making sure it is returned, especially given the ease with which small accessories such as earpieces can be lost, and the cost of replacing them can rack up. Bostock says Roadphone NRB tackles this by serial-numbering every item, “right down to every last earpiece and battery, and we have an asset tracking system”, which is used by the company’s logistics team to book out every piece of equipment, so they “know precisely what’s gone to each job.

“We offer a system called Checkpoint Charlie, which we run on-site or can be run by the customer, which enables them to book out equipment to the end-users. We take their photograph, telephone number and email address, so that as soon as anybody returns their equipment we can ask them, ‘Have you still got an earpiece at the bottom of your bag?’; and nine times out of 10, they’ll say ‘oh yes’ and bring it back.”

Bostock adds that while RFID stickers could be used instead of barcodes to track equipment, this approach has limited benefits, given that “everything has to be manually handled and checked anyway to make sure there’s no damage and to ensure that it’s clean and in good order ready for the next customer”.

From a two-way radio company’s perspective, pricing is something of a fine art, given the tension between quoting high enough to make the job worthwhile and low enough to win the business. This begs the question as to what unforeseen costs can arise and drag margins down? Bostock says that “frequency licensing costs can easily get out of control, especially in European countries [as] every country has its own way of regulating and charging for frequencies. It’s just about making sure that that cost is covered”, and making sure there is an arrangement under which these costs are passed onto the customer. He adds: “Although we try to make those costs known in advance, sometimes especially with European countries it does get a bit more expensive.”

Luscombe says: “A lot of the companies we supply, while they want a competitive price [they’re] more interested in 24/7 support during the event, as often when radio companies’ offices close on a Friday night there might be an issue or some support or assistance needed over a weekend.”

He adds by way of example: “I got a call at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon because a security company for one of our event clients had turned up for a major festival and their radios [which weren’t supplied by DCRS] were not working. They couldn’t contact the company who supplied them so they were desperate for some radios to be able to carry out their work, so we arranged for delivery of 50 radios and accessories on the Saturday evening so the event could continue.”

Turning to the use of Push-to-talk over Cellular (PoC) for events, Bostock says people, particularly those PoC providers that started out with two-way radio, sometimes forget that “when you go to an events site you very often lose 4G coverage fairly quickly”. It’s also worth noting here the impact that crowds and their ravenous hunger for cellular bandwidth can have on a PoC system running over the public networks, given that in this situation, PoC traffic isn’t being prioritised.

That said, Bostock says PoC is appropriate for some events, such as a long-distance bike ride, where the coverage requirement would be difficult and expensive to cover with a two-way radio system and there aren’t the large crowds that can cause capacity issues.

Meanwhile, it is not just the main event organiser that needs two-way comms at large events. Bostock gives the example of “a private medical company that’s providing medical support to a marathon… they don’t have the budget to put in a wide-area DMR network, but they still want wide-area comms, so PoC is a good stop-gap solution; it’s not the ultra-resilient, ultra-reliable service that is DMR, but it gives them a service that just wouldn’t have been open to them in the past because of budget constraints”.

He also expects more opportunities to open up for PoC, “especially as it becomes more established and as the phone networks become inherently more reliable”.

Keep it simple
However, Bostock points out that one thing in two-way radio’s favour is its simplicity compared with a rugged smartphone and similar devices. This is because many people involved in the running of an event may “only use a radio once or twice a year” and “there’s [often] lots of people who may not have English as first language, so explaining to them how to use a new, slightly more complex device like a smartphone or tablet isn’t in the best interests of what people are trying to do, so simplicity and familiarity remain key –you can’t beat giving a person a radio; everybody intuitively knows to push the big button on the side when they want to talk” and how to turn the volume up or change the channel.

Given the high stakes – no-one wants to have hundreds or even thousands of disgruntled paying customers due to a snag that could have been avoided with a simple sentence delivered over a two-way radio system – and with two-way radio companies being increasingly in demand, it is clear that if you are looking to run an event (especially for the first time) and have yet to look into your comms, there is no time like the present.

Over the air… to Europe
Roadphone NRB’s Matt Bostock says the introduction of over-the-air programming is “certainly a benefit” and also helps his customers, as it means that Roadphone NRB can be a bit more flexible – “it’s not a case of needing your radio list and your names list two weeks in advance of shipping and that’s it, we can cope with making limited changes over the air while the radios are deployed”.

However, “it’s not the be-all and end-all solution, you can’t change everything over the air that you can via a programming cable”.

Bostock says conferences are embracing the use of DMR Tier III. “A lot of conferences happen in Europe and they’ll attract people and staff right across the world. If they’re using their mobile phones to talk to one another all the time, then they’ll quickly rack up phone bills. So, if we can give them a two-way radio that enables them to make one-to-one individual calls, that’s always a benefit.”

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