Category Analysis: Visual Communications

Sales of visual communications products are booming and companies are bullish

The visual communications (viscom) category is in rude health. Sales of interactive display products, panels and boards continue to buck the trend of the wider OP industry, with manufacturers reporting strong demand for their products. But challenges as well as opportunities remain as the workplace dynamic shifts and technological changes accelerate.

Nathan Dawes, Technology Product Manager of UK wholesaler VOW, backs this view: “Viscom continues to defy the broader OP industry direction and is up 7-9% year on year,” he says. And there’s huge potential for this sector. “With over 67 million meeting rooms worldwide, the prospects for interactive solutions within the corporate sector are immense. It currently accounts for only 12% of the total market, but by 2017 it’ll boom to 30%. Already, 38% of European firms are also using screens outside of meeting rooms for digital signage purposes and that will only increase.”

Cordula Adamek, Managing Director at Kaut-Bullinger’s office system house, reports similar success in Germany. “We’ve seen some very positive developments in our presentation and media technology division, and registered low double-digit growth rates,” she says. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve incorporated a considerable amount of new products into our overall portfolio.

“But we’re also seeing a clear shift, away from classic projectors and screens to large-format, interactive systems. This is particularly the case for customers with a highly representative focus. But this is also where the highest potential is – in the corporate B2B segment, in the areas of manufacturing, trade and services.”

US opportunities

Gerhard Ferreira, CEO of South African whiteboard manufacturer Justik, also reports excellent figures, with sales doubling over the last year. He believes that the US market in particular will grow significantly over the next two years.

And indeed, across the pond in Austin, Texas, Alan Greenberg, Senior Analyst and Partner at Wainhouse Research, tells a similar story. “Sales of viscom products have bounced back from the recessionary slump and we’re now seeing some growth, with a lot of potential still out there,” he says.

But the way we work and the office spaces we work in are changing and the sector needs to keep this in mind as companies bring new products to market.

Janet Collins, President of Ghent Visual Communication Products, views equipping offices and schools with viscom tools as more complex today than ever before. “With the latest trends for open offices and collaboration spaces, wall space is at a premium and demand for mobile and flexible design is high,” she says. “Open plan buildings mean the need for mobility products is increasing – mobile easels, room dividers with dry-erase boards and bulletin functionality make them very versatile for many users.”

Beth Wright, VP Americas of Bi-silque, thinks along similar lines. “The growth of open plan buildings and more space for collaborative work is fuelling expansion into products such as interactive whiteboards, tables and LCDs.” But she also sees the shift in workforce demographics towards the younger generation as a key factor, citing the rise of the millennials entering the job market as a powerful market driver.

VOW’s Dawes is in complete agreement. “The rise in the number of young office workers raised entirely in the digital age is significant,” he remarks. “The under-35 age group behaves very differently and is more likely to work on-screen only, rarely printing out documents and taking meeting notes on a tablet or smartphone.”

Personal taste

He adds that the increase of home office workers means style, colour and finish are becoming more important as products are designed to fit with home décor trends. Additionally, he cites environmental concerns as a key trend, reporting that “40% of our customers always specify they want green products, as long as the quality and price are also competitive”.

Greenberg also sees the trend for workers bringing in their own tablet or portable device from home as key. “Knowledge workers in the US often operate remotely, using their own technology and expect it to link seamlessly with interactive products when they come into the office. Companies are beginning to invest to ensure that this happens.”

Away from the office, the market for equipping schools and other educational establishments is equally important.

Greenberg estimates that the potential market here is huge, with around 11.5 million higher education classrooms and faculty offices worldwide. 1.6 million of these are in the US, with a further 3.8 million in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. That’s a lot of potential whiteboard sales without even factoring in primary and secondary schools.

Despite the high level of penetration that interactive whiteboards have made within schools in some regions, notably the US and UK, other countries still represent fantastic sales opportunities. “In some European countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the percentage of schools equipped with digital solutions is surprisingly low,” remarks Arno Alberty, Managing Director of Medium in Germany (part of European distribution group ALSO). “However, this is finally starting to change and we can expect excellent growth opportunities in this area.”

Kaut-Bullinger’s Adamek is less confident about the German education market. “We haven’t noticed a significant change in this area yet. Lack of government funding remains a problem. And even within those schools that have adopted new technologies, we often find that interactive whiteboards are used solely as projection systems and not in a truly interactive fashion. Teachers are still very reluctant to use the solutions available.

“The only way to break those traditional cycles is through a full support service, from initial consultancy through product purchase and implementation within schools to staff training on how to use the equipment. That’s the proposition we go in with.” However, she adds that lack of funds and fear of classroom vandalism are hindering sales.

But even the more mature education markets, in viscom terms, continue to present growth opportunities as products are replaced. Bi-silque’s Wright says: “Display products that allow interactivity with a student’s own digital device brought in from home represent new areas of growth for us in the US.”

Low-tech options

But it’s not all about high-tech electronic solutions. Manufacturers of other products also feel they have a part to play in the viscom future.

Naoimi Young, from the PR department at Smart Wall Paint, is convinced that its whiteboard paint complements the technology trends of the day, and sees it increasingly in use alongside resources like interactive projectors in schools, hotels and multinational companies. “The education sector finds our product to be very effective yet low-tech, so take-up rates by both teachers and students are high,” she says.

 “One school has introduced a dedicated multimedia room for students. It’s equipped with iPads and projectors, but is entirely coated in Smart Wall Paint to act as both a whiteboard and a projector surface. Imagine a whole room as a whiteboard.”

The future for the viscom sector looks bright indeed. Provided manufacturers can keep their fingers on the pulse of change and remain nimble enough to react accordingly, then the rewards are there for the taking.

Ready to skyrocket

OPI talks to Janet Collins, President of Ghent Visual Communication Products, about changes in the way we work and how this is affecting the latest trends in visual communications products.

OPI: The office environment is undergoing huge technology changes. How do you see this affecting the type of products that companies are demanding?

Janet Collins: Despite the complexity and pace of technological change in the office environment, there’s also a demand for simplicity – simple tools that don’t have an instruction manual or need IT resources to get them to work. As others in our category are zigging towards technology, we are zagging towards simplicity and design.

We are responding with tools that make it easy to think and work together in a very flexible way. Our Nexus product, for example, combines a mobile easel with a personal tablet, giving users the flexibility to use a personal tablet whiteboard in a small group, private office or outside the traditional meeting space. Then, just hook the tablets onto walls, easels or panel systems wherever the conversation is happening. It’s a simple solution, and this type of flexibility matches the new way of working.

OPI: With the continual shift towards more mobile working, how do you see this affecting the use of viscom products?

JC: With the acceptance of Go-to-Meeting and other such virtual meeting tools, the use of whiteboards gets a little tricky, although they can still play a role.

For example, at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA has figured out how to use a Nexus mobile whiteboard with a webcam pointed at it and another webcam pointed at the meeting or presenter. This enables them to collaborate and share ideas on a whiteboard in virtual meetings across the world. It’s a low-tech/high-tech solution.

OPI: What other trends have you noticed?

JC: One trend we are seeing is the use of non-traditional dry-erase solutions. It used to be that a whiteboard was a framed rectangle made of porcelain or melamine. Now you are seeing more glass than ever used as a dry-erase surface, as well as other products such as dry-erase paint or even powder-coated metal. These dry-erase surfaces are also becoming design statements – an opportunity to express personal taste with unique frames, colours and graphics.

Customisation and creating personal tools for individuals is also growing in importance. Our custom whiteboard business, VividBoard, is increasing dramatically in healthcare, higher education and business settings where custom content and graphics are appreciated.

OPI: Are there any downward trends in the category?

JC: The one area within visual communications where we do see a continual decline is in tackboards and enclosed message centres. The whiteboard can inspire creativity, but tackboard tools are a one-way method of communication and can easily be replaced with technology solutions. Furthermore, the demand for a multifunction solution will increase the need for magnetic whiteboards, further reducing demand for the tack-only surface.