Doing the business

InAVate reports on the corporate av market, to see how businesses are coming to terms with the rapid rates of technological change taking place. Are they getting the most from the available services and living up to their reputations as leading edge organisations, or is the reality somewhat different?

It’s an oft-repeated phrase in British business circles, that whither the City leads the market will follow. Any economy’s financial institutions are more often than not the barometer for its strength and it’s fair to say that whenever banks and trading houses are making money, other companies are too. Or should that be the other way around?

Whichever is the case the economies of the EMEA region broadly speaking continue to prosper and therefore so do its businesses. Great news then for those who supply them with AV services. This month’s market focus examines the prospects for another year in the corporate world, talking to consultants and integrators to get their feedback on the technological and business challenges they face.

Rachid Abuhassan is Director for the Dubai office of international consultancy firm Shen Milsom & Wilke. The company opened premises there in 2003 and has enjoyed increasing success as a result of operating a local office. Corporate customers make up a significant portion of the company’s portfolio, but actually probably not the largest:

“The corporate market is certainly strong, but it has to be said that the hospitality is still the strongest in this region. None-the-less other businesses are establishing offices here in order to support and serve the thriving construction and hospitality sectors. This is particularly true of banking and legal firms. And of course in the Middle East, oil goes without saying as a major source of investment.”

In such a rapidly developing economy, things rarely stand still for long, companies move office regularly as international or local partnerships are formed, dissolved and reformed. This coupled with the construction of various local business centres such as the Dubai International Financial City and it’s Qatari equivalent encourage businesses or to move, or set up further offices. This generally means that the technology infrastructure of office spaces has to be as flexible as possible. Fixtures such as Ethernet networks tend to stay behind when an occupant leaves and therefore provide a vital backbone for AV services.

Technologically speaking Abu Hassan identifies two key areas that are important for businesses in Dubai, the application itself, and the statement that it makes.

“Things like videoconferencing are now essential for the day-to-day operation banks and other businesses. HD is being widely discussed and new builds are prepared for it, even if it isn’t in use just yet, clearly older buildings are more infrastructuraly challenged. The other side of technology is what its use says about your company. Whereas VC is a business application, things like large video walls, digital signage or interactive signage, are viewed as making a statement, “we’re a serious high-tech company”.

Hewshott Associates, another consulting firm has a large portfolio of clients in the banking sector. Offices in London and Singapore allow the company to cover two of the world’s major financial centres. The company’s MD Peter Hunt is as convinced of the importance of VC for business as Abu Hassan, but still encounters resistance to its growth.

“You’d expect there was a natural trend towards using more video conferencing, especially with the globalisation of the market. But still we find ourselves in a position where a client has written up a list of requirements for their systems and included, say, three VC suites. And you say ‘What? Across eleven floors?” And they reply with something like: “Well that’s what we’re using at the moment.” It’s a short-sighted response. There will be restrictions on international travel, costs will go up and it’s an environmental issue, which big corporate firms are hugely sensitive to. The trend is for more VC, not less.”

IP technology is a key part of the AV set up in most of Dubai’s modern office space. Abu Hassan reports that around 70% of his customers are happy to use their existing IP networks for this infrastructure. Interestingly of the remaining 30% the massive majority are banks or other financial institutions. Six months ago that figure was closer to 50-50.

Hunt, working largely for these financials, has encountered the same resistance to the use of their IP networks. In some ways this is linked to the VC issue.

“Using IP for video and VC makes the whole process more reliable, and a modern Gigabit network has much more capacity than an old ISDN link. We can quite happily run HD videoconferencing over a network and not worry too much about bandwidth use, but if we can’t use the network, then we’re still at square one. The banks have been perhaps the slowest to grasp and use the technology. There’s all sorts of little pilot projects going on, lots of toes in the water, but not nearly enough feet.”

The resistance of the major financial institutions to using their IP networks is born out of a fear of security lapses. Financial regulators are incredibly strict when it comes to customer confidentiality. However, that resistance has slowly been worn down by the benefits that using networked AV has to offer. Now there is another technology that is having the same effect.

Abu Hassan explains “Wireless is often the first word that comes out of a new customer’s mouth at the moment. I think it has a lot to do with our love of gadgety technologies.”

Hunt has a more practical reason for its uptake: “The future of control systems has to be wireless. There’s nothing worse than having a nice meeting table with this cacophony of wires sitting on top.” The problem of customer resistance, however, is even stronger than for the use of the wired network: “What happens is that if you even breathe the word, you just get all the shutters coming down. They have a simple, easy to understand policy – no wireless in this building, ever, end of discussion. What really needs to happen is for the IT guys to come onboard with us this year so we can reach solutions.”

Integrator Darren Scott is director and project manager for his own set-up AAV Ltd. The company has serviced the UK corporate market for some five years and has an impressive client portfolio including Worcester Bosch, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft.

“A lot of people at the moment seem to think they need high definition everything, whether or not there are any sources available. They come asking us for it because it is the buzzword of the minute. They seem to think that every monitor or projection they buy must be Hi-Def.”

One are of high definition that Scott is less sceptical about is VC. “We’re looking forward to the HD VC systems from Polycom. I think when I take them out people are going to be impressed. At the moment my customers aren’t really asking for it, but I’ve not really actively sold them the idea yet.”

Perhaps as he’s working outside the financial markets, he doesn’t experience as much resistance when it comes to using a company’s IP network for AV work. Helpful since he’s predicting it will be an important aspect of his work in the coming months: “I think a lot more will be done over Cat 5 / 6 in 2007. I actually prefer to operate a separate AV LAN for certain things, but it’s largely dependant on what the customer wants. They allow you varying amounts of access to their infrastructure."

Scott’s business success has largely been based on successful relationship building. His customers rely heavily on him for technology advice and therefore have to trust him to sell the right solutions.

“I would say that working in the corporate market, the relationships you build are just as important as those with say a residential customer. I’m much more focused on my existing client base, and keeping them happy, than I am on looking for new business.”

So what does 2007 hold for a market so sensitive to the economic climate? Hunt, Abu Hassan and Scott all seem optimistic about their prospects. An integrator like Scott, with his strong customer relationships, can be confident that anything new they do will come his way. Consultants like Hunt and Hassan are in a similar position but will be on the look out for bigger fish, and new projects.
Provided the share markets continue to perform and business confidence remains high they should also be comfortable.

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