I once wrote about the convergence of theatre, entertainment, and audiovisual (AV) technologies (“Unification — A New Look At Convergence,” January 2006), predicting eventual unification into one large, diverse group with a shared best practices for live events. The idea was that the differences among the industry segments would eventually fade.
My new prediction is that ten years from now, I will still be forecasting this merge. It's not because the technologies used by these disciplines are all that different or that the people involved can't find common ground with their industry counterparts. The basic issue seems to be one of economics.
The AV/events industry is extremely rental-oriented, and the average AV owner still wants to take system racks apart and rent out the individual components one at a time. New technology is exciting, but renting out the same plasma display for the 100th time is nirvana. When an AV firm takes on new equipment, it's probably because of an immediate need and not for the love of the concept. This is not how most folks perceive the geekier side of the industry, but then AV is often misunderstood. From my viewpoint, here's the current state of the corporate events world in terms of technology. You decide how long it will be before unification will be a reality.
Here's one spot where corporate events look a lot like entertainment. Digital audio consoles and line array systems are now standard fare on higher end corporate shows and are becoming more frequent in basic packages. It's not the cool factor or audio quality that convinces company owners to invest in these products; it's the return on investment (ROI). Tell an AV manager how much money will be saved on outboard audio processing if you use a digital console or that line array systems require less time and labor to install, and watch him drool. Tell him customers will pay more for these products, and out comes the checkbook. Charging more for the better sound and spending less to deliver it — this is a concept AV folks can get behind.
Lighting is not an original AV discipline, but it is fast becoming a core competency. The demand for lighting has come directly from corporate end-customers that want a turnkey supplier for events. The larger national AV stagers began lighting departments in earnest over a decade ago. Now, even the mid-sized regional companies have enough moving lights and effects to handle some pretty large ballroom events. AV folks do complain about the low margins in lighting and how competitive companies are on price, but lighting equipment has a comparatively quick ROI. Plus, just about everything in lighting can be rented out on its own, just like traditional AV gear.
Walk into any convention ballroom, and take a look at the rigging requirements for a corporate event. Some of these gigs are huge, and you might be surprised to find a sophisticated rigging system in place. Just a few years ago, it would have been a hodgepodge of AV, lighting contractors, and lots of subcontracted parts. Today, you can often find that an in-house contractor or an AV company has supplied the entire rigging package. Either way is an improvement, but it still lacks the professionalism of a dedicated entertainment rigging supplier. Nonetheless, corporate events have come a long way in just a few years, as integrated rigging packages with detailed design plans become the norm.
Speaking of surprises, did you know that most AV event stagers do not have HDTV capabilities? Outsiders might be surprised that AV stagers weren't first in line for technology that has been around for years. Until recently, HD has been prohibitively expensive to produce and difficult to stage technically, two facts that put off customers, but the flood of HD-capable consumer products has forced the corporate events segment to face the future. A new wave of pro-sumer (high-end consumer) and professional (low-end broadcast) HD gear is now helping everyone deliver cost-effective HDTV content to corporate events.
LEDs As Scenery
I, for one, believed that low-density, modular LED products would infiltrate corporate shows just as they did entertainment. Video content integrated into scenery seems like a natural fit for AV presentations, but it's still a luxury. The concern of AV managers is that creative LED products are a fad that will end as soon they buy in. However, creativity is becoming a differentiator for a few corporate AV firms, and many customers are looking for the next new thing. Maybe the visual arts are the next frontier for this segment?
A lot in the corporate event world looks like entertainment technology, but it's still just good old AV, with its roots in rental, and despite strides in packaging and adaptation of high-end technologies, ROI is more important to corporate shows than what's cool or creative. Still, practicality has brought AV companies a long way from overhead projectors and flipcharts. Maybe these guys know what they are doing after all.