It’s June of 2020, and colleges and universities have finished their crazy spring semesters. Most are pivoting, rooted in planning for the fall semester of 2020. A few themes seem to be emerging that will begin to shape what this next school year looks like, and therefore how the AV market will play a role.
The high-level overview is this: Most residential colleges and universities feel a significant push to get students to return to campus. Several arguments can be made for either side of this debate — however, the economics of the situation are simple. We are business entities that will suffer if we can not collect room, board and tuition. Additionally, the leaders of these colleges need to think about the staff that is employed and the best ways to keep paying said staff. Physically having students on campus is a critical piece of that. So, with all this in mind, I believe that the majority of colleges have already, or will by the end of June announce that they are opening. I guess in my July blog, I’ll have a better idea of whether that prediction is accurate.
Many of us in the classroom design field have already gotten word to start thinking about social distancing in classrooms. Of course, the problem with that is by spacing students out six feet apart and giving room to move into and out of the seats, a massive amount of square footage is lost. The initial numbers I am seeing are decreasing capacities in rooms as much as 50-80%. So, the solution is to find larger spaces. If a place used to seat 100 and can now only seat 40, we now need to find an area that could typically fit 200 students to hold that class.
I’m sure you can imagine that this creates further issues. So, here are some suggestions (that may provide you with a chuckle or two). Keep in mind that they are real suggestions, and I include them here so you may start considering how they will be supported in schools.
For schools in the southern part of the country — with warm weather late into the fall — ideas have bounced around for tents in large outdoor spaces, including athletic fields, quads and parking lots. In the colder northern states, some are suggesting large trailers that can be connected. Field houses and gymnasiums may also come into play here. In reality, any place that is large enough to fill up with a lot of students and spread them out will be game for classrooms.
These requirements will be good news for businesses not directly in the AV industry but closely related. For example, furniture companies may be doing some brisk business over the summer as schools try to fill the tents with furniture, and as they swap out furniture in classrooms that are not well-suited to the flexibility needed for social distancing (like long tables). Local hotels with large ballrooms could become places for schools to rent as classroom space, providing needed income to an industry that has also struggled. Integrators who may have relationships with either of these businesses could leverage those connections to help their customers.
This is some much-needed good news for AV integrators, staging companies and others in the industry for whom business has come to a drastic slowdown. This is going to provide you business. We need to be up and running in these new setups by the start of the fall term, and we are about three months away from the semester starting.
Staging companies may find an excellent opportunity to provide business in this environment since it is what these workers do so much of usually. Setting up sound and video in large cavernous spaces is, quite literally, the business. They have the equipment and the knowledge to do it. Additionally, they have the staff who is well experienced in setting up the technology and supporting it. The support will be an essential aspect — we are trying to increase our classroom spaces; we are not trying to increase our staffing. If you fit this description and have worked with colleges and universities in the past, now may be a time to reach out and inquire about their needs. Your ability to rent them equipment and staffing may be a welcome call.
Integration firms can also start thinking about ways to offer services in these situations. We may be using spaces that don’t have the appropriate ceiling heights and acoustics for considerable projection or sound. What tools and services can you provide for an instructor to be in the same space as their students, but project their video and audio directly to computers or other smart devices that students bring with them? This eliminates the need for projection and audio support in some cases. Would these same tools allow a student to ask a question or give a response without having to pass a microphone around?
Additionally, these are tools that the school may continue to use when we are beyond this current crisis. People often change only when they choose to change, and this is a case where many faculty may do so. To be safe and healthy, and to protect students, faculty may not want students to use a “podium” in front of the room to give a presentation. They also may not want them to write on a whiteboard with shared markers. Instead, the opportunity for students to present directly from their seat, and interact with what others are doing will be very attractive to faculty who may have resisted such change six months ago. There are many products out there that do this, reach out to your local contact and let them know about the services and equipment you are offering. Because of this increased number of spaces and a short time to complete the work, it is possible that the schools, even if they are in-house integrators, will hire someone to help them get these new tools. The opportunities presented here then become a permanent relationship, not a temporary measure.
Since the time this crisis began in March, I have been anxious about the AV industry and its survival. This is one of the first times I see a ray of hope, a way for some firms to keep people paid and keep selling services. Also, keep in mind that this business is taking place right now, as you read this. Reach out today to your customers.