This throwback pastime is trending as a way to gather safely during the pandemic.
How can we safely gather as a community to worship?
That question was top of mind at many houses of worship (HoWs) around the country as Easter approached this past spring, even as their doors remained closed
to parishioners because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The answer came in the form of a throwback pastime: going to the drive-in. Instead of getting in
the car and gathering to share the experience of movie-going, people gathered to worship. They joined their faith communities in church parking lots—each person or
family safely in their own vehicle, physically apart but still together.
When the academic year ended and the pandemic continued, schools held drive-in graduation ceremonies. Over the summer, shopping malls, HoWs and community centers hosted movie nights and concerts in their parking lots. As our thoughts have turned to fall festivals, football games, live theater and holiday programs, we have seen the drive-in trend continue. People crave normalcy and connection, but they must remain physically distant from each other to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, drive-in events offer a safer alternative to indoor gatherings as the pandemic continues.
What follows are some best practices for hosting a successful drive-in event.
- Think about site acoustics. Consider the venue and where the cars will gather, as well as the positioning of the stage, altar, playing field or screen. Identify potential visibility or audio obstructions. Are there surrounding hills, buildings or other structures that might affect acoustics? What about capacity and spacing? Ensure sufficient distance between vehicles to maintain both safety and unimpeded sound quality. (No one wants to be distracted from the movie or the sermon because people in a neighboring vehicle are talking loudly.) External speakers used in combination with other listening systems can be problematic, as audio timing might be off; this can cause listener fatigue. Discrepancies in the timing of audio signals often occur when powered loudspeakers are used in combination with FM or Wi-Fi audio systems; the audio from the loudspeakers takes a certain amount of time to reach the listener’s ear, and thus arrives either before or after the sound emitted from the radio or via an app. Don’t be afraid to think outside the parking lot; perhaps another offsite location (e.g., an open field) would be acoustically better suited to the event.
- Consider ambient noise. Traffic, flight patterns, construction activity, even squawking birds all can affect attendees’ ability to hear clearly. Thus, when setting the date and time of an event, plan accordingly. Noise from nearby rush-hour traffic, for example, will be far less likely to affect a worship service held on Sunday morning, whereas it might be a major consideration for a sporting event on a weekday evening. And don’t forget to think about the hearing needs of attendees. Do they struggle with hearing loss and require assistive-listening systems? Be mindful of neighbors and nearby business owners, whom noise from your event could affect. Be aware of any local sound ordinances or curfews, too.
- Evaluate the best method to deliver audio. In the past, drive-in theaters relied on loudspeakers, or small speakers near each vehicle, to provide audio to guests. Those speakers’ sound quality was not great, and the FM signal would cut in and out. Today, more options exist. Audio streamed over Wi-Fi is a more reliable solution, and it offers superior audio quality as compared to FM systems. Venues use an outdoor Wi-Fi network to stream audio to guests’ smartphones and smart devices via a free, downloadable app. Guests can listen through headphones or Bluetoothenabled hearing aids or car stereos. This affordable option is easy to set up, and it lets venues offer multiple channels (thus facilitating transmission of multilingual audio). Venues should ensure that the WiFi access point(s) have proper coverage. Test the system in a vehicle prior to the event to ensure a good user experience. If using an FM transmitter, ensure that the transmitter is positioned in a location where it will broadcast to all vehicles— without drops or dead zones—effectively. Positioning the antenna higher and more centrally to the audience typically proves beneficial. Consult industry professionals, including manufacturers, to help determine the best equipment and technology for your particular needs.
- Set up attendees for audio success. Before they arrive, share information with attendees about how to access audio. Create a short video to demonstrate how guests should enter and exit the parking area, where they should park and how they can access audio. Include these details in confirmation texts and emails, on your website and on social-media channels. For instance, if using audio over Wi-Fi, give attendees a link to download the app prior to their arrival at the event; be sure to provide information on how to connect to the Wi-Fi network once they’re onsite. Post signage at the event site to indicate how to access the app or where to tune the radio to hear the audio. Offer an email address or app through which attendees can pose questions or seek help in real time.
- Solicit feedback. Reach attendees via text, email or social media after the event has concluded. If using a Wi-Fi or an app-based audio solution, messaging often can be customized to promote the event, provide additional information and gather real-time feedback through survey links in the app. Ask not only what attendees liked about the event but also what could be improved. Make sure to solicit information about audio specifically, rather than waiting for attendees to bring up the subject. Could they hear clearly? Would they recommend similar future events to family and friends? Why or why not? Keep it short, and make it easy for people to reply. The objective is
to identify ways to improve the experience and foster engagement.
The pandemic has upended life as we knew it, but innovative organizations are finding new ways to host gatherings and provide patrons with the familiar experiences that they crave. By combining a throwback pastime with the latest in audio-delivery technology, these savvy organizations are enabling people to gather safely.
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