Inavate ISE 2020 Panels: From AI to M&A

Inavate hosted a series of panel discussions at ISE 2020, covering a wide range of topics affecting the whole AV channel. Paul Milligan chaired the sessions and picks out some highlights.

During the chaos of the AV industry’s largest trade show, an oasis of calm (apart from the odd mild disagreement) can be found within the Inavate recording studio, where once again we held a series of panel discussions throughout ISE 2020.  As usual the panels were populated with integrators and consultants from across EMEA, and when relevant, distributors and manufacturers were present too, all to give their opinions on the hottest topics in pro AV.  As these panels have now been running for a few years at ISE, the topics discussed also serve as a barometer of the hot topics of the day (AI, smart buildings), and the ones that have stayed relevant (changes in the AV channel, the relationship between integrators and consultants) over time. What you’ll find below is some highlights from the discussions, if you want to find out more, all nine discussions can be found in full at iseshow.

One new topic this year was AI, which has been much discussed in this magazine and beyond for the past 12 months. I began by asking our panellists how they saw an initial interest in AI actually translating into day to day? “Data collection is here today, we must make sure that the technology helps people as opposed to people having be handcuffed by the technology,” said Frank Mehr from AVI-SPL.  We are just entering the end of the first phase of AI says Ben Smit from AVEX; “We're at the tipping point of simply collecting data for the sake of collecting it, rather than collecting it for the end user experience.” What we need to do next he added was to find out how users are experiencing technology in order to provide experiences.

The next step for AI added Mehr was for AI to see when problems with AV systems were going to occur. “Then the level after that is self-healing, so the system actually fixes itself.” This will bring two huge advantages says Smit, “It's a benefit to integrators but also will be a huge benefit for the end users too because their systems are up and running (or running better), and we don't have to wait until the system breaks to fix it.” Another benefit to integrators added Mehr was that “SLAs won’t matter when we have self-healing.” What AI needs to do in the future said Smit is to “give us the tools to start measuring if a meeting has been effective or the outcome is good,” before adding a note of caution on how hard translating that emotional data is going to be to put in place.

Just before ISE 2020 began was the huge news that AVI-SPL and Whitlock were to merge, creating the world’s largest integrator, so consolidation in the AV market was one of the timeliest discussions held at the show. But was it hurting the industry rather than helping it? Jeff Irvin from Spinitar was taking the positive approach; “I think it's great because it shows people are interested in investing in our industry. I think our industry is ripe for consolidation because it's largely a fragmented business with a lot of mom and pop companies out there.” But he was also keen to point out that with consolidation comes a danger too: “The downside is that if the big get bigger, to be a small or middle-sized integrator it will be harder and harder and harder to compete from a price standpoint. We have to either scale ourselves or pick some verticals that we can own and be more boutique if you will. So, either be boutique and be focused on scale with the rest of them, but don't get caught in between.”

Consolidation is also rife in the distribution channel too, with UK-based distributor Midwich making another purchase just before the show, buying Starin, a US-based distributor.  Anil Punnoose from Resurgent gave a warning to distributors in a time of heavy M&A activity; “What other value is the distributor able to provide along with the product? It's critical for distributors to change with the times to provide more and more services.”

Content has become a very hot topic, and undoubtably offers a huge financial potential for integrators, so it’s critical they invest time and money into content creation as Loek Wermenbol from First Impression illustrates; “The time of just selling hardware is in the past. It's about selling experiences in the future and experience which are the right combination between content, concept, the hardware and everything in between.” It’s not just talk, First Impression has a department of 20 people just focusing on content.  Things are changing for the better says Tyson Reed from One Media, “When we started 10 years, we would see people spend €100,000 on hardware and argue over €1000 for content, luckily the landscape has completely changed. We now have content orders in excess of the hardware.”

Even if you have an in-house team, be prepared to be patient, and for all the aspects of content creation to become an education process says Lee Dennison from White Light. “We are generally dealing with clients who don't have content houses, so we are dealing with a PowerPoint presentation, or a video ripped from YouTube.  As an education tool that we've got to bring clients further into the game and get them to see the potential they can have with some of the application technologies that are out there. But we also have to help them engage with content manufacturers and get them to use their in-house teams better.”

Managing expectations and engaging properly with clients is a huge factor in content creation, as Pete Cliff from Holovis illustrates, “Where we struggle is when we got a client saying ‘I want a VR experience’, or ‘I want an 8K video’, Why? What are doing what it?”, this seems to be a common theme amongst our other panellists.  “It’s about the right technology, right solution, right products and not necessarily the biggest, the best, the brightest and the loudest. We want to challenge clients to really deliver on what their concept is and take it off that kind of the laptop or the screen and take it into a real world,” added Dennison.  Data will be key to content, just as it is with AI says Wermenbol, “By generating data out of all the experiences we offer, it's much easier in the future to convince clients to invest in content because we can show them what their ROI is, are we reaching those KPIs?”

One contentious (and long-running) issue in the AV industry has been the often prickly working relationship between consultants and integrators.  We have run panels on this topic before, so were things getting better? It seems not.  “I think (the relationship) is a bit unhealthy to be honest, we don't get many consultants come to us and ask our advice or engage with us on big projects,” says Duncan Cave from Universal AV.  Kevin Madeja from Snelling thought there was definitely room for improvement. “There are some that work in a very collegiate way and will work as a team to produce a good product. There are others that are used as a means to perform cost accounting and to keep the integrator under control.” Representing the consultants Christian Bozeat from macom felt the process was to blame, not the people, “I think there's a lot of pressure and sometimes integrators misunderstand what we've been asked to do.  Sometimes the process is a little misunderstood from a systems integration perspective too, and sometimes the process actually doesn't benefit any of us.”

So what could help things improve? Madeja offered a suggestion, “One thing that really would help to get from a consultant would be what is the intent of the system? You get a schematic, you get a kit list etc.  Anyone can put a quote in based on that, but what is it supposed to do? As experienced integrators we can say actually there's another product that will do that better or is cheaper or easier to integrate/maintain. In this spirit of cooperation, Bozeat too offered a suggestion; “What ideally it should be is a minimum set of documents, schematics, a bill of materials, timeframes, performance specifications, and a written scope of how it's supposed to function, as well as the build processes that we expect, and that we'd like to see delivered.”

We need to look the order in which things happen on a project, and then work more collaboratively says Madeja. “We're still looking at it as consultant first and then the AV integrator gets a look, I'm much more interested in the relationship where you get the specification, but you get the background of what the brief was. I actually like working with consultants, because if you're working together you can steer the end user into the correct design decisions.” A key point made by Bozeat was that consultants don’t get the choice of not working with integrators because they don't do the installation, “so it's very important for us to foster good relationships.”

Smart building technology is another area, like content creation, the AV industry should be looking to exploit as the potential of it is massive. Do those in the industry feel there enough awareness out there of what these tools can do? “There's a massive way to go,” says Danny Rogers from AVI SPL. “Global enterprise clients know they got to move towards workplace transformation, create wellness in the workplace, and provide a workplace that is going to retain and attract but boy do they need collective help in terms of driving it to that next level.”

Kristian Glahn from COWI, a long-time evangelist of smart building technology agreed awareness was low. “If you think in terms of intelligent buildings we're still too focused around our own discipline and not focused enough about moving up the decision chain. We're uniquely positioned to do this as we've been used to being the Swiss Army Knife. AV has traditionally knitted together everything from lighting to HVAC in terms of, of user interfaces, but we're not aware of the last, big steps you need to take to actually fulfil the outcomes you can have in a truly intelligent building.” The potential is there says Mike Brooman from Vanti, and it won’t take a huge adjustment for us to benefit. “I don't understand why more integrators aren't embracing this, because we are the people who are creating unified experiences through user interfaces. AV integrators are uniquely positioned in the smart building ecosystem to actually to actually take that approach.”

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