Staging and Rental Companies Learning to Marry Content and Technology

Our plane touched down in San Francisco late on a Thursday night, and the four of us crammed into a small rental car destined for a market research company just a few minutes from the airport. We were on a mission from one of the market-leading electronic projector companies to sit behind an expansive one-way mirror and observe interviews with senior managers from some of Silicon Valley's most prestigious software companies.

As the conversations began, an industrial designer next to me passionately sketched futuristic projector designs while the rest of us listened intently to comments that spanned multiple levels of frustration with the presentation medium. I managed a small group of consultants/designers at the time — a group that provided training and presentation design services to product end-users — so my knothole in the fence was quite different from the rest. What we learned that day would be underscored many times in the months to come. Their issues mirrored those of most presenters and often found common ground in a lack of consideration, time, training (skills), or all of the above. As important as this knowledge would be, the question for me became: Would my partners from the technology side of the business have ears to hear those pain points that fell outside of the typical core business process?

Crossing Over

Like most technology-focused companies, we were struggling at the time to cross the precarious “chasm” described in Geoffrey Moore's popular book, Crossing the Chasm. As products and services evolve from a high-margin early-adopter market, Moore conjectured, most technology-oriented companies find themselves in a rapidly changing marketplace. With our own product margins quickly falling, the euphoria of record revenue quarters and fat profit-sharing checks was already being replaced by the realization that we needed to infuse new service revenues into the business.

Understanding this “whole product model” became a corporate obsession. As Jack Welch, General Electric's former CEO, told a USA Today reporter before his retirement, “Services are so great an opportunity for the company that our vision for the next century is that GE [becomes] a global services company that also sells high-quality products.”

The focus in today's economy for smaller solution providers is much more practical — survival.

For the more mature rental-and-staging industry, the ante to play in the marketplace is clear. Team members primarily focus on their ability to stay on the leading/bleeding edge of everything from projection systems and plasma to lightweight and versatile stage infrastructures. But as you consider your corporate business, there's an even more significant question that needs to be asked with a view to the future: What business are you really in? Are you a rental and/or staging company providing hardware and technological event solutions, or are you a communications company?

The answer to that critical question will send event-solution providers in different directions to unravel the pain that customers experience throughout the event process. For those companies that consider themselves in the communications business, opportunities abound in forging relationships with partner service providers that have the ability to extend greater value to customers through training, animation, video, and presentation services. Although some of the more progressive players in the industry have already discovered this fertile ground, others continue to hold tightly to what they've always done — a precarious strategy at best in these times.

When you are assisting customers in communicating their messages more effectively, several things happen. Barriers to entry for competitors are forged. Deeper client relationships are possible because you can now touch your client organizations at more senior levels. And ultimately, new incremental revenue streams for content related services add more to the bottom line.

Opportunity From Pain

Customer pain comes in many forms these days, and it is almost always related to time and talent. The last five years, my consulting-and-design business has focused specifically on strategic presentation development and executive training. The need of senior management presenters is most often focused on critical message-tuning for the presentation medium, while more professionally illustrating their presentation storyline. The venues are as varied as the presenters themselves and can often represent a low-hanging fruit opportunity.

At a recent trade show in Atlanta, 4,000 event attendees packed in to hear the morning's keynote dignitary. As he presented, massive projection screens on either side of the stage were filled with presentation images that were most likely created by a staffer who was pretty good with PowerPoint. We sat through 45 minutes of red background slides with sometimes large, sometimes mouse-size type, most of which was nearly unreadable. The staging people had done their part in providing an impressive venue, but the onscreen content was horribly inappropriate for a seasoned communicator.

Meanwhile, at a different conference for the public relations industry, onsite presentation designers worked with presenters in their ready rooms to fine tune and graphically enhance text-intensive messages. After the conference, an appreciative, nationally recognized speaker thanked the team for helping to make him “look so good.”

Elsewhere, an industry-leading technology provider hosted a large annual sales conference in Hawaii. The outside keynote speaker forwarded mind-numbing presentations that would obviously impair his ability to communicate to the expectant attendees. He was a subject-matter expert, to be sure, but he was hardly a professional presentation designer with an understanding of the medium. The host company, concerned with potential credibility issues, sought out a knowledgeable service provider. The creative team placed the information in a sanctioned event template, cleaned up content, and used animation to break up more complex topics for better retention. The bill was $7,500, but worth every penny, according to company event planners.

Another example, a large East Coast direct-marketing concern had been actively involved in merger and acquisition activity for some time and now brought hundreds of people from the combined companies into Las Vegas for the first time. The president had several keynote slots where impressions would be immediate and second chances few. A presentation designer worked virtually with the CEO and delivered the completed presentation to his laptop the day before the conference. A grateful CEO sent a thank-you letter and offered to be a reference at any time. The tab there was $6,500, plus another $3,500 for a critical major sales presentation the following week.

The point here is clear: The marriage between content and technology is unavoidable. As customer budgets get pinched during difficult economic times, the concept of differentiation takes on a new meaning for rental and staging companies. Legitimate questions abound. What challenges exist in orchestrating event content (presentation, animation, and video)? What obstacles do your event presenters face when delivering their presentations?

The answers may help you understand the important elements needed for reinventing organizations in tough times. Customer loyalty, if it still exists, will sooner or later give way to a more competitive environment. The rental and staging companies who emerge from the fray with a fresh focus on communication, as opposed to traditional approaches, will no doubt find new opportunities with existing customers and future prospects.

And what became of our small San Francisco focus group team? A few quarters later, the company lost a couple million dollars and abandoned the whole product concept for the time being. I guess what's even more important than knowing the right answers to the questions is having the resolve to stay the course.

Jim Endicott is a consultant, designer, speaker, and author specializing in professional presentation messaging, design, and delivery, and a longtime member of the ICIA (International Communications Industries Association). He has served as an award-winning columnist for Presentations magazine and has also contributed presentation-related content to Business Week, Consulting and Selling Power, as well as a being a paid contributor to a number of industry-related websites. The ICIA Field Report is penned each issue by members of the ICIA through its Editorial Alliance Program. For more information, email