The Dark Ages

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Last Saturday, I got up early and dressed in a dark suit. I drove downtown, past the graveyard, and entered the dimly-lit hall. A well-dressed man greeted me at the door and handed me a program, nodding silently as I passed. The room was draped in black, and rows of people in folding chairs were sitting around in little groups, whispering to each other. A number of people were clustered at the back of the room, speaking to each other in hushed tones as they watched each new guest enter.

That should have been expected, had I been attending a funeral. But I was just checking in on a small staging job.

In my March column, I mentioned that my Infocomm wish list included the fact that I'd be looking for some significant improvement in portable set kits. Lots of emails ensued, and many were from people who quoted Henry Ford's "they can have any color they want, as long as it's black".

So what is it with our industry and black pipe and drape? Why do we create a look for meetings that reminds us of a wake?

1. Darkness at Noon: a quarter century ago, when I first got into this business, it was because we desperately needed the meeting environment to be dark. And I mean DARK. In the 80s, a BRIGHT video projector was 600 lumens or so -- and most of us, in those days of the real birth of the AV rental in america, couldn't afford those monsters, we settled for 200-400 lumen projectors. So black velour became a technical necessity, unless we wanted to board over windows.

2. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain: we used drapery to hide our gear, and ourselves, like snipers behind camouflage netting.

3. Drapery is easy: besides being easy to transport, it made the set dress decision about any room a simple one: how many feet do we need? The single color, black, also simplified inventory requirements.

But I REALLY want to kill it. Most of the need to use this relic of our past has disappeared. Gear is more compact, and with the technical revolution in many of our client's businesses it's no longer as objectionable to see. And we have projectors with light output to burn, even in the low end of the market.

But mostly, I want to kill it because I love what happens to meetings with even a small attempt at a real set. They become special. The right visual environment moves them from being a meeting to being an event. We've always done this with our larger events. But it's time to bring STAGING to the mid-size (and even the small) meeting. Why? Because it's not just our industry that has brighter projectors and more compact gear now. The clients have them, too. And that's the issue for me.

We spend a lot of time at Infocomm (the organization, not the show) discussing the viability of the AV dealership over the long haul. While most of us have increased our staging ends, we've seen a significant falloff in small shows and rentals (at least the numbers of them) over the last twenty years. With the unification of the visual medium behind the computer, the great variety of projection equipment we used to rent is no longer necessary. And clients own the basics most of the time.

So how do we turn rentals into staging events, keeping the client in our court and keeping our services necessary in the smaller meeting? Presentation values. And that starts with creating the environment.

And logic says we can. Fabrics are cheap now, thanks to the fact that we don't make most of them here anymore. And there have been some notable entries into the portable set arena. TransformIt made sets very portable with spandex and translucent fabrics. ScreenWorks brought us their modular system. Each has a distinctive range of looks available, and each has its place. But both can be difficult to manage, and to have enough inventory to be really flexible can be quite expensive. None of them has the "any size event" quality that drapery does.

So what am I looking for at Infocomm? For somebody to present us with versatility that finally propels AV rental out of the dark ages by making it inexpensive and flexible enough to gather critical mass.
And because I recently lost my favorite maglight.

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