Of all the pre-show events that traditionally set the scene for InfoComm, none is more eagerly awaited than the Manufacturers Forum. All the more so this year, when some integrators are seeing a fall in the number of new projects on their books. In previous years, dealers would pack the room to hear what some of our leading manufacturers had to say about future technologies and trends. There was plenty of that this year, too, but the question the audience really wanted to hear answered was: How do we tough out this phase of the economic cycle?
Moderator Gary Kayye began by asking his panel to name one trend that's affecting their business today. George Feldstein, founder and President of Crestron, admitted that "some dealers are hurting" but argued that there are alternatives to the bunker mentality. "A lot of integrators are still doing fantastic, and the ones who are doing fantastic have found other ways of selling," he said. "A number of our dealers have got into digital signage, or opened European operations because the European market is strong."
Both those themes were eagerly taken up by Jeff Porter, EVP of Scala, a company whose leadership in the field of signage appears to have left it largely immune to the effects of economic slowdown. "Digital signage is an application presence that allows the integrator to move up the food chain and add value," Porter observed, adding that while Las Vegas hotels may be a great showcase for multi-channel signage content, they are far from unique in the world. "In Eastern Europe the market has gone from the Cold War to the 21st century without any of the stages in between, and the growth there is phenomenal. Dubai and the Middle East are also great for us; some of the projects there make Vegas look like a Motel 6."
But while looking beyond America's borders for growth potential makes abundant sense on paper, the internationalization of the AV marketplace is not without its problems. Michael McDonald, Executive VP of Marketing and Sales, Harman Professional, alerted the Forum to a particular challenge he described as "the collapse in the distribution channels of our business." According to McDonald: "Building owners are getting really sophisticated about working the value chain, and that's impacting on our project margins. It's to do with the internationalization of everything, and especially pricing. It's becoming a real strain on how we do business around the world."
In the face of shrinking margins, the smarter integrator needs to focus on the creation of unique and compelling content, rather than selling new technology for its own sake. Joe Sigrist, Senior VP of Polycom's GM Video Solutions Group, told the audience that video communications have the potential to "become the corporate YouTube", expanding the industry's reach beyond the facilities or IT departments of end customers. "Our technology is a great way to communicate between geographical locations," added Sigrist. "It's time-saving, it's cost-saving, it's green. And, above all, video is sexy."
And getting sexier all the time, as Gerry Remers, President and COO of Christie, pointed out. While the Canadian-based projector manufacturer is focusing its R&D efforts on new products that save dollars over time (by consuming less energy, for example), it is also seeing a key shift in the way its hardware is being used.
"We're moving away from a focus on technology to a focus on creativity," said Remers. "Technology is there to meet creative people's needs, and with image blending and warping technology, we're moving away from 4:3 or 16:9 to any screen size or shape. To us, aspect ratios are becoming irrelevant. And that's a huge opportunity for AV dealers to capitalize on."
By my reckoning, that's at least five ways of beating the economic slowdown right there. How many more do you need?