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CEDIA Expo, Then & Now

The custom-install channel – installers, upscale retailers, distributors, reps and suppliers – all converge on Atlanta this week to attend CEDIA Expo, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.I remember comments around the birth of the show, like the one attributed to Triad Speakers’ Steve Colburn on the CEDIA Expo Web site. At the first show, he overheard “a couple of suits” from a major CE company. “This CEDIA thing sure won’t amount to much anything, but we need to keep our eye on it – just in case it matters,” he quoted them as saying.

Well, CEDIA and its Expo have both mattered over the years. Since 1989, CEDIA Expo and the industry it serves rode the wave of digital audio technology, A/V networking and, of course, the development of HDTV in the past decade. It also rode the wave of new housing starts and consumer “aspiration,” as marketers called it, of homeowners wanting the upscale theater experience in the home.

In my years attending CEDIA Expo I’ve affectionately called it at times the “trial balloon show.” I noticed more than a few suppliers have previewed some new design or format at the show. If accepted, we would see a new line introduced the following January at International CES. If not, it would disappear.

But, of course, for this CEDIA Expo, one wonders who will be in a celebratory mood, 20th anniversary event or not, given the recession of the past year.

In the days leading up to CEDIA Expo, a veteran sales exec with a major CE brand who will attend the show said, “This has been the most unique year in my career.” I answered, ” ‘Unique.’ Now that’s a word in that covers a multitude of sins.” He smiled ruefully and said, “It sure does. I could be a politician.”

One distribution executive said in the past year that his company lost a large percentage of its custom-install customer base in the past year because they either closed, “or moved their businesses into another industries.” His concern is not just for his business, but for the CE industry as a whole, which relies on the value-added sales that the custom-installer channel provides.

The numbers from a Parks Associates/CEDIA survey reported the majority of home-system integrators still in business have suffered average revenue declines of about 17 percent since 2007, and more than half of those surveyed expect revenues to decline in 2009

The only notion with which I can agree with the prognostications of so-called economic experts in Washington and on Wall Street is that a return to an era of easy credit and booming new-home sales that benefitted custom installers and other industries, such as the upscale major appliance business, is far away.

That doesn’t mean this year’s CEDIA Expo, which will have fewer exhibitors and likely fewer attendees, will be a gloom and doom festival.

Custom installers are emphasizing the retrofit market, something that Parks/CEDIA survey indicates and others have told TWICE, as well as looking into energy monitoring and control systems to stem the crash in new-home sales.

Custom installers are run by entrepreneurs. So are the many upscale brands that serve this channel and debut innovative products that eventually work their way into conventional retail channels.

When CEDIA Expo celebrates its 30th anniversary, I think many will look back in amazement as to how the custom-installation market re-invented itself during this recession.

As for CEDIA Expo 2009, to get all of TWICE’s CEDIA coverage, click here.