There’s at least one in nearly each of the estimated five million commercial buildings in the U.S. Every school, university, and even houses of worship have spaces dedicated for this purpose, too. In fact, any space where people meet in groups can be considered a conference room, and lots of AV gear can be found in just about every one of them. But there’s one type of conference room that’s less common—the executive boardroom, and the array of AV technology used in these spaces can be staggering, although it might not appear that way at first glance.
“Boardroom AV ups the stakes in the game, because all elements of the system must be coordinated and designed better than an average meeting room,” said Derek Holbrook, sales engineer with Mountainside, NJ-based AV integrator Verrex. “The sales, design and engineering team must know that all eyes will be on the performance and quality of the system as a whole.”
Other AV experts who specialize in boardroom environments agree. “The boardroom is typically the most technologically advanced space in the organization,” said Bill McIntosh, president of Synergy Media Group, an AV systems integrator based in Pittsburgh, PA. “The niceties and ‘wow-factor’ functionality that you don’t see in standard meeting rooms are very much in play in the corporate board room.”
The boardroom is a special kind of conference room. While the typical conference room is designed and equipped for groups of workers, the boardroom is really designed for a much more specific user—the CEO or chairman of the board. Originally the term “boardroom” referred to the lavishly appointed, wood paneled rooms where the board of directors would meet, but today the term is generally applied to any high-end executive meeting room.
A major difference between a boardroom and the typical conference room is that the boardroom is not necessarily about collaboration; it’s more about presentation. Although collaboration technologies like videoconferencing systems are typically found in boardrooms, it’s the live, in-room experience that really matters. The nature of the business presentations that take place in these rooms are more about establishing leadership or high-level deals with major business partners. So a high premium is placed on appearances. It’s where big decisions are made, and marching orders are given. This is one reason why aesthetics are a critical design factor. The room itself makes a statement about the company and its leadership.
“It’s really a personal extension of the executive management team,” according to Scott Birdsall. Birdsall, a president and CEO himself of Beaverton, OR-based CompView, said, “The boardroom has high visibility, and usually complex architectural and technology requirements. The project is also usually ‘owned’ by a senior project manager reporting directly to the CIO.”
Out of Sight
While visible technology in an ordinary conference room is not only tolerated but expected, that’s not always the case in the boardroom. “We have had clients that don’t want a single piece of technology to be visible when the system is not in use,” said Synergy’s McIntosh. “That’s usually not a problem for motorized projection screens or projectors, since everyone is familiar with ceiling mounted projection screens and projector lifts. But when you’re asked to conceal HD videoconferencing cameras in a room that is mostly glass, you need an engineer with a creative mind. Sometimes you’re working in a wall-to-wall glass room and other times you’re working in law firms with wall-to-wall mahogany. The one thing that remains constant in boardrooms is the requirement of hiding the technology.”
“Most boardroom projects employ senior architects focused on aesthetics, integration of technology, and the communication of the corporation’s brand,” said Birdsall. “Boardrooms are used by the senior executives and they want them to be perfect, in terms of both design and technology integration. Tom Yerkes, general manager for CompView in California, agrees. “The boardroom is a place where members are being presented to, and if too much technology is in place that isn’t automated, it’s unacceptable,” he said.
Shift in Display Technologies
Over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a race in the product lifecycles of various display technologies. Projection systems, which have been around over one hundred years, have long been the mainstay in meetings rooms of all types, and are certainly a “mature” technology. In basic conference rooms, projection systems still dominate. But that may be changing, according to Pacific Media Associates.
“While corporate flat-panel use is on the rise, projectors are still the most popular type of display for meeting rooms, with projectors being used in 72% of all meeting rooms,” said Linda Norton, vice president at the market research firm. “Additionally, according to our end-user survey, flat-panels are in 42% of all meeting rooms, but 60 % of those rooms also contain a projector. Flat-panels are most widely used when there are ambient light issues, or because a flat-panel came as part of a video-conferencing system.”
In boardroom applications, however, flat-panel displays have some inherent advantages over projection systems. For one thing, flat-panel displays don’t produce as much heat as projectors, and they don’t require fans which can be noisy and disruptive. Also, there’s no unsightly projector dangling from the ceiling, and no need for expensive projector lift systems to hide them into ceiling cavities.
Flat-panels have not always been an attractive option. It’s only in the past several years that prices have dropped and sizes have increased to the point where they’ve become a viable alternative. In 2006, when Panasonic first introduced its mammoth 103-inch plasma display, prices were initially in the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” stratosphere. Soon, it was shipping at the then unheard-of price of about $100,000. Only two years later, the price tag dropped to around $50,000. Today, it can be bought for under $40k, and there are a slew of large screen competitors nipping at Panasonic’s previously monopolized market niche.
Although it still remains a more expensive way to achieve a wall-filling display area, these ultra large flat-panels present real competition for the projector/screen scenario.
“Until recently, there was not much choice in affordable large size flat-panels,” notes Eric J. Prepscius, principal with Audio Visual Design Consultants based in Washington, DC. “Sharp’s 80- and 90-inch AQUOS LCD displays have broken the $10,000 price barrier, so I would expect to see large format flat-panels on the rise in 2013. We already have over a dozen Sharp 90-inch screens in current designs,” said Prepscius.
CompView’s Birdsall concurs. “Almost all boardroom projects are incorporating high quality audio and videoconferencing. Large flat-panels are standard equipment for these systems. This could include large dual 80-inch LCD or 103-inch plasma,” he said.
Make It Easy
Another key design goal for any boardroom is that the system must be easy to use and intuitive in its operation. It’s not that high-level executives are less “technical” than any other user; they simply don’t have the time to deal with complexity.
Said CEO Birdsall, “Executives are busy professionals that are laser-focused on their business. They do not want, or expect to be experts on AV technology. One of the main aspects of a well-designed boardroom is to make complex technology easy to use.”
Synergy’s McIntosh notes that technical aptitude is not relevant in the boardroom. “I don’t think upper level executives are any less tech-savvy than the average corporate end-user, but I do think their expectations are higher and their patience is thin. And rightfully so. The execs at the top are directly responsible for dollars spent and cost/benefit analysis. If the functionality of their six-figure boardroom is below-expectations, it’s the integrator’s fault that expectations were either not properly set or they were overstated.”
Whether the CEO has an engineering or sales background really is not the point. AV consultant Prepscius sums it up this way: “An upper level executive for a Fortune 1000 company has no need to be tech-savvy. That’s what support staff is for.”
Quality at Any Cost?
McIntosh’s vision of the “six-figure” boardroom is not an exaggeration. Most observers note that budgets for boardrooms can be significantly greater compared to conventional conference rooms.
“A boardroom project budget can easily be two to three times a standard conference room,” observed Birdsall. “A boardroom requires higher quality displays, control, and audio. And most boardrooms include high quality videoconferencing. When you add furniture and wall coverings and so on, the price difference can easily triple.”
McIntosh goes further; he said that compared to a standard conference room, the cost of a boardroom is minimally 100% more expensive, and sometimes as much 1,000%.
Mark R. Mayfield is an independent consultant, analyst, and writer in the communications technology industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.