Surfing the internet might be a lot of fun and yield untold nuggets of information, but it's not so easy to ascertain the exact impact the web has had on the lighting industry. Everybody seems to have a website, but has it proved a viable means to get new customers or expand business horizons? Last year at LDI2000 in Las Vegas, Ian Kirby of the UK-based G-E-T.com moderated a workshop entitled eBusiness.com: Internet Strategies, with panelists Greg Smith of Navigator Systems' hiretrack.com, Frances Thompson of shoptick.com, and Matt Brosious of digibid.com, an online auction site that is part of IndustryClick.com. They, along with Bill Lairamore of Four Wall's usedlighting.com, provided insight into the world of the web as we know it and use it on a day-to-day basis.

“Even today,” Smith said at LDI, “a lot of websites are mostly pictures of productions we have done, and who we work with, really nothing more than an e-billboard. I have always questioned the value of these sites and wonder if people are getting any return on their investment on the web and in the monthly fee. Outside of looking up an address or a phone number, what value are they? I am not so sure that clients who would utilize production services would go to a website and be impressed enough to say they are going to give this or that production company a try because they have a cool website.”

Smith works for Navigator Systems, which he says is not a web-based company. Rather, it distributes HireTrack, a windows-based software system for inventory control and production management. “Our system operates independent of the web, on our clients' local area networks,” he explained in a recent e-mail questionnaire. “We currently operate two websites. The first is a sales site with an overview of our software. It is targeted toward people who do not know about our product. The second is a support website secured for our current users. This site includes knowledge base articles, FAQs, and a user forum to share ideas, along with updates to our customers of our latest activities.”

Navigator Systems is currently developing an “application service” for its customers, so that instead of having to purchase the software, they can securely run the application over the internet for a monthly fee. Yet, Smith still questions the industry's relationship with the web. “Quite candidly,” he says, “we are still waiting to see how the web will impact the lighting industry. As of yet, there is no current business model for a lighting rental company to operate on the web. The industry is about relationships with your customer. Lighting companies do not rent equipment like cars or hotel rooms. Typically, you know your customer, and develop a relationship with them. The anonymity of the web doesn't lend itself to forming those relationships, so until companies begin developing solutions to using the web, we are waiting to see what our customers want.”

Does that mean the web influences customer relations? “Our customer can go to a website and order what they want,” Smith explains. “But in reality you want to talk to your customer and understand what his or her exact requirements will be for that production. I recently had a customer tell me, ‘You know, if you tell someone you don't have something, they will go elsewhere. But if you tell them you can get it for them, they are much more appreciative, and will more likely come back to you.’ So, my software may say I am short something, but to my customer, it is always available.”

A TANGLED WEB

Along the same lines as HireTrack is shoptick.com, which provides online business management tools to the entertainment production industry, specifically inventory tracking and project management. “We offer an industry-specific search engine that allows users to locate both equipment and services through the Product Directory and Virtual Black Book,” explains Thompson, who notes that its site has thousands of pages and three servers, and gets several thousand hits per day. The site is maintained by two full-time technicians, with a data center staffed 24/7.

As a business tool, Thompson finds that the web is “not nearly as active as we hope to make it. I believe people are doing a lot of e-mail communication, but the phone is still our primary tool. I don't know of many people in the business with the time or inclination to surf or even effectively maintain their website. But it wasn't that long ago that we discovered the beauty of e-mail. Clarity, ease of use, and speed are key. Most of us are not sophisticated and need very clear instructions. And I hate shopping when I have wait for something to download. I don't think people will read too much information on the site. Most people want to find what they are looking for as quickly as possible.”

Thompson also thinks a consumer might make a choice based on the “coolness” of a website. “It exhibits an awareness of the power of technology and the ability to maintain the site,” she says. “The surfer will respond to a cool website and stay. He will not hang out on an unprofessional or boring site. As far as making your site easy to find, establish links everywhere they are available. An ESTA member can link from the ESTA site, and there are bound to be other places to link from.

Banner ads can have a payoff if put in the right place. If you can afford it, pay for a professional to work with you on the site. If you can't, and they are expensive, find a marketing intern through a local school to help.”

Has the web changed the face of doing business? “Not yet,” says Thompson, “but give us time. We hope to facilitate B2B cross-rentals, allowing subscribers to get their rental inventory out there in response to the search engine. People will be able to find what they need to complete a job through a search rather than spending so much time on the phone. I would assume the web sales sites are doing some business, but we are a cozy industry, in that everybody knows each other and wants to have that personal contact. Besides, it is hard to talk someone into a better deal with a keyboard.”

EFFECTIVE APPROACHES

At Four Wall Entertainment in Las Vegas, web-based activity is primarily advertising used lighting on the internet at www.usedlighting.com. “We used to have a shopping cart,” explains Lairamore, “but due to the nature of the merchandise, found it more useful to use the website to generate phone inquiries. Our new website will be used to advertise the other areas of our business such as new and used equipment sales, design, installation sales, rentals, and manufacturing.”

Lairamore agrees that the web seems to be very active in terms of sales, information, auctions, and discussion sites, given the size of the lighting industry. “However, we are a fleabite compared to the audio industry's presence on the internet,” he points out. His company also uses other internet auction sites such as eBay, having discovered “that this is a good way to sell used items that they have in very limited quantities, or just one-offs. Another reason to use eBay is to test pricing.

“The web hasn't changed the face of the industry,” he continues, “but it has certainly made it easier to access technical information, find products, and obtain software patches for existing equipment. One other internet resource probably needs to be mentioned: Many local, state, and federal purchasing entities now post their RFPs on the internet. This gives all companies a chance at obtaining business on a national scale. While this is probably a good thing for expendable and box goods, it is a disastrous approach to purchasing systems, or intelligent lighting.”

Kirby's company, G-E-T, is currently a UK-based B2B portal that focuses on three vertical markets within the entertainment industry: live events, film and TV, and conferences. G-E-T provides four principal services across these markets: a request for quote model to source hire equipment, freelancers, and services; an inventory management solution in the form of targeted industry auctions; highly targeted market research; and a networking environment where professionals congregate and interact. Facets of its website include news, Get Production Venue, Get Recording Studio, Get Crew, Get Equipment for Hire, Get Jobs, auctions for used equipment, and forums.

By creating an industry environment based around procurement and networking, G-E-T is also hoping to be able to solve two other major problem areas: inventory management and market research. “Focused auctions will provide an ideal environment for companies to easily and cheaply manage their excess or second-hand stock,” notes Kirby. “Market research will be collated as G-E-T tracks user patterns through the portal, translating this into meaningful and invaluable data for suppliers and manufacturers.” (See sidebar, above, for the firm's wish list for an industry-specific web portal.)

TRANSATLANTIC ATTITUDES

Kirby finds that Europe is lagging behind the US in terms of business internet usage. “Professional users are still skeptical of the quality of information obtainable,” he says. “In my opinion there is a huge difference in attitude to the internet between Europe and the US. For example, when we exhibit at shows in the US we get a lot of casual visitors to our booths, and their attitude is one of ‘Wow, a search engine for our industry. How does it work and how can I benefit from it?’ In Europe visitors avoid contact when they see that we have a booth full of computers! It's only when we have grabbed them and shown them our system that they are aware of how useful this new technology can be to our industry.”

Kirby is convinced that internet auctions are a viable tool for equipment sales, both new and used, but that once again there is a difference in the US and European attitude. “Just look at eBay in the US,” he points out. “If you search ‘lighting’ you get 800 items; if you search in the UK version you get 10! Obviously, the search results were not industry-specific, but you get my point about the difference in attitude toward the internet as a place for business between the UK and US, so I would have to say that it is still in an embryo stage in Europe. Nearly 50% of our crew and equipment searches originate from the US, which justifies my original concept, which was that companies need a service like ours when they are coming to the UK.”

Has the web actually changed the face of the industry in terms of sales or rentals? “Not yet,” Kirby says, “but it could. The real questions is, do the majority of users want to give up phone contact with the suppliers they have been working with for so many years? I think not. We have had electronic commerce for years. It used to be known as telex and then fax. The internet is the next step forward, but through all those changes in technology people have maintained their relationships with their suppliers by using the phone, and this won't change. The main advantage of the internet for our industry is identifying, contacting, and potentially using companies that we either didn't know or are in a location where we have no contacts.”

NEW HORIZONS

What will the future bring? “The net should be used to help us find new business partners and sort through them by means of a search system that allows us to be industry-specific in what we are looking for,” Kirby predicts. “Its other great benefit is in solving industry problems such as ‘My normal supplier does not have the stock I need for a rental and I don't know anyone else — help!’” It also raises the profile of a company or individual to a worldwide scale which was previously only possible by advertising in every trade journal in the world.”

Brosious points out a few things he expects on the web. “When I go on the web, I want information; so, for a rental company, rate cards, application notes, links to manufacturer's websites, these should all be there without question. You'd be surprised how many sites leave off their address and phone number, pretty obvious stuff, or make it hard to find.”

In spite of the impersonal nature of the web, Brosious feels there is a one-to-one relationship you have with the viewer. “It's a forum for you to communicate and to receive instant feedback from the user,” as he sees it. “It's important that you get the user to do something. Your call to action could be a survey, newsletter subscription, a free gift, or a contest. What we are really looking for from our websites are leads and hopefully some new business down the line. But unless we know who it is that's visiting our website, we don't have a lead — so a call to action leading to registration is really important. It's all about engaging the visitor and turning them into a user and then hopefully a customer.”

Regarding the technology of a website, Brosious is convinced that “fast-loading pages are important, but even more critical is fresh content, news, how-tos, discussion groups, and any new information that will bring a visitor back time and again. Industry-specific information such as specialized directories, supplier and product buyer's guides, and used equipment listings are all big traffic drivers.”

FUTURE DIRECTIONS

Where is the web taking us? “As broadband service becomes more readily available, the question is how will the internet affect the production business as a whole?” asks Smith. “Will smaller business meetings of 100 people be able to be conducted via webcams? If that happens, how many events will be cancelled? Nothing will replace face-to-face contact, but the internet does have the ability to cut the number of face-to-face meetings that need to occur.”

Smith also envisions a shift in the rental business. “My thought is that there will be one, two, perhaps three large equipment companies that will offer rental equipment only — no services, no labor,” he says. “They will be wholesale rental companies that rent to the rest of the industry. These companies will have huge rental websites from which experienced and knowledgeable production personnel will be able to order exactly what they need, and have it shipped to wherever they need it.”

For Brosious it is more a personalization of internet content, where one page can provide access to all the information you want to see and need to know. “In the future, your personal agent will collect news, product information, press releases, and specific buy/sell equipment bids based on your requirements. It's about integrating all the information you need from disparate sources and delivering it in a quick, efficient, and fun way.”

Kirby predicts that “users will have an intelligent virtual production assistant, where instead of clicking through a selection of product types the assistant will ask what we are looking for (e.g., lighting), which brands, what we need it for, and will then offer alternatives. It would have memory of what other users have requested for a similar type of production, so it could make suggestions of equipment to hire, and it could tell us what the lowest rates are and rental companies could auction off rental dates.”

While web use in the lighting industry may still be in its infancy, it is clear that there are a lot of people giving it a great deal of thought. “There is a general interest of companies wanting to use it, mostly as a place to get information on their usual companies and flag new ones,” concludes Kirby. So, log on, and surf to your heart's content. The web is one lighting “instrument” that is here to stay.

G-E-T.COM'S IDEAL INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC PORTAL

For end users:

  • The ability to make specific searches by product type, location, and availability. This would be invaluable if you find yourself needing a replacement product or extras but don't know who has them available locally.
  • Find freelancers by their availability, location, and specific skill.
  • Find new companies to receive quotes from.
  • Get advice from other industry experts on how to solve problems and discuss ideas.
  • Find production venues by type, location, and availability, and then further to size of stage, size of load-in doors, access to stage, trim height, etc.
  • Find recording studios by type, location, availability, type of mixing desk, recording media, etc.

For rental companies:

  • Sales leads which are product- and location-specific.
  • Requests from users outside their normal geographic location.
  • Easy cross-rentals from other companies.
  • Requests from users outside the companies' usual sphere of market operation: e.g., receiving a request for lighting from a TV studio or corporate seminar when the company normally deals in live touring only.
  • Requests from foreign production companies looking for local company hire rather than transporting their own equipment. Selling off ex-hire equipment to schools, clubs, and mobile DJs who are outside the normal rental group.