One of the big differences between residential and commercial integrators is that residentially-focused firms often dedicate part of their headquarters to demonstrating solutions to their prospective customers; commercial firms rarely do that.
That surprised me when I shifted to covering the commercial integration market in 2010 after several years of writing for residential market focused CE Pro. I used to ask commercial integrators why a showroom wouldn’t be beneficial for demonstrating solutions like video conferencing and digital signage, but I phased out that question after a standard answer emerged:
“Customers don’t come to our office. We go to theirs.”
I might start asking again, because some commercial integration firms are re-embracing the showroom concept.
I say re-embracing because showrooms were more common 15-plus years ago, according to Advanced AV CEO Michael Boettcher.
He speculates that “market saturation,” cost of doing business and just the difficulty of demonstrating solutions that are appropriate for clients’ unique needs caused most integrators to abandon the showroom concept. Advanced AV, however, still has multipurpose parts of its West Chester, Pa., headquarters for demonstrating solutions, hosting events and internal meetings.
It’s no surprise that Red Thread, a Boston-based integration firm that happens to be owned by office environments manufacturer Steelcase, hosts customers at its eight showrooms. I noticed its Boston and Hartford locations, for instance, operate as living, breathing showrooms with employees visibly collaborating in collaboration spaces and huddling in huddle rooms.
Then there’s Mississauga, Ontario-based Advanced that is poised to move into a 25,000-square-foot facility—25 percent larger than its existing home—and dedicating a significant portion of it to space where it can show solutions to prospective clients.
Advanced already has a smaller showroom, but its new headquarters truly embraces showroom strategy, in part by leveraging manufacturers’ cooperation. Its expanded AV and collaboration technology demonstration zones will include products from key partners including Crestron, Delta Displays, Extron, Hitachi, NEC, Polycom, Prysm and SMART.
Market demand for showrooms is coming back in part because it can be difficult for customers to wrap their heads around a concept like how their organization can benefit from unified communication and collaboration, according to Advanced co-president David Weatherhead.
“Especially with new collaboration solutions and display technologies, they want to see how it works. They want to see the interfaces and touch the touch panels. So we decided with the new space to create basically a wing of the building to give [customers] a general overview. Or, if somebody has a particular interest, we can focus on one space and one zone. For instance, we have a feature area on display technologies, and several meeting rooms that are set up with Crestron control.”
The technologies that integration firms like Advanced use to solve their clients’ problems are evolving, so VP of sales Mark McPherson says the way integrators present those solutions needs to also evolve. “The big thing is our clients come to us with a concept for a room in mind. We like to bring them through and show them live concepts, whether it’s a huddle space or they’re trying to build a collaboration room. We want to create an experience that allows them to complete their vision.”
The showroom concept is also a way to differentiate, McPherson adds. “We noticed that there does seem to be a lot of noise out there in this space and clients are really struggling to find what technology solutions are right for them. Look at the whole unified communications space; people are asking us more and more questions. It’s just easier to show them.”
In theory, yes, but there’s also the cost of doing business reason why many integrators got away from keeping showrooms. Like Advanced AV and Red Thread, Advanced intends to get additional value out of its demonstration spaces by using it to run its business.
“That’s the big picture,” McPherson says. “We actually do utilize the technology that we offer to the market. We plan on regularly using these meeting spaces, and that’s a benefit right out of the gate. We expect a pretty good return on investment here.”