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Conference market stays strong for installers

Cost-sensitivity and the need for flexibility of configuration underpin technological developments oriented towards conference venues – a sector which, despite current challenges to the events market, remains an important source of income for pro-AV manufacturers, writes David Davies.

Cost-sensitivity and the need for flexibility of configuration underpin technological developments oriented towards conference venues – a sector which, despite current challenges to the events market, remains an important source of income for pro-AV manufacturers, writes David Davies.

Intrinsically low-key and often ‘unflashy’, conference venues can be overlooked when conversation turns to pro-install’s most dynamic markets. But this sector’s predilection for complex wireless audio systems and cutting-edge visual display solutions means that it’s actually something of a quiet trailblazer for the latest installation technology.

News stories posted on the Installation website over the past 12 months suggest that it continues to be a particularly rewarding market for audio manufacturers and distributors. Flexibility for multipurpose usage is a key watchword for many of these projects, ranging from a Harman brand family installation at the University of Leicester’s main conference facility, to the specification of a versatile d&b audiotechnik system at Istanbul’s Lütfi Kirdar conference centre.

The contribution of the conference sector to a country’s overall economic activity can be significant. While one struggles to find meaningful data for many European markets, the US is well-served for statistics. For example, the Convention Industry Council (CIC)’s Economic Significance of Meetings to the US Economy revealed that the US meetings industry directly supports 1.7 million jobs, $263 billion spending, a $106 billion contribution to GDP, $60 billion in labour revenue, $14.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $11.3 billion in state and local tax revenue.

As these impressive returns suggest, the US market is a mature one and of enduring attraction to Europe-based AV technology providers. But as we shall see, numerous individual countries within the EMEA region – not least Russia, Turkey and several Middle Eastern territories – are also highly dynamic. Simultaneously, it appears that their expectations for flexible systems which deliver extended longevity of investment are on the rise, too.

The impression given by Installation’s interviewees is of a general buoyancy in the global conference venues sector. Nonetheless, it is clear that the market has taken something of a hit during the economic phase which commenced in late 2008, particularly in those Southern European countries whose fluctuating fortunes may still do much to determine the future of the embattled eurozone.

While emphasising that Bosch is “performing very well” in both established and emerging European territories, the manufacturer’s EMEA product marketing manager conference systems, Murat Keskinkilinc, confirms: “The activity for investment in new conference equipment depends on the country. For instance, in Southern Europe the business activity is slow and there are not many projects.”

Kristoff Henry, product & marketing manager at Televic Conference, echoes the sentiment. “Southern Europe, as well as many East European countries, is greatly affected by the economic crisis, which results in limited public and private spending in this sector,” he says.

Old versus new
But equally, it is evident that there are many bright spots in Europe – both Old and New. Henry isn’t alone in highlighting those countries where a “conference culture” is deeply rooted. Such nations have a predilection towards “organised meetings” that chimes with a focus on “transparency” to the public.

“For example, town councils are looking for ways to make their meetings and reports open to the public without having to go through the cumbersome and costly process of transcription and creating meeting reports. As a result, live broadcasting over the internet, Cloud archiving and video-on-demand is gaining a strong foothold,” says Henry, who alludes to the recent development of Televic’s own webcasting solution, T-Cast.

There is general consensus about the robust health of the UK, Italian, German and French markets (“France seems to be updating a large portion of its high-level governmental installations,” remarks DIS’s general manager, Thomas Frederiksen) in terms of both fresh system investments and upgrades. Views on the Scandinavian countries are more mixed, but there is agreement that Benelux is continuing to perform strongly – thanks, in part, to the countless high-spec facilities connected to institutions of the European Union (see case study, page 29).

“The Benelux countries have been performing well [during the past year] and we do not see any signs of change,” confirms Frederiksen.

Elsewhere, there is evidence of increased dynamism in Russia and Turkey – markets where, says Keskinkilinc, “business moves fast with a lot of opportunities. These are emerging markets where more and more international conferences are taking place, [hence new] conference venues are being built or investments [are being made] in existing ones.”

Rob Muddiman, international sales director of Magenta Research, says that the overall conference venues sector is “definitely growing, [although it’s] hard to see any specific country leading the way”. Nonetheless, he does suggest that “the Middle Eastern countries do seem to be investing most at present”.

Arising opportunities in multiple territories clearly bode well for technology providers – but what kind of systems are actually being specified? And what new requirements are likely to inform system design over the next couple of years?

‘F’ is for flexibility
Time and again during interviews for this piece, Installation encountered the ‘F’ word – by which, of course, one is referring to ‘flexibility’. It stands to reason that venues will wish to optimise their suitability for a range of event types and sizes, especially in an unpredictable economic phase. Accordingly, wireless conference/discussion systems which allow significant ease of configuration are near the top of many venues’ shopping lists.

“Wireless still seems to be hot,” confirms Henry. “This could be partially hype, but nevertheless it does offer a lot of benefits in terms of flexibility and ease of set-up. Wireless is the only solution for where cables cannot be hidden away: for example, [a project involving] a meeting table that cannot be touched or an historic building with [preservation status].”

And, as Henry observes, sensitivity to architectural or design features is often a priority consideration in these venues, especially those which occupy listed sites. “More and more, aesthetics and design is becoming a decisive factor,” he says. “Hence, we paid quite a bit of attention to the design aspect when developing
D-Cerno, the entry-level product we introduced last year, [and in creating a forthcoming] standard flush-mount panel based on pressure-sensitive touch buttons and brushed aluminium.”

The ability of conference audio systems to accommodate a variety of meeting sizes is another important consideration, says Keskinkilinc. Bosch’s DCN Next Generation system has, he notes, “earned global recognition, offering advanced, proven features that maximise meeting efficiency and productivity. It can be used from small meetings up to large multilingual conferences.” Keskinkilinc adds that the Bosch Integrus system – billed as the world’s first digital infrared language distribution system – is also generating significant levels of interest.

As venues seek to maximise their international appeal, it is to be expected that translation facilities will increase in importance. CP Lin, international sales manager at Taiwan-based manufacturer Mipro, confirms the continuing demand for equipment with simultaneous language interpretation capabilities. Mipro’s own MTG-100 system, explains Lin, employs the latest digital RF wireless technology – thereby circumnavigating the “disadvantages of limited range and signal drop-out” that can be associated with infrared systems. Operational on ISM bands without a licence (EU 863-865MHz), the system also enables secure audio transmission, thereby preventing “unauthorised listening”.

Indeed, security of communication is a consideration that underpins much of Mipro’s current conference-friendly range. Lin explains: “Some conferences – especially those held by government institutions, military organisations or corporations – demand a wireless system that protects the contents of the meeting being eavesdropped.” The company’s ACT-82a, adds Lin, has proven to be popular for applications of this kind.

Picking up on the licensing point, Tim Root – CTO of wireless audio solutions provider Revolabs – confirms that, increasingly, customers are “looking for solutions which are exempt from licensing restrictions and future changes in permitting frequency ranges. They are also looking for systems that allow for a higher density of microphones.” Revolabs solutions, adds Root, employ DECT technology, an international standard that falls outside the UHF spectrum – currently the subject of official reallocation across Europe – and does not require licensing.

So, no shortage of factors to bear in mind, but in view of the fact that these venues frequently accommodate both legacy and brand-new AV technology, it is clear that flexibility tops the list. As international sales director of multi-format video, audio and auxiliary signal transmission, switching and distribution technology specialist Magenta Research, Muddiman is well-placed to offer a general viewpoint.

“Of course, digital is here now, but no one is simply going to dispose of perfectly adequate analogue equipment, particularly in the current climate,” he says. “Consequently we need a multi-format solution. Clients are also asking for a solution that meets immediate requirements while being sufficiently flexible and scalable to cope with future upgrades and technologies. This is incredibly important in the AV world, where we all know that the need to cope with equipment that doesn’t quite fit the known ‘standard’ can cause havoc to an install.” Such considerations, adds Muddiman, informed the development of Magenta’s Voyager fibre optic signal distribution platform, which comprises a set of transmitters, receivers and matrix switchers.

Networking drive
Anecdotal evidence garnered from installers and consultants suggests that a number of venues are increasingly inclined to hire in equipment – especially on the visual side – on a project-by-project basis. Doubtless, this is a tendency driven by both the pace of technological change and present economic uncertainty. But in the longer run, what other trends are expected to inform the design and configuration of conference systems?

Multiple contributors cite the likely implications for flexibility and reliability of more sophisticated networking solutions. In this context, Bosch alludes to its OMNEO media networking architecture, which delivers multichannel audio transmission and system control via standard Ethernet IP networks. In addition, notes Keskinkilinc, it provides “enhanced security features to protect audio and control data from being accessed and/or modified. Due to its routable capabilities, multi-site synchronised audio is offered in studio quality. The OMNEO platform will be used in nearly all Bosch future audio products – including conference systems – where audio transport and system control are required.”

The announcement of the first conference systems to feature OMNEO, reveals Keskinkilinc, “can be expected early next year”.

For Frederiksen, the next big thing – “you could even call it a paradigm shift” – will be the roll out of audio/video bridging (AVB)-based solutions. “Bringing audio conferencing products and all other kinds of AV technology on to a standardised network [structure] will boost the software integration in conferencing products,” he says. “Together with our owner, Shure Inc, we are working to prepare and integrate this standard into existing and new product developments.”

As the flurry of new product initiatives alluded to in this article should suggest, conference venues are extremely well served by technology suppliers working to enhance their overall effectiveness and flexibility. While fresh orders might be slightly harder to come by at present, when they do arrive they tend to be significant, and with new venues in prospect across multiple emerging markets, the indications are this will remain a sector worth speaking up for in the years ahead.