2014: Will We Get Any Smarter?

featured-crewcallWell, another year draws to a close in the rental and staging industry. As I sit here, filling out a box of Christmas cards with comical pictures of Santa holding a MacBook Pro, I am reflecting on what has happened in our industry this year. It has been an interesting year, both in the audiovisual industry and in the world at large, and I thought this would be a good time to reflect on it a little, and to carry out an important rAVe tradition: that of predicting the next year.

This tradition is an old and proud one, created and prolonged by our leader, Gary Kayye, with his widely publicized “Krystal Ball.” Personally, I’ve always wondered how a leader in a technical field can get away with using something as low-tech as a mere crystal ball. I use Magic 8-Ball on my vintage Apple Newton, which is plenty archaic enough for me.

The other thing that I always find about end-of-year predictions is that they are just too easy. As a kid I well remember Jeane Dixon, the famous psychic, and her annual predictions. It always seemed that all you really had to do was to predict the death of several famous people who were particularly old, infirm or reckless, or the divorce of a famous Hollywood playboy or playgirl, and you were psychic. However, in these cases the odds were with you, so it wasn’t much of a feat. Gary steps out quite a bit more in this, as he predicts the success or failure of technology or technological efforts, both of which contain a lot of wildcards.

But, while I applaud those who do such technical predictions, I’m going to do something a little more important to the rental industry, by predicting changes in two critical areas: our clients, and ourselves.

So here are predictions:

Users won’t get any smarter.

There is an age-old debate in our industry as to whether the new, educated client will be good for us or bad for us. To me, this is a lot like asking whether unicorns wish us well or ill. The entire debate is over a mythical creature. 2014 will mark 30 years in the industry for me (I started very young). In all that time, and for all that time, we have been discussing the “new, educated client” as if they were going to arrive in our lobby at any moment. With every new technology, especially those inspired by home technologies, we foresee that our clients will at last become capable of implementing these technologies themselves, and that they won’t need us anymore.

To use a seasonal phrase: “Bah, humbug.”

When I first got into the industry, it was during the critical period when film was being replaced by video, and later by computers. Each of these technologies produced predictions about the end of the audiovisual and staging industry as we know it. VHS and camcorders were going to enable clients to make their own video productions and put expensive video production companies and ad agencies out of business. Then, easy to use LCD projectors were going to replace video projection rentals and have a pronounced dampening effect on the staging industry.

We know now how crazy that was. Camcorders produced tapes with black video from the failure to remove the lens cap, with audio tracks where you kept hearing the phrase: “Is this thing on?” Then, computers produced PowerPoint presentations with a gradient blue background and white and yellow text because everybody used the default template. Both of these technologies that some of us found threatening did nothing but increase the size of our industry, as they produced more interest in AV among the potential clientele. And, truth to tell, you can always charge more for rescuing their projects than you can for creating them to start with.

So, while I have written a number of columns describing the changing style of our clientele, including their increased use of network media, in the long run its effect on the AV industry as a whole and on the rental and staging industry in particular is nothing but positive.

That’s the good part. Now here is my unfortunate second prediction:

We won’t get any smarter, either.

Unfortunately, looking back over the year, we don’t seem to be making any progress in our traditional ways to shoot ourselves in the foot. We still rent equipment as our mainstay revenue even though our people cost us more than the equipment does. We still fail to recognize what our real costs are for a show, or to help our customers understand them. Most of all, most of us seem to be hesitating to bring the appropriate new skills into a rental business, or to raise them internally if we can’t find them. We still position ourselves with our clients in the same old way, hoping that the new, educated (and mythical) client will understand our true value without us having to learn to express it properly. There is a unique, under-appreciated skill set required in a good stager, and we have to do more to nurture it — all of it, not just the lumens and decibels part. For a little more on this see my next month’s column, “The Skill Set.”

In the meantime, have a great holiday season. We’ll see you in the new year.