The hire ground

The rapid pace of technological change is forcing companies to decide whether they should buy or hire business presentation kits. Which method is most appropriate?

Whether you are conducting a straight sales pitch, introducing a range of products or services to dealers or wooing end-users, there is constant pressure to make the best impression.

Companies are investing many hours and thousands of pounds to get the right message across, using everything from fancy video walls to smart projection systems to win business.

There is big money involved in business presentation equipment. Audio-visual hardware for the conference room can cost companies the price of a detached house in the South-east of England.

According to leading business presentation reseller Mar-Com, £30,000 is considered a small order. “For big contracts,” says group sales director John Allin, “you are talking seven figures.”

The business presentation equipment industry appears to be a nice little earner for all those involved. According to estimates by AV Magazine, the UK spend on video walls and giant screens doubled between 1996 and 1999 – from £10m to about £20m. The videoconferencing spend also soared – from £50m to £90m – over the same period. Other sources estimate the industry is worth £2bn in the UK alone.

Good news for the industry perhaps, but what about those who have to buy the equipment? How does the customer keep up with a field that has gone from whiteboards and markers to video walls and remote controls in a relatively short time? Many of the biggest changes seem to have happened in the past three years. And with so many different technologies emerging and converging, is the sector in danger of descending into a price war, rather like the computer industry to which it is so closely linked?

RSL Presentation Systems (RSL) UK sales manager Mark Iveson believes it is. His company launched 30 years ago as a reprographics services business and progressed to making overhead projector transparencies.

Today, RSL puts together integrated AV solutions for major corporations, from Walt Disney to BT. Iveson maintains that any price war as such is at the lower end of the market, where the dealers will be selling boxes to the customer at the lowest price and not necessarily adding value such as service.

Buying cheap, Iveson claims, can have expensive consequences. “I have seen some customers attempt to put the kit together themselves, or buy equipment from people who don’t know what they are doing and we have had to go in and rip the whole system out.”

Allin agrees: “There is a price war on and it’s a tough market all round. Of course, many customers will be guided by the bottom line, but our business has grown because people have been sensible and looked at what added value we can provide.”

So what exactly is this magic ingredient of added value that the customer can’t do without and will pay a lot extra for?

After-sales service

Well, take your pick. Some companies will offer comprehensive after-sales service, including training, project management, swap-out warranties, insurance and nationwide service engineers. But what effect do these extras make on the customer’s decision to buy?

Like all of these things, it’s a “suits you” scenario and there are many aspects of the equation to consider. How much are you spending? How often will you use the equipment – is it to be used in situ or dragged round the country from venue to venue? How sophisticated are your needs? You may buy, or like many involved in business presentations, with fluctuating needs, you may opt to hire.

Microsoft, for example, which has a purchasing agreement with Mar-Com, opts for the added value of three or four on-site engineers permanently based at the company’s European head office in Reading. They oversee the rooms of AV equipment and ensure they are constantly in perfect-working order.

Mar-Com claims that most of its highest spending clients have been with the company for years and rely on the added value aspect. “We have a huge nationwide support side, we look after 70,000 pieces of individual kit and our service engineers make 21,000 calls a year. It’s quite simply part of our core business,” explains Allin.

Return on investment

For Gill Price, commercial director at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, London, the key factor about what and when to buy is down to how soon she can expect a return on that investment. “We buy some equipment but not that much because technology is changing so quickly. We always want to be able to offer our clients the best and we can’t do that if we suddenly discover equipment is out of date.”

To this end Price only buys equipment that she knows clients will use regularly – so regularly in fact that she expects to get her return on that investment back from her clients in just two years. Her current favourite is the smaller Barco 6300 projector, which she reckons “can be used anywhere”. For the nature of her business, Price finds the hire route more appropriate. “Almost 75 per cent of our business is in hire. The companies we use are very reliable and available 24 hours a day.”

What she looks for in a good hire company is that the equipment arrives on time checked from the previous job, clean, tidy and in perfect working order. She has a group of carefully vetted hire companies she has worked with before – some of them for as long as 14 years. “They know our needs and requirements. It is all about relationships that make business work.”

Peter Tudor, sales and marketing manager at the Wembley Exhibition Centre, comes up against many of the same problems as Price. “The issue with us is keeping up with the constant changes and improvements to the equipment. We buy in the high resolution projectors and hire the rest, and we will carry on until the technological changes have shaken down.”

Hire company Show Presentation Services buys £1.5m worth of new kit a year to service its customer base. Managing director Robin Coles says buying the kit is the easy part. It’s knowing how to put it all together that is more challenging.

“Before you make that decision to hire or buy, you really need to know your kit and what you want to do with it,” says Coles. “If you are moving it around for example, it won’t last that long.” Coles also believes hiring, rather than buying, allows the rental company to test the kit, get to grips with the problems and learn about the emerging technology.

This takes the strain off the customer. “After all, why not let the hire company take the rap financially,” he argues.

Five easy pieces

RSL’s Iveson has five key pieces of advice before making any purchase, which may be worth committing to an internal memo. First, always test the salesperson’s knowledge and make sure they really know what they are talking about. Second, make sure the back-up is in place – there should be a manufacturer’s warranty above the statutory one year. Third, does the salesperson understand your exact needs and requirements? Fourth, will you get training with a dedicated installation? And fifth, check what after-sales service you will get – what are the call out times?

“Normally, a business presentation kit is very reliable but it is electronic so sometimes something is bound to go wrong,” concludes Iveson. “And you can guarantee it will always be at the time when you need it most.”

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