Observations on My Remote Demos – One Year On

You can hardly believe that there were barely any pro UK turners presenting remote demonstrations before March 2020. And then COVID-19 and a strict national lockdown changed everything very quickly.

Within weeks, almost the entire year of demo and show bookings had been cancelled, evaporating thousands of pounds worth of work for jobbing demonstrators everywhere. The remaining work vanished a few weeks later. It was devastating – clubs had shut their doors, shows and all teaching was forced to be postponed.

UK pro turners looked to American turners for inspiration on how to continue demonstrating during what would become a very difficult time for everyone. Many US turners had been demonstrating remotely for years before COVID and were the ideal source for advice and inspiration for our own remote set-ups.

A month before my original thoughts in a blog post on 19th April ’20, I had already spent many hours on the phone to other turners talking about what they were planning on doing to keep going, and even more time on the internet investing in a remote demonstration set-up for the workshop. I joined the remote demonstrator group Lucid Woodturners and spoke to a few US remote demonstrators about ‘how they do it’ before embarking on my own take on doing it.

Diversifying the business to incorporate a remote capability was a no-brainer.
We couldn’t meet in person, so I would visit them remotely in their living rooms!

Within a month, a rudimentary streaming set-up was in place and tested. Click here to look over what that initial set-up consisted of and how it all connected together.

Reaching Out Remotely

A screenshot from my very first remote demonstration on YouTube. March 2020.

With so many people staying at home because of the lockdown, reaching out to people remotely was a sensible thing to do. From a personal perspective, I wanted to do something to help people out – cheer them up a bit and give them something to look forward to each week. After all, we had no idea how long lockdown would last!

And from a business point of view, I needed to put myself and the business in front of people to let them know the business was still operating when so many others had closed their doors!

Turners from all over the world tuned in with UK turners to share my first ever remote demonstrations that covered a range of subjects and skill levels. The image above is from my first ever remote demo on 17th March 2020. How time flies! You can watch this inaugural stream HERE.

After the first few demonstrations were streamed, I was asked by the then Chairman of the Register of Professional Turners John Boyne-Aitken if I would be prepared to host a discussion with members of the RPT. The idea was to encourage Register members to investigate streaming as a possible income stream throughout lockdown and continue it into the future to cast their demonstration net further afield.

Through April and into early May, I hosted four or five evenings (I forget the precise number) for Register members. We ended up discussing streaming, social media presence, sales and marketing. But most of all, the discussion centered around the importance of having an online presence and engaging with people – to put themselves and their turning businesses out there to meet some of their existing customers and introduce themselves to a new audience with interesting and engaging content.

Past Experience

In a previous work life, I was involved in a small way in audio/visual work. Not so much presenting, but on the production side of things so I had a slightly outdated knowledge before I got into woodturning. This came in very useful when I started making videos for social media consumption in 2014.

This past experience proved invaluable when it came to getting set up for remote demos. I had some cameras already, but they needed inline capture cards to convert their signal into one that could be streamed – and they cost almost as much as the second hand cameras I was using. Before I could do that though, my original set-up used Logitech C920 webcams as they were much more affordable than inline capture capture cards, and were a good place to start.

Then there is the lighting – you must have good lighting for small camera sensors to work optimally, particularly webcams.

And then there is the audio. Clear audio is so important. I’m now on my third microphone in 12 months. The first one (a lavalier) was good for recorded and edited video, but not for live work. The second was a headset with a large, unsightly mic on the end that was sensitive to ‘plosives’ (the distorted sound, that results when an air blast from the mouth goes into the microphone). Now I use a mic that is more akin to those you find in use during stage performances. It is a very thin skin coloured mic that is very discreet. Even this isn’t perfect as I need to tape it into place. But, the sound is the best of the bunch. They have all been wireless.

Internet speed is important, too of course. From my workshop, I can muster a meager 3.6Mbps upload speed on a dedicated line which I have set my streaming software up to optimise. It’s not perfect, but it is the absolute best that can be achieved, and manages to kick out a stream close enough to HD to keep me happy.

I’ve even looked into satellite broadband, but it’s upstream speeds are only just comparable to what I already have. So at the moment, it is not worth the investment until the speeds increase considerably and it happens before fibre broadband is laid to our property out here in the countryside.

Amazing Proactive Clubs

As part of what I do is demonstrate for clubs, a lot of conversations were had with those clubs who understandably needed to cancel their bookings for 2020 (and a lot of 2021 as it transpires!). Some of the clubs didn’t cancel their bookings, but instead changed them to a remote demonstration! Their committees had met up in Zoom (as everyone else was doing) and decided to carry on regardless with their club meetings, but in a virtual environment. All credit to them for moving quickly to keep their clubs running! And even more credit to those clubs who spent the time and effort assisting their less tech-savvy members get online and able to enjoy the club events.

I know some clubs have just closed their doors until this all blows over which is a desperate shame for their members.

From a demonstrator perspective, being able to continue to present to clubs in a remote environment has been amazing, and a relief to have some of the lost income replaced in order to continue to provide and improve their streaming service. On top of that, as I think I mentioned in my original streaming article, clubs who would otherwise be unable to afford a turner to come and visit them in person can now have them demo remotely for them. It is a win-win situation.

Too Few Pro Remote Demonstrators

Despite the very clear indication that remote demonstrations were absolutely a way forward to keep demonstrations as a form of income during the pandemic, very few professional UK turners took it up.

The financial investment is a major factor of course, but so is the investment in time to put it all together into a working system. Practicing presentation skills and working the system on the fly is also time consuming. Demonstrating in person is one thing, but transferring that to a screen presence is quite another. Then there is the time required for marketing and selling your new product to people and clubs. This also takes time, effort and of course money – for something that may, or may not be taken up by the marketplace.

Within a couple of months of starting out and deciding that Yes! remote demonstrations are a good way forward for my business, I invested somewhere around £3000 in cameras, computer, lights, microphones, software licenses and other accessories to put together the absolute best that I could to support that side of the business. A proportion of this investment came from donations made by viewers on my free to view streams on my YouTube channel – donations that I am extremely grateful for.

So perhaps, with these things (and others) considered it is not surprising that comparatively few pro turners have taken up remote demonstrations as a source of income and business expansion. Perhaps they cannot find enough positives to justify the speculation of money and time for their own business. If this is the case, it is a shame, but I do hope to see more professionals take it up in the future.

Those that have gone all-out on remote demonstrations do so in different ways with different set-ups and methods of generating an income from it. Some sell tickets to regular presentations, others present to clubs, or a mixture of both and others do it largely free-to-view, like I do. There is still a reward in doing it that way, but it is not a certainty – perhaps I ought to alter the model a bit. But for now, it works.

A New Normal (Excuse the Cliche)

So much has happened in the last 12 months and so much progress made by those who have adopted remote demos as a way forward that progress has now largely slowed down – a bit like the universe after the big bang, I guess.

Everyone seems to have found their rhythm now. Remote demos have become ‘normal’. It is quite common to see advertising posts on social media for remote demo ticket sales and clubs to book us to present for them.

‘Normal’ is a good thing – it is indicative of stability and predictability.
We have been without ‘normal’ for such a long time and a return it may seem and bit . . . ummm . . . boring after such an unstable and unpredictable twelve months.

I’ve been involved with probably close to a hundred demonstrations to date, either as a presenter or a viewer and it has most certainly become part of what I now call ‘normal’.

It feels odd, to be honest. Things are so different now that it is difficult to get my head around it all. I have been so involved with it all from the beginning that looking back at the last twelve months is mind blowing.

So much has happened, so much has changed that I am sure there are things I have missed in this article that ought to be here.

And now lockdown is coming to an end in June (I think it unlikely that we will have to endure another one, but that is on us to obey the rules, of course), the turning world cannot switch back to how it was before. The turning world is not the same as it was before:

  • Clubs and their members now have the knowledge and access to remote demonstrators from around the world – yes, The WORLD.
  • Turners with remote capability can now reach more clubs around the world.
  • Those turners can create their own videos to support and promote their business and their products where they may not have been able to before.
  • Remote teaching is now a thing! It is relatively easy to connect two workshops to conduct some teaching online or offer technical support.
  • Turners are now more aware of the importance of the internet and its use to reach an existing audience for their work and reach new people.

There is more to it than those points above of course, but it should be plain to see that the world is a different place now.

Global Reach

The internet is such a powerful thing that I believe most of us take it for granted. In the last few months, I’ve demonstrated for US clubs and businesses as well as businesses in Norway, Denmark and Ireland. A remote set-up gives us an amazing global reach. It is difficult to explain the sense of amazement I feel when presenting to people all around the world IN REAL TIME!

I find it so fascinating that it seems to give me an extra boost of energy and enthusiasm for the presentation. Here I am, perhaps with the sun setting outside, and there are some of my viewers first thing in their morning. Mind boggling.

It’s a bit like the interest I have in aeroplanes and how hundreds of tons of metal manage to stay up in the air. I know how it works, but it never reduces the ‘WOW’ in my head when I think about it. The principles are simple, but never-the-less, they are wonderful.

A New Business

The dedicated permanent streaming set-up at The Woodturning Shop

In August 2020, Les Thorne and I teamed up, pooled our resources and started a brand new business called The Woodturning Shop (imaginative, I know!).

My old workshop is now a proper teaching room and in the rest of the building we have taken over, there is a small retail shop, Les’ production workshop and my office/studio that we share for videos and streaming.

Shopping is available online 24/7 and in-store Wednesday to Saturday 9.30am – 3pm.

We also offer our customers free remote demonstrations of suitable projects using the tools and products we use and stock.

Online Club

In June 2020, I founded one of the first online only UK based clubs called Woodturning360 as part of the Hampshire Sheen business. There are currently over 170 members primarily from the UK, Europe, US and Canada. We meet twice a month on a Monday. One Monday is for a remote demonstration, and the other is for a discussion meeting.

It works very well and membership is generally active in the club Facebook group. With monthly challenges, members get to stretch their creative wings and share their results with other members. It is a good, happy place to hang out with like-minded people.

Is the Bubble Going to Burst?

No, I very much doubt it. What was a tiny bubble encompassing very few turners in the UK has been inflated to include many more. Not enough in my opinion, but many more is a good start. The bubble may shrink with a drop in demand, but I am convinced it is here to stay now.

What started as an exciting prospect and new avenue to explore in the last 12 months for us professional turners, remote demos have become (excuse the cliche) a ‘new normal’. It’s part of our everyday life now the prospecting has been realised and the avenue largely explored.

That’s not to say that every nook and cranny of that avenue has been explored, though. There is more for me to do to continue to improve my remote demonstrations – there are new projects to develop, alternative presentation methods to explore and general tweaks to make before my personal remote bubble is stretched to the max.

Ultimately, I am very pleased with how the last year has panned out where my own demonstration capability is concerned. Some decisions that were made had to be made quickly to keep up with and (as some people have said) lead the way. They were largely the right decisions to make for the business. There were some that I now consider to be mistakes but they were of no lasting consequence.

Now though, I think it is time to take stock of what has been achieved and consolidate the lessons learned before moving forward again. But not for long though!

If there is one thing I have re-learned, and that is to never sit back on your laurels. Always keep moving forward to learn and improve on from what you leave behind.

Thanks for reading.

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