Service to the Exteme

Seldom is a staging firm concerned with fashion, but every now and then someone makes an exception.

Such was the case for the folks at American Audiovisual Center when, during an event, one of the presenters forgot to don his tie. Faced with the prospect of having to make his presentation--in front of clients and employees--in an incomplete ensemble, the executive was understandably nervous. Is this normally an issue that staging companies concern themselves with?

In many cases, no. During this event, however, a representative from American Audiovisual Center saw a quick solution in the hotel gift shop around the corner. Several moments later, he returned with two neckties in hand. After making his selection, the executive walked out on stage with confidence.

These are the types of things that set us apart, where we can really understand how the client is feeling, said Duane Tornquist, American Audiovisuals corporate vice president of sales and marketing.

Founded by president/CEO Jim Carlson in March 1993, American Audiovisual Center supplies audio, video, lighting and the occasional wardrobe consultation to clients across the United States. Carlson, a veteran of the staging industry, launched the company when it became clear that clients were seeking hands-on, personal customer service for their events.

Three of the hotels that I had done business with for over 20 years helped me get started, Carlson recalled. On March 13, 1993, we opened the doors at eight oclock in the morning and by noon that day we had five accounts already online and signed up. By the end of the week we had 12 hotels. At that point I knew that I could feed my family--I was very relieved. And it has just taken off since then.

Headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ, with California offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco, American Audiovisual continues to service the hotel market. Various Fairmont, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton locations are on the firms client roster. Tornquist attributes these accounts to the companys focus on customer service, pointing to the firms tagline: The Extreme Customer Service Company.
Team Staging, which is a group within American Audiovisual, is made up of a number of experienced staging professionals who are charged with overseeing some of the companys most challenging projects. Nicholas Voss, another industry veteran, heads up this division.

We have also brought people in from other parts of the country: new project managers and sales people from Florida who are seasoned staging people, Tornquist explained. However, these people are not just seasoned in staging and road shows; they have also had experience in the larger high-end hotels that do staging. They bring that culture with them; they understand what it is like inside of the resorts as well as what its like to stage a high-end show.

These skills sets enable American Audiovisual to look at the big picture, according to Tornquist. We see the benefit of mixing our culture and becoming more of one company and then having a department that we brand as that seasoned, experienced show staff that can come in and do any show that anyone else wont do, he said.

A Going and Growing Concern
Boasting 270 employees, today American Audiovisual is a going--and growing--concern. This month the company will open a 10,000 square foot warehouse in San Francisco to complement its 40,000 square foot headquarters. All of this bustle and boom is a welcome change to the economic climate that prevailed just a couple of years ago, following September 11.
It was very rough, but I think because we had a lot of good people that worked for us--some of them were willing to sacrifice a bit by working with less people and working a little harder, Carlson reflected, noting that it was easier to start the business than go through this period. We have a great atmosphere around here, and some very loyal and dedicated employees, that between all of us we pulled through and I am very proud of what we have now. It has been a great experience to go through something like that and know that you came out on the other end with a much closer-knit group of people.

Carlson admits that his understanding of the staging industry from the ground up helps to foster solid relations between the company and its employees. I grew up in the industry: from getting the equipment from the manufacturers to opening it up and making sure that it worked out of the box, to delivering it, to working on hotel sites, to doing staging, he said. I have gone through it all, so I know what all of my employees are going through. I think that we have been able to create a culture here where management knows what the employees are going through, so we can help ease some of the pain of late-night rehearsals and early-morning calls.

Now, says Tornquist, the biggest problem is ensuring that the company is able to deliver that personalized customer service that it is known for, as a result of all of the work that is thrown its way. Being national and then having to truck the equipment and not having offices everywhere seems to be everyones challenge. That is one of the reasons that we have put a separate warehouse in the Bay Area, because we have so much business between the Bay Area and Arizona right now, he said. Reaching out and handling all of the business that comes our way--there is so much of it now--that just being able to take care of everybody is our biggest challenge.

If the companys sales efforts are successful, this will be an eternal--but happy--problem. We have such a national reach on customers due to some of the hotels that we have. We have brought on some qualified sales people that are looking at shows two to three years out, Tornquist explained. When you start building up the pipeline and you can look into the future and see that you already have shows that are booked and you have had the opportunity to talk to a client about a show that is two years down the road but they are giving you some small projects in between, it allows us to develop that relationship. Then our operations department can see what kind of equipment we need to purchase. We focus as far into the future as we possibly can.

So far, the future is looking bright, thanks to the increase in clients budgets. We were at a place where pipe and drape and up-lighting, after 9/11, was the order of the day, Tornquist said. Now we are starting to see a lot more set design; almost every program that we do has some sort of a set. The budgets have definitely started to come back. Its a lot more fun to do a show now.

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.