Coronavirus and AV: adapting to a new normal

As the coronavirus disrupts the global economy, Tim Kridel finds some potential bright spots for pro AV amid all the gloom.

Long after the pandemic is officially over, Covid-19 will continue to influence how people work, live and play. Some of those changes could benefit pro AV.

Case in point: Nearly half of the organisations in an April Gartner survey have at least 81% of their employees working remotely due to the pandemic. That’s no surprise. Here’s what is: After the quarantines have ended, businesses expect 41% of their employees will continue to work remotely at least part of the time. That’s 36% more than before the pandemic.

That forecast is one silver lining to the dark cloud hanging over pro AV. The quarantines are forcing many businesses, government agencies and other organisations to start using, or dramatically scale up, a host of AV technologies. 

In the process, they’re discovering bottom-line benefits such as how telecommuting helps reduce real estate and travel expenses. Some health care providers that used to do a few dozen telemedicine visits per week are now doing 1,000 a day—and expecting to maintain that level after quarantines end because it’s more convenient for patients. For students and teachers, the crash course in e-learning could permanently eliminate the need to cancel school when there’s heavy snow or ice.

“It’s taken something like this to really force people’s hands,” says Alex Couzins, head of brand and marketing for Absen’s European operations. “I think we were heading that way anyway, but it’s just fast-tracked it. It’s taken this pandemic to act as a catalyst.”

Other AV pros agree.

“The crisis has changed work culture forever,” says Jon Sidwick, Maverick global senior vice president. “We have been talking about the shift to remote working and the benefits for a few years. However, until now it was rarely high on an organisation's agenda. The current situation has forced the issue and proved that it can be done and done effectively.”

Since the pandemic began, AVIXA has been analysing the effects in a weekly Impact Survey. 

“One end-user reported that ‘remote-worker capabilities have expanded and improved. I see them being developed even more after this,’” says Sean Wargo, AVIXA senior director of market intelligence. “One way to think of the current situation is as a massive experiment in remote work and our comfort with it. 

“However, it is also important to remember that all the advantages of actual workspaces remain: dedicated focus area, flexible teamwork capabilities, social cohesion, etc. The question is, are there any smash hits? Are there any new ways in which the remote experience has exceeded the in-person experience? If so, those changes may become permanent.”

Rise of smaller and virtual events?
Covid-19 could be a catalyst for change in the trade show space, too. For example, businesses in every industry have long questioned the ROI of buying, storing and transporting big exhibition booths or sending dozens of employees to attend. 

The cancellation of major events such as InfoComm, NAB and MWC forced many exhibitors to pivot to virtual briefings for analysts, press and customers. If those experiences are positive, it could prompt them to rethink their participation in major shows—and in ways that benefit sectors such as rental and staging.

For example, some companies might do more road shows or host their own mini trade shows at their headquarters city. Others might do more virtual events, which means they’d need to invest in AV equipment to enable high-quality, long-form experiences instead of just tarted-up webinars.

“We’ve shifted from physical events to online events,” Couzins says. “We’re running a series of webinars across our rental business and our fixed-installation business. 

“It started in our APAC markets, and we just started doing it in Europe. We’ve seen some really great results: really high levels of attendance. Some of our distributors are starting their own mini trade shows.”

Other AV firms anticipate an uptick in smaller events but still see value in big shows.

“Smaller trade shows, such as those hosted by distribution partners, have always been a good way of getting in front of customers, so I can see the potential for more of these types of shows becoming popular,” says Warren Bremner, Signagelive business and channel development manager. “Smaller companies may feel the risks involved in committing large investment into those international shows may reduce the number of exhibitors and push them to create more local events.

“Maybe we will see a switch to smaller, more focused events rather than putting all their investment into one or two events per year. This could potentially reduce the peaks that rental and staging companies experience and allow them to have a much flatter curve in terms of work and income.” 

Major shows still have their appeal as one-stop shops. 

“A lot of resellers and integrators will not want to take too much time out to attend trade shows, as many prefer the convenience of having everything in one place,” Bremner says. “A benefit of potentially moving to individual or smaller events could add focus to a new product launch, as I feel these sometimes get lost among the noise of an ISE or InfoComm, where lots of vendors are all vying for the air time of the attendees.”

For attendees and speakers, virtual events can be attractive because they don’t require travel. One recent example is the Virtual Psychedelic Conference, a two-day event covering topics such as mental health treatment, law, funding, ethics, technology and patient experience. 

“It is far easier and less risky to go virtual, and speakers are happier to talk without the hassle of travel,” says Henri Sant-Cassia, the event’s organizer and founding partner of The Cannabis Fund. “Our feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, as we were able to put 102 speakers into a conference which would normally have only a handful or a few dozen at best. 

“It is also possible to record all the panels so people can view at their leisure. Covid aside, it was the best move we could have made.”

Sports, concerts and theatre on hold
On the other hand, the outlook for consumer-focused events such as concerts and sports is bleak through at least the autumn.

“West End in the UK and Broadway in New York very much live from tourism,” says Stephan Paridaen, Production Resource Group (PRG) president and COO. “For them to pick up again, measures on crowds and travel all have to be back to normalcy in order to get back to fully attended shows.

“In Europe, there will be no summer events, no festivals this year. I know they haven’t officially decided that, but it’s very clear when we talk to our customers that the chances are virtually zero. The first period when live events—entertainment or corporate—will start up again is Q4 of this year.” 

Paridaen sees parallels with the 2008-2009 financial crisis. 

“2009 was the year when the whole manufacturing industry supplying the rental and staging industry went from 100% to 50% sales,” he says. “This is multiple times worse. It’s a negative message, but I’m afraid that’s the reality, and we need to deal with reality to make sure we survive.” 

One way to survive is by pivoting, such as by offering enterprise-grade streaming platforms and services. These could support everything from empty-arena sporting events to product launches to virtual museum visits. 

“We’re putting together packages to enable that for the entertainment industry and for corporate events such as product launches,” Paridaen says. “By doing these online events now, we gain experience about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Virtual offerings are a great way for museums to reach a wider audience.

“People are still going to visit museums in person since a broadcasted event won’t provide the same experience as actually being there,” says Bob Caniglia, Blackmagic Design director of sales operations for North America. “But for those who live too far away or cannot physically visit for a number of other reasons, today’s technologies can make the virtual experience pretty close to the real thing. 

“Museums could benefit significantly from continuing to share these services with their constituents well into the future. The virtual visitor could be considered just as important as the in-person visitor.”

New life for cinemas? 
The cinema market already was under intense competition from streaming, a habit that quarantines have only increased. Many cinema owners have been diversifying their revenue streams by making their venues available for gaming, business meetings, weddings and other non-film activities. 
Steve Heap Shutterstock web
Steve Heap/

“I don’t think the post-Covid cinema environment will directly affect the non-film uses of movie theatres,” says Mark Mayfield, QSC director of global cinema marketing. “Many theatre chains were already moving in that direction, and they will likely resume this diversification once the cinema business gets back to normal.”  

When quarantines lift, some exhibitors are considering “half-capacity” policies to maintain the physical distance that many people might need before they’ll consider returning to the movies. 

“Seat occupancy sensors, along with a way to monitor them, and reserved seating technologies make this very easy to track,” Mayfield says. “Watching movies in groups, together, is at the heart of the cinema experience, and 125 years of many types of social challenges hasn’t permanently changed that. I think once this pandemic subsides, it will get back to a ‘new normal,’ with extra vigilance and hygienic consciousness.”

Like sports and shopping, the movies also could provide a welcome respite for people tired of being cooped up.

“Most of us who have lived through several ‘death of cinema’ cycles know that people do come back to the movie theatre,” Mayfield says. “I think, once this pandemic has passed, they will come back in droves. People will be yearning to get out of the house and to re-connect while enjoying the communal experience of watching movies together.”

Rethinking supply chains 
For AV firms in Europe, the Brexit uncertainty might turn out to be a positive because before Covid-19, they already had to scrutinise their supply-chain strategies. Lessons from the coronavirus also could be helpful for accommodating natural disasters, wars or the next pandemic.

“Supply chains have been stretched but on the whole not broken,” says Maverick’s Sidwick. “We do have some shortages, but that has been for one product for which we have seen a fivefold increase in sales in a month! Brexit was some help here, with more UK-based stock, but on the whole, our capacity means we always try to have good supply.”

AVIXA also is seeing resilience—albeit on the supply side.

“For supply, it seems like the lesson is things didn’t go too badly,” Wargo says. “There was some trouble in late February and early March due to the January-February lockdown in China, particularly for displays. But for the most part, the supply disruption was not a major issue, even though some localised issues remain. We don’t see businesses extensively altering supply/distribution procedures.

“The bigger problem now is that demand has crashed almost overnight. In AVIXA’s Pro AV Business Index, the AV Sales Index dropped from 60.1 in February to 21.3 in March. (The no-growth level is 50.) This is the first time sales have contracted versus grown since the Index was established in September 2016.”Absen stock web
Absen warehouse, the LED company doubled its inventory of stock and raw materials to alleviate any short-term supply chain risks

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