Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, England, is not exactly London. It corresponds to the UK capital in much the same way that Hahn Airport in Germany corresponds to Frankfurt – close enough for RyanAir, or anyone else with a particularly high aerial view. But the new complex built by Harman Professional Solutions to showcase everything the organization does, which opened on 4th April, is billed as ‘The Harman Experience Centre – London’, raising a few local eyebrows and exercising Geography pedants with empty diaries.
However, eyebrows should be returned to their resting facial expressions. When the full rationale behind the Centre is understood, and placed into the context of the other three such Centres around the globe, these details pale into insignificance. For a start, Harman Professional Solutions does indeed have a particularly high aerial view. In fact, it’s practically in orbit. As the marketing materials state, “chances are you’ve seen or heard Harman today”. There doesn’t seem to be a single area of leisure, hospitality or entertainment without something Harman being engaged, whether you know it or not. From this position, the world is much bigger than Hemel Hempstead.
Furthermore, not being in London itself fits in with the plan. People are expected to drop in for the day – and some of them may well have set off from Letchworth – but most will have passed through Heathrow Airport just 23.6 miles away, experienced the experience and got back home in time for pasta, goulash or paella. They are people with no interest in tourism, unless they run an active supply business into that sector and are quite simply checking out the latest technology to make tourism more efficient, more fun and more profitable. Furthermore, this is technology made by an organisation that sees all of this from outer space. EMEA is a business concept, and its outposts don’t need the local bus timetable.
The business itself is very broad. While the upper floors of this centre provide ample office and administration facilities for all of Harman’s EMEA figureheads and functions, the ground floor resembles something of a department store in its presentation of related technology – related, that is, if you can find a conceptual link between JBL line array and the Echo-like controller that closes the blinds in a hotel room, other than that they ultimately conform to a Harman business plan.
Accordingly there is an area for retail, hospitality, home recording, sound reinforcement, broadcast, stage, lighting, huddle room, conferencing, theatre and even signage in a cinema-style lobby, sequenced rather like the promenade around IKEA outlets undertaken by young mothers and grudging husbands on a Saturday afternoon.
The big question is whether busy pro audio engineers will find it worthwhile. Mohit Parasher, president of Harman Professional Solutions, is confident. “Obviously we don’t have the big JBL VTX A12s hanging from the ceiling,” he says, “although you will find them in our experience centre in California. The crews and specifiers from the top acts around the world ultimately will go there if they want to see the whole system in action. But we do have some high-end pro audio equipment here, which our EMEA distributors can see.”
“It complements the wider range available for demonstration at our UK distributor, Sound Technology in Letchworth, which is not far from here,” adds Chris Smith, vice president & general manager EMEA at Harman Professional Solutions. “What we’ve found is that the more business we win with these big products, and the more venues we supply, it allows us to take other customers into these real-world ’experiences’ too. This is where the artists and their crews can hear, feel and touch the products in an environment that they’re used to.”
The theory is that pro audio prospects will get the most convincing trial run in an existing Harman venue, backed up by Sound Technology’s well equipped – and well-trussed –demo suite, topped off with a clinching drop into this Experience Centre where paperwork can be processed and a reassuring glimpse of Harman’s astonishing reach into daily life may just send the client on his way with increased confidence.
You might also see The Harman Experience Centre as a permanent trade exhibition, without the usual distractions. Bad news for Frankfurt, but Germany’s loss is Hemel Hempstead’s gain. “You can go to lots of separate trade shows, but this is the only place where you’ll see the full suite of solutions that we provide,” continues Parasher. “It’s also rare to have meaningful conversations at these shows; they are so transient. To have deep, engaged contact you need places like this where we can articulate the art of the possible – what you can achieve with this technology.”
The displays will change every few months, not simply for variety’s sake but because the potential is so large for different suggestions, solutions and scenarios. “There are many more users for the same technology than we can address,” Parasher points out, “even with all that we have on display at any given time. The possibilities are endless. For example, we opened the Centre in Los Angeles only three months ago and already it’s going through its first update – new solutions, new displays, new examples.”
This is in Northridge, to be exact, which you will immediately recognize as the home of JBL. In this instance, Harman has preserved an electro-acoustic heritage going back 75 years. The Centres in Shanghai, Singapore and here do not map onto Vienna and Regensdorf in the same way – although you could argue that Potters Bar is essentially the same neighbourhood, give or take a few spins of Telstar.
The relocation of Harman resources is a reflection of new thinking about the true nature of a brand in 21st Century commerce. It exists in a more virtual environment than ever before, harnessed more closely to the World Wide Web than to any specific street corner. Therefore its collateral is free to roam in search of any regional advantage – with an iconoclasm bound to unnerve the traditionalists.
“Obviously whenever you make a change there is some resistance,” Parasher acknowledges. “But eventually, when people understand what we’re doing, it evaporates very quickly. If you leave brands rooted in a place where they are unable to scale up, and do not provide the platform and considerable strengths that a company like Harman has, actually you are doing the brand a disservice. You are denying access to capital, access to talent, access to technology and to all the intellectual property we have.
“Frankly, we are not abandoning the heritage of Soundcraft or any of the other brands. We are adding immense advantages to it, in order to take it to the next level. Our centre for electronics is in Texas, for example, because there’s a deep well of talent there that will benefit every product. It’s not about designing one product in isolation. That is no longer enough.”
Customers old and new are welcome, of course. “Firstly,” explains Smith, “we have a lot of brand loyalty from historical partners with JBL or Studer, for example – linear connections with one brand. With them we can share some of the secrets of the rest of the business that they won’t know about. We can broaden their horizons. FOH engineers are interested in what we’re doing in stadiums, in broadcast, in lighting, even in boardrooms – the fact that most of the major banks use Harman. It gives an additional relevance to our scale, our investment and our capability.
“Secondly, we can use this facility to explain all of the different elements of Harman to a new customer and prove why they should engage with us. It has been a challenging concept to present to someone for the first time. The elevator pitch can be difficult, because there’s so much ground to cover!”
At least 200 floors’ worth, I would say. This is one of the few places where AMX, JBL, Crown, BSS, Martin Professional et al can be seen to be doing all their stuff under one roof – except maybe a business-friendly hotel with a stadium, a theatre, a TV station and a branch of Victoria’s Secret in the lobby. Dubai?
Actually Hemel Hempstead concludes an experiment begun in Shanghai. “This is not our first Experience Centre – it’s the fourth,” confirms Parasher. “There’s was huge excitement when we completed the first one in China. With the opening of each one – Singapore was next, then LA – we discovered that the responses were much bigger than we thought. I think it shows a certain latent need for facilities like this. People have been waiting for somebody to take the initiative and put all of these things together. We were really encouraged with each step, as you can see from the continuing investment.
“In LA, for example, we had 1,000 customers in the first 90 days – people from Disney, Universal Studios, large cruise ships, hotel chains, plus A-list artists like Michael Bolton and George Clinton and lighting and sound crew for Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters and Drake. They spend all day, using the gear and understanding all of the processes. Then you add executives from JP Morgan, Facebook, Google… we expect the same response here in Europe.”
“We have two days out of the next six weeks when, at the moment, we’re not fully booked out,” adds Smith. “Bear in mind, though, that you don’t need an appointment. Any partner can just drop in, although I’m sure that most visits will be more structured than that! Our partners – any distributor, dealer, consultant, reseller, engineer – are expected to use it to host their own delegations of existing and potential customers.”
They are bound to come. Certainly the presence at the opening of Roly Oliver, Andy Brown, Nick Screen and Mark Hosking added considerable grist to the pro audio mill, and PSNe will be hearing more from them individually soon. Meanwhile… taxi for Heathrow?