By John Parnell
The continued development of the Middle East AV and live entertainment production industries is creating increased demand for locally based professional training services. John Parnell reports.
There is a surprising array of training and education programmes available to budding - and experienced - AV professionals based in the Middle East.
Pro audio training services provider SAE Institute is opening new branches across the region, while a host of smaller independent organisations are enjoying unprecedented demand for their training services.
Quality is a fundamental consideration... if your AV equipment is not up to scratch you will eventually be found out. - Ungania.
In-house training is an option that larger organisations can explore whilst AV equipment manufacturers will gladly offer product-specific training services to those willing to travel to their headquarters, which are often located outside the region.
Yet, despite these options, many stakeholders are struggling to find adequate solutions to their training requirements.
There are plenty of very experienced, qualified professionals working in the local industry but relying on these few to coach more inexperienced technical crews on-the-job can often prove challenging. After all, the dynamic and constantly evolving nature of the business means even these ‘old heads' will require training in new skill-sets from time to time.
According to Giorgio Ungania, corporate training manager at SAE, one significant challenge facing businesses in the Middle East is finding the time to train staff in mastering the latest AV kit to hit the market.
"For example, most AV professionals working in the hospitality sector cannot spare the time for training due to workload demands," he says. "The number of events being staged at hotel venues, particularly in Dubai, is incredible."
SAE offers a variety of training programmes and regularly reviews its equipment inventory, investing in new AV technology as it sees fit.
However, Ungania says that the organisation is careful to ensure that whatever technology it invests in is designed to meet a specific demand from clients. He says it is also important to ensure that SAE's staff can be efficiently trained in the technology. Ungania describes the situation as a balancing act; large investments in equipment will either eat into the organisation's revenues or drive up prices for training schemes.
There are also certain logistical considerations involved in providing AV training services, as Ungania explains.
"With live events in particular, the main issue relates to physical space. We cannot simulate a large-scale live event here [in our classrooms] because you need a full-scale PA system to do so," he says. "We can cover the basics but to put that knowledge into practice would require a client to shut down their facilities, which means they might have to turn away business."
In the hospitality sector, the Marriott Group is recognised as an industry leader in providing professional AV training services to its staff via its in-house MVP International scheme.
Doru Barsan, AV manager at Marriott Group hotel The Ritz-Carlton Doha, is one of three AV professionals working in the Middle East to have acquired a level three certificate under the MVP Programme.
He says the time it takes and the cost involved in training staff under the programme is justified.
"The courses are organised by MVP and then completed online with some on-site training. With AV technology playing an increasingly important role in meetings and conferences staged at our hotels, the requirement for these types of programmes is becoming increasingly important," he claims. "We have seen a marked increase in demand for AV services from our clients. As a result, it has become very important that we provide properly trained staff to assist them and ensure that their needs are met.
"Many Ritz-Carlton clients are demanding access to cutting-edge videoconferencing technologies as a cost-effective means to communicating with staff or their own clients based in locations worldwide."
With so many hotels and rival venues competing to stage corporate events, professionally trained staff can also prove a deciding factor when it comes to clients settling upon a venue for their event.
"Quality is a fundamental consideration. If you operate a 5-star hotel and your AV equipment is not up to scratch you will eventually be found out," says Ungania.
Barsan agrees. "As the use of cutting-edge AV technologies in hospitality venues increases, it is imperative operators have staff in place who can competently deal with client requests. Many clients are seeking high-end AV technology and demanding technical information when assessing a potential venue for their event.
"Our staff can provide AV expertise and deal with all enquiries directly. We provide each of our staff members with a certain level of training in AV technology. It means they can deal with the vast majority of enquiries from clients without having to refer them elsewhere."
Despite this, Ungania says proper training in the "art and craft" of AV technology is a rare occurrence at most hotels operating in the Middle East. While Ritz-Carlton's training scheme is made possible by the backing of the Marriott Group, not all hospitality venues and hotel operators have access to such resources. For these businesses, services offered by independent training organisations are proving key.
Dubai-based AV training services provider In the Mix services corporate clients including shopping mall operators and hoteliers. Founder, Nash Planojevic, says many of these facilities refuse to invest in adequate training services despite making huge investments in AV technology.
"First and foremost, these commercial organisations must be made aware of the benefits provided by qualified training services," he says.
Conversely, loudspeaker specialist JBL Professional is one manufacturer to realise the benefits of providing professional training services to its clients.
The company runs an intensive training course for clients who have invested in its Vertec Line Array loudspeaker technology. The three-day course is staged each month at JBL's factory in California and is overseen by JBL Pro's director of tour sound engineering.
The practical value of the program for companies that have invested in Vertec products is indeed very high, but so is the ultimate price of admission for customers based in the Middle East.
Course fees, overseas travel and accommodation expenses all add up, especially when a large crew requires training.
Yet, if the Middle East live events production industry continues to develop at its present rate, it should only be a matter of time before manufacturers realise the inherent commercial benefits of providing training services directly to customers in the region.
One company that has adopted this strategy is loudspeaker manufacturer Meyer Sound, which hosted a series of training seminars at this year's PALME exhibition in Dubai. The seminar programme proved so successful that the company has committed to rolling out full-scale training courses in the Middle East before the end of 2007.
"What is unique about our programme is that we are not just training technicians to use our products, we are providing them knowledge of some of the fundamentals of audio technology. We are trying to expand the industry's overall technical knowledge base," says Gavin Canaan, manager of the education department at Meyer Sound. "You can train technicians to use specific equipment but if they don't appreciate the overriding concept of what you are trying to achieve with the technology, then your efforts can often be in vain."
Having gained an insight into the dynamics of the local entertainment production industry at PALME, Canaan is hugely optimistic about the potential demand for the training schemes.
"Our training seminars were very well received at PALME, and this is often the case in less-established markets. We also attribute it to the fact there's so much energy and excitement about the potential of the local AV industry," he says.
As the Middle East entertainment production industry continues to develop, the need for a professional training and industry services organisation will also no doubt increase.
Developed markets have benefited from the presence of these organisations, including professional bodies such as InfoComm International, a non-profit organisation that organises industry trade shows, and offers certified training services and support to the AV industry worldwide.
Last May, the organisation staged its first regional seminar in Dubai, which also provided local AV specialists with the opportunity to sit for its Certified Technology Specialist (CTS) exam.
A second course and CTS examination will be staged in Dubai on October 23. InfoComm's regional manager Jonathan Seller says that many InfoComm members in the region have completed the association's theory-based evaluation online.
The fact that an organisation such as InfoComm is bringing its education programmes to the Middle East is a promising sign for the future of the local live entertainment production industry. Coupled with the regional expansion strategies adopted by training services providers such as SAE, as well as manufacturers looking to provide value-added services to local customers, the Middle East AV industry is well placed to enjoy a very bright, enlightened future.