Despite the impact of the recession, the UAE AV integration industry is holding its own on the back of strong demand for products and services from major infrastructure developers. Aaron Greenwood speaks to the key stakeholders about how the industry is weathering the economic storm.
While the boom and subsequent bust of the UAE’s property development sector has attracted headlines worldwide, the sheer number of major infrastructure projects still being developed belies the actual impact of the recession on vertical markets, including the AV systems integration industry.
The UAE remains a lucrative market for major AV technology suppliers and their local systems integration partners, particularly the rival emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While international media attention has focused on Abu Dhabi’s rapid development in recent months, particularly the Yas Marina F1 circuit, Saadiyat Island and Al Reem Island projects, many high-profile projects in Dubai, such as Dubailand and the landmark Meydan racecourse, continue to be developed, which is ensuring sustained business for AV industry stakeholders.
The imposing scale and ambition of Dubai’s Meydan City, which is set to host the world’s largest equestrian sporting venue when it is completed later this year, has not been diminished despite various construction delays that have pushed back its official opening by more than a year.
Still, the main racecourse venue’s rapid development has continued unabated, says Dave McMahon, the general manager of Meydan AV integrator Almoe AV Systems. Almoe is responsible for the design and integration of the audio distribution platform that will be installed in the main grandstand facility, which will seat 60,000, and the hotel complex located on the final straight of the racecourse.
McMahon says once completed, the venue will house “one of the largest CobraNet installations in the Middle East”.
“The project is moving so fast it’s more of a ‘build and design’ scenario rather than ‘design and build’ we’re facing,” he says.
“The pace of the development presents the biggest challenge. The integration timeframes become very compressed when you are dealing with a fast-tracked project like Meydan. By international standards, far more time is committed to the planning and development stages, but here, you are still planning for a number of scenarios while the execution is taking place.”
McMahon says Meydan is the “most interesting project we’re currently working on, from a technical viewpoint”.
“We’re installing a combination of single and multi-mode fibre throughout the hotel and the grandstand, which are interlinked,” he explains. “We’re installing Electro-Voice systems for the most part. It’s massive – we’re talking more than 5,000 ceiling speakers across the entire facility, all of which will be actively monitored. On race day, the network is designed to operate as one massive super system.”
McMahon describes Meydan as “a catalyst development for Dubai. It’s been relatively unaffected by the downturn which has impacted many other projects”.
Abu Dhabi’s $36 billion Yas Island development is one of the landmark mixed-use entertainment and hospitality projects not just in the UAE, but the entire Middle East.
Home to the UAE’s first Formula 1 racetrack, Ferrari World and Warner Bros theme parks, 20 hotels and a shopping mall, the Aldar Properties development is currently gearing up for the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix, which will be staged on November 1.
Dubai-based Bond Communications is the primary AV integrator for the racetrack and Ferrari World. Among a multitude of undisclosed partners, Barco is supplying 14 large-scale LED display screens to the racetrack precinct; Oasis Enterprises is supplying lighting control technology to the theme park and other facilities, while VV & Sons’ subsidiary AVL Technology has delivered various AV-IT technologies.
With a multitude of commercial interests at stake, technical details of the project remain sketchy, with few sources willing to comment on the record about the development. However, inside sources suggest LED lighting will feature prominently throughout the main F1 and theme park facilities, adding impetus to Aldar’s claim the venue will be one of the ‘greenest’ in the Middle East, countering the environmental impact of the F1 circus itself.
“LED is the ‘green’ option, so we are obliged to use it wherever possible,” says Bond Communications senior project manager Phil Braithwaite. “Of course, the technology is moving ahead in leaps and bounds. In terms of internal lighting, we’re using them [LEDs] as floods, which wouldn’t have been possible with earlier iterations of the technology.”
Given the company’s extensive involvement in major Abu Dhabi projects, Bond has fared well despite the economic downturn, Braithwaite says.
“Our business has actually increased in the past 12 months, but there has been a trend towards Abu Dhabi, rather than Dubai,” he explains. “But certainly for us there has been no decline [in overall business].
Oasis Enterprises’ newly appointed Architainment manager, David Gray, says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of commercial opportunities still available in the UAE since arriving in July.
“In addition to Yas Island, we’re supplying the control systems for the LED panels located on Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat Bridge, which is quite a large project. We are also involved in several theatrical fit-outs in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “The business that is financed and has momentum in this region will continue on despite the recession. However, there seems to be a dearth in that respect, particularly in Dubai. Equally, the opportunities that used to be commonplace in Dubai are now cropping up not only in Abu Dhabi but other parts of the GCC.”
However, AVL Technology technical manager Milad Abboud says the company has been impacted by the recession “to a certain extent”.
“Many projects have been put on hold or cancelled,” he says.
Abboud doubted the industry would recover in the immediate term post-Ramadan.
“It won’t happen like magic. The recession has to end first, which it hasn’t,” he says. “We are still working on the same number of proposals, however the AV market itself has slowed to the point whereby we aren’t receiving as many confirmed orders as we were 12 months ago.”
In a similar vein, Almoe’s McMahon argues that due to the nature of the business, systems integrators have yet to feel the full impact of the recession.
“Many of the projects we’re working on at the moment were conceived and commenced construction prior to the recession,” he says. “As a result, we envisage fewer opportunities moving forward because a lot of the major projects have now been shelved.”
In light of this trend, McMahon says the company has found success pursuing smaller projects across the region.
“Our response has been to diversify, taking on smaller jobs,” he says. “We’re very active in the videoconferencing sector, which has proven something of a cushion for us during the downturn.
“There’s still a great deal of uncertainty in the market. We’ve found the business is still out there but clients are more cautious than they were 12 months ago and it’s proving harder to close deals than it may have been previously.”
Similarly, Braithwaite says he has seen a major shift in the attitude of UAE-based hospitality operators to AV technology investments in recent months.
“Hoteliers have tightened their belts in regards to acquiring new AV technologies,” he says.
“We often receive queries from clients about the cost of HD equipment for example. I fully appreciate that HD tech is often two to three times more expensive than its SD equivalent, but long-term, it’s a future-proofed investment. Most clients who go with the cheaper option acknowledge they’ll have to replace it down the line. However, money is difficult to come by at the moment.”
McMahon believes the industry is “being collectively squeezed in terms of margins”.
“Clients are using the downturn to their advantage, perhaps excessively so in some cases,” he says. “We spend more time now evaluating the commercial terms of an agreement. In effect, we end up financing some of these projects, whereas previously, the client would cover development costs. That’s where we face greater commercial risk these days.”
Yet, despite increased economic pressure, McMahon says Almoe has grown its business over the past 12 months.
“We’ve been actively recruiting and we’re still doing solid business,” he says. “It [the UAE] is still an exciting market. As long as capital investment remains and oil prices stay high the prospects here are strong.”
Formula for success
The Abu Dhabi F1 weekend will also provide the UAE live events production industry with something to smile about. Organisers are reportedly planning nightly concerts and events, with headline artists rumoured to include Beyonce, Nelly Furtado and Timbaland. Pro audio and lighting equipment tenders are expected to be released for the concert series next month.