Talking Pictures

The traditional role of conference production companies is seriously under threat. With clients now producing a lot of their own graphics and specialist staging firms offering technical expertise, in many cases their position is being reduced

The ability to produce sophisticated audio-visual presentations on desktop equipment is having a significant effect on the conference production and staging industry.

When production companies started up about 20 years ago, their main raison d’être was to produce slides and arrange the staging of events.

Now both those roles have diminished. Because end-users can now produce electronic presentations on the desktop, the bread and butter visual support business is under threat. Similarly production companies can no longer afford either the equipment or the personnel needed to stage events when they have only a limited number of clients.

The staging role has been taken over by specialist firms which grew out of the equipment rental business. So is the role of the production company under threat?

“These changes have had a big effect,” says Toby Baillon, managing director of Talking Presentations.

“It has become a very tough environment in which to survive. If you look at the cost we charge to set up a projector and screen at an event and compare it with a staging company we do charge a bit more, but we add service. As well as a technician we’ll also have a producer go along who usually ends up sorting out the slides even if we didn’t produce them. The problem is the client wants that service but isn’t prepared to pay for it.”

The staging companies, however, claim that they are now in a position to add service to what was once no more than the hire of equipment and technicians.

“An increasing proportion of our business is coming from end-users,” says Richard Crowe, sales and marketing manager of staging specialists The Creative Studio, which has staged presentations for Do It All, car maker Subaru and Tulip Computers, among others.

“In many cases, we are effectively becoming the project manager. Clients know what their marketing objectives are and what they want to say and many have the ability and experience to create their own graphics. They need help on the technical side – getting visuals onto the big screen and having sound, lighting and stage sets installed. We have positioned ourselves so that we have both technical and event management capability to handle all the staging requirements.”

“Because of this, many clients are now questioning the value they get from production companies. For medium-sized events all a production company can offer is logistical support, but they have to come to companies like us for it, so clients are cutting out the premium paid to the middle man.”

There are, of course, those in the production industry who would argue that staging companies do not have the marketing expertise to recommend the best solutions to a client’s needs. Crowe, however, disagrees: “We have been running events for senior marketing players for years – both those we’ve handled directly and those overseen by production companies. As a result we have a lot of marketing experience and we’ve seen the mistakes people make. If we think an event should be handled by a production company or independent producer we will make that recommendation.”

Robin Coles, director of staging company Show Presentation Services believes that there are also other factors which are tipping the balance in favour of the staging specialists: “The style of business presentations has changed a lot in recent years. They tend to be a lot less glitzy and theatrical – the businesslike approach has become prevalent which means that staging is a lot more straightforward and we are well placed to handle it.

“More events are being planned by in-house departments or PR companies who know exactly what they want and can put together graphics using PowerPoint software on a PC. The purists in production companies would argue this is not as good as using professionals, and they might be right, but the end-users are happy, it fulfills their objectives and saves them money.”

“Clients are becoming more cost-conscious and event-aware. It is being led, I think, by the information technology industry. Companies in this field have traditionally used live events a great deal and they are also producing tools – the hardware and software – to make presentations. It is part of the huge wave of change going through the industry and to survive you have to respond to it.”

One of the ways small and medium-sized production companies are adapting to such changes is to concentrate more on their client’s objectives, particularly in the longer term, rather than simply being there to produce graphics and run one-off projects.

“We are moving from being a specialist tactical response company to being more involved with our client’s strategic development,” says Baillon.

“There is an increasing demand in this area which we have the expertise to exploit.”

Bigger production companies took this approach years ago. They were no longer interested in handling the staging of the odd sales conference here and there and shed their staging staff and equipment. The new focus concentrated on supplying marketing and communication solutions to very large clients in such industries as cars and telecommunications.

“When people are looking for two lecterns, a data projector and sound and lighting, they should go to a staging company,” says Derek Tuke-Hastings, co-chairman of production specialist Park Avenue.

“We do not make money from staging when it is part of a communication exercise we handle for a client. We use staging companies and charge at cost; we’re quite happy for the client to see the bills. It is those production companies which set out their stall to make money from staging who, I think, will be in trouble.”

“Our approach is to sit down with a client and find out what it is they want to achieve. We earn our money from providing solutions not equipment,” adds Tuke-Hastings.

The changes in the staging and production industry may cause turmoil and lead to a big reduction in the number of production specialists. It should, however, be good news for clients. Production companies now really have to earn their living and the advent of a more professional staging industry means that end-users can handle the content of their events and get a much better deal when it comes to running it.

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