Ah, September. Back to school, and, for many of my clients who are coming home from the Hamptons, back to work. For AV rental companies, in most parts of the country, business will be picking up again as their clients return to meetings. And for many of us it will be time to plan for inventory acquisitions for our rental departments.
Back when I ran a national AV rental company, it was a time for my office to receive a flurry of what we called “ERFs” or Equipment Request Forms, from all of our branch offices across the country. We used these forms all year long to transfer equipment from one branch to another, temporarily or permanently, and in the fall to request permanent additions to branch inventory. The variety of requests on these forms was always astounding. The big branches, like Toronto and Montréal, would request hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the latest in projection and video equipment, sound systems and computer hardware. Our smallest branch, a single man operation in Newfoundland, would request a new flipchart or slide projector. The company humorists, like our rebel branches in Western Canada, would insert requests for comical items, buried deep in a large stack of forms in the hopes that we would not notice them, allowing them to tweak our noses at branch management meetings. This was in the days when InfoComm was held in the early spring and we would all go off to the show together, my secretary carrying a briefcase full of blank purchase orders.
Since that time, my career has taken me far more into the staging end of the business, and it has been several years since I was directly concerned with the planning of “rental” inventory, the kind that you kept in a hotel office or which was simply delivered or picked up by a client, rather than being part of a crewed show. But this year, I have begun thinking about the items that would (or should) be requested for that type of inventory. Accordingly, I spoke to a number of friends around the country both in rental companies and in internal audiovisual support departments about what is being requested. None of the results were particularly surprising to me, although the occurrence of each type and their popularity came in a different order than I had expected.
Not surprisingly, many of the requested items revolved around the “huddle” type meeting that has become so popular among our clientele.
First and foremost, the numbers indicate an extremely rapid change in videoconferencing, from “traditional” codec systems to PC-based systems like Zoom, Webex, Skype and Skype for Business. As we all know, these systems have taken off like a rocket and are rapidly replacing even the standard audio conference call. However, clients have begun to realize the inadequacy of these desktop systems for larger groups, while at the same time wanting to use them for all conferences. Therefore, the category of equipment that has taken off fastest in rentals is the “BYOD” (bring your own device) type of assistance product, such as USB cameras with PTZ capability and USB or Bluetooth audio conferencing systems that enhance the capability of the user’s laptop to serve larger groups. In discussions with a good friend who runs an internal audiovisual support department for a very large international corporation, it was stressed to me that the variety of these devices has also produced quite a bit of confusion over their use, but that once a user experienced the enhanced use of their favorite computer based conferencing system, demand for these systems grows. In speaking with them about these generic products, they mentioned several of them that were becoming popular among their users, with the biggest factor being driverless operation. Within many corporations, computer security has become such that users have difficulty installing driver software without administration capability, so looking for driverless operation seems to be one of the most important factors.
Second (and the category that I had expected to be first) are wireless computer sharing devices. Pioneered by Barco’s ClickShare (at least in my world), this category took off in corporate conference rooms and has now become a required system for the enhancement of small and ad hoc meetings. In speaking with a friend who runs a large hotel in-house operation, these systems have become a highly-requested item for meetings, especially multi-day events where multiple presenters need to be accommodated, or in team meetings where anyone may wish to present at any moment. Again, in this category, I heard that driverless operation and ease-of-use are the biggest factors in the success of these products in day to day rental.
In third place (and again, out of the order I had expected) were large flat screens with USB or wireless whiteboarding capability. For many years, flat screens have replaced projectors in small to medium meeting rooms, but have normally simply been used as display. Today, with screen sharing so prevalent in systems like Zoom and Skype, customers have begun using whiteboarding in their internal offices as a convenient way to share ideas, and as a way to pass out summary notes of the meeting. Some of these systems have been quite complicated to use, but today we are seeing systems from several manufacturers that are plug-and-play with the most common huddle systems.
While these systems have become incredibly popular in small and in-house rentals, one of the things that I heard from several different rental companies was that they can be difficult to support because they must be integrated with a client’s computer, and since most clients are unaware of the “technical” layer of operation of their PCs, when these systems are first used technicians have had to spend a significant amount of time assisting clients in getting them up and running. However, they are in demand. Therefore the choice of the particular systems for use in your rental operation should be made carefully, with an emphasis toward driverless operation, ease-of-use and built-in help. While these systems may take slightly more set-up time and a little more customer handholding at first, they can be rented at a premium over the equipment that they replace.
And, in Newfoundland, they are still requesting a new flipchart.