The More Things Change

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Crew CallWell, as some of you know from the blog, I am just back from the annual InfoComm Live event in Dallas. While my blog entry was written immediately following the event, largely while on a very frightening airplane ride through winter storm Saturn, I have now had more time to reflect on this year’s event, and the industry that is its subject.

First, let me say how much I enjoyed the event again this year. I have been in the rental and staging end of our industry for almost 30 years now, and InfoComm Live is probably one of the best ideas I have seen during that time. While in my blog entry I commented on the event itself and its logistics, let me now regale you with some of the thoughts on the industry that the event has produced.

Leadership group older than I remember

One of the very first things that I noticed was that many of the people in the room with me are the same people I have associated with the rental and staging business for the last 30 years. When I first got involved in the industry, rental and staging was very much a young person’s game. Most of the leaders of the industry that I am familiar with were coming into the business around that period of time, as our business changed from film-based media to electronic media. Many of those people, with whom I shared some jokes about the leadership of our industry, are now the leaders of the industry themselves. And while we are still telling the same jokes, we now tell them with a lot more respect for the gray-haired leaders of the business. This is not to say that there are not new and dynamic young leaders in the rental business. I met a few of them at the event and the mix in the group produced a lot of really interesting conversations. However, in the rental business, 50 really does seem to be the new 30.

Still an expensive game to play in

The second thing that I noticed was that we still complain about the cost of inventory, even though the price of most things has actually come down considerably over the last decade, especially when you consider the move to less expensive panels and projectors. But we now deal with a new issue — a highly increased rate of obsolescence. It seems that we no sooner get an item into inventory when its replacement is announced. That fact, along with clients increased awareness of how quickly those models turnover, has kept rental and staging an expensive environment in which to do business.

The big getting bigger

When you add those two factors together, it is not surprising that many rental and staging companies are growing rapidly in size. In any industry, economies of scale are there to be had, and we seem to be experiencing a robust rental environment, that makes those economies of scale attractive. For the last few years, we in the rental business have played our cards close to our chest, reluctant to expand for fear of what the economy would do. There is still a certain amount of that in the market, but at least among the people that I talked to at InfoComm Live, there is now a great deal of optimism.

The talent even harder to find, from different disciplines

Yet another thing that has not changed is the difficulty of finding qualified employees, or of producing them. When I entered this business, it was a very exciting place for a young person to be, because it was on the forefront of a revolution in electronics. There are now many of those revolutions going on and we compete with all of them for young talent. Combine this with the rising cost of personnel, and of their benefits, and of their training, and it is no surprise that the number that concerns most rental companies is payroll.

Changing nature of the show

Another big topic of the water cooler conversations, as I call them, was the changing mix of skills required to put on today’s show. In fact, one of the best discussions, held over lunch, had to do with the idea that we are redefining what a show is. For instance, in many cities, the general observation was that the number of people attending shows had gone down somewhat, while the overall size of the show had increased due to remote attendance. Those of you who work shows will understand that this changes the way a show operates. It means that we have to balance things like camera angles and audio systems between the needs of remote attendees and the needs of our local audience. These concerns cross everything from the way an audience is seated, the location of screens, and the composition of support graphics. So the skills required to run a show are changing.

What does this mean to those of us in the industry?

It means that the rental industry remains a dynamic and ever-changing business. It means that we continue to be the place where our industry tries out new ideas because it is the part of the business that most embraces them.

The difficulties that I speak of here are no different than they have been in the rental business in the three decades that I have been involved. To those of us who understand the way this market works they are not just difficulties they are opportunities.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS, is general manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at  joelrollins@mac.com