Coping with Change


San Diego-based Meeting Services, Inc. (MSI) has been a major player on the Southern California production scene for more than five decades now, growing from a company that primarily supplied audio and electronic equipment to local industries, to a multi-faceted, internationally known corporation involved in every level of event production imaginable, from small meetings to the glitziest mega-shows. Along the way, it's provided sound systems for every president since Harry Truman, worked with scores of major concert attractions, and developed close ties with both civic powers and corporate giants.

MSI’s Ken Freeman, shown here on the job, got his start in production in the mid-’80s at San Diego State, where he was a chemistry major who fell into the technical end of putting on concerts at Montezuma Hall and other campus facilities.

It's a credit to the company's stability and solid track record that they have long-standing contracts with the major San Diego sports franchises, a number of top local hotels and — biggest of all — the San Diego Convention Center. But MSI has also moved well beyond its home market, establishing production partnerships with the likes of Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League Player's Association, and the X Games.

Recently we had the opportunity to speak with MSI's technical director, Ken Freeman, about the day-to-day challenges his company faces and about trends in the production industry at large.

SRO: Given the range of events your company works on, you must have to keep a tremendous amount of equipment handy at all times.

Freeman: That's true. We have everything from Anchor BAMs, which are little battery-powered speakers to drive someone's party out in the Embarcadero for four hours, right up through two huge arrays of [JBL] Vertecs. Everything from Mackie 1202s to [Yamaha] PM4000s; and now we're starting to look at 1Ds and other things. On the lighting side, it's everything from clip lights up through the 2202s, which are the fairly new Vari-Lights, which are the first 700-watt moving head fixture. Just a tremendous amount of everything you can think of — processors, amplifiers, video equipment, microphones and as you said, we do a broad range of events, big and small.

SRO: Is the technological ante always being raised at the corporate level, with everyone striving to have bigger, cooler shows?

Freeman: I would agree with that up until about oh, maybe nine-and-a-half months ago.

SRO: September 11?

Freeman: Exactly. Now it's about value above all else, and I see it as kind of a return to the '95-'96 era when everyone was saying, “I need good value. I'll pay good money for a good product.” But I better be able to produce what I say it will. There are a lot of people now saying, “You know what — we don't need three rows of delay screens. I'm going to do one row of delay screens. But, knowing that, let's make sure the P.A. doesn't suck.” So they're trying to make sure they spend their dollars more wisely. At least our clients are.

A lot of the stuff we do here in San Diego — as a destination city — is travel-related. People coming in on airplanes fill up ballrooms for a great deal of the corporate environments that we're working in. And all of that was affected of course; it's been affected everywhere. But I don't think it's been quite as bad here as it has been in some other places. Plus, we're a pretty diversified company, so we're not completely dependent on any one market. I didn't have to lay anybody off. In fact, we actually hired some additional intellectual talent as other companies were letting people go or asking them to take reduced pay. We took on some department managers in lighting and the support staff in the shop.

SRO: How would you say the business has changed in the past few years?

Freeman: Well, it breaks down into segments. On the audio end, I look at the significant milestones where the technology has really had an effect — you start talking about line arrays becoming the norm as the big P.A. element the last couple of years. Then you might go back about five or six years when Sennheiser came out with the ME104 — finally a cardiod lav element that's really good. Then I go back ten years before that to corporate America discovering consoles with VCAs. Those are three little milestones. On the video side of it, it seems like it's twice the output for half the price every six months!

SRO: That's a good thing, isn't it?

Freeman: It is, but it makes it very, very difficult to go ahead and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in projection devices that you know are going to be doorstops in anywhere from 18 to 36 months. So we look to do rentals. I go to the companies and say, “Look, I'm going to rent $250,000 dollars a year in 3000-lumen LCD projectors. I need you to cut me a price point, basically, that makes it worth it for me not to buy them.” Those things cut their price in half every, what, eight or nine months? You can get a 3000-lumen projector with a decent piece of lensing on it for about $8,000. It's a tough game. A lot of our investment now is going toward switching hardware and that kind of equipment because we think it's going to have more lifetime.

SRO: Do clients sometimes have ideas or expectations that are technically unfeasible?

Freeman: Occasionally. I often have to do things that are technically incorrect in order to actually meet the client's needs. You give them the option to do it correctly, and you lay it out for them, but they still might come in and say, “We're going to do screens and they're going to go from right to the edge of the stage to 60 feet off of that wall, and you've got 9 feet from the ceiling to the top of the screen to hang the P.A. — work it out.” All right. At least you told me in advance! [Laughs]

SRO: You're a servant with many masters.

Freeman: You do what you have to do. You have to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you and create a solution. You want to build those relationships because that's what's going to keep your company healthy and that's what's going to keep clients coming back year after year. You want to keep a fresh approach and be one of the team and add enough to the event from either an artistic or technical aspect to make it successful. You have a great deal of control over your own fate, depending on how good a job you do.

SRO: Are the newer facilities being built for conventions and corporate shows better suited for the equipment needs than they used to be?

Freeman: Not really, no. [Laughs] You walk into the L.A. Convention Center right now and there's a grid of 10-foot-by-12-foot where you can't hang more than 400 pounds per point — but at least they've installed the point in the roof. They put an I-bolt in there and everything, so that's good. But I said, “How did you guys pick 400 pounds?” Because that's not close to what I need for a lot of the stuff I'm doing, so we end up building these crazy Xs out of 12-inch utility truss to get 1,000-pound points.

SRO: What does the Vertec system weigh?

Freeman: The four enclosures plus the motor comes to about 700 pounds; that's about the minimum you can put that together for and have it work in that environment.

SRO: Do you also use the Vertec in a lot in non-music environments?

Freeman: All the time. It's all about getting really top-notch intelligibility on the voice side of things. They're the cat's meow.

SRO: What is the percentage of corporate work to other work you do?

Freeman: I'd say we're about 35 percent corporate, maybe 35 percent special event and 30 percent A/V — A/V being pickup and drop off and break-out rooms with slide projectors and screens and that kind of technology. Obviously, there's always a lot of crossover, and you could probably requalify it up or down 10 or 15 percent in any category. I do about 35 percent in general sessions for 800 to 15,000 people, let's say, versus things like the X Games or what we do for baseball or for the National Hockey League.

SRO: What do you do for baseball?

Freeman: We do a show for them called Fan Fest, which is in Milwaukee this year. It travels along with the All-Star Game.

SRO: What does an event like that involve?

Freeman: Gosh, it's about six trucks of stuff. It usually uses 650,000 or 700,000 square feet. We build a baseball diamond in the venue. There's a whole lot of scenery and decoration that goes into that show which comes from an organization called Bronskill out of Toronto. They'll construct a lot of scenery and lay out the floor plan in terms of crowd control and flow with us, as well as make some value judgments on what's important to highlight and what's not. So they cross over between the aesthetics and the producers — what's appropriate for this market.

One recent project called for MSI to stage an event at the Hoover Dam.

We do a lot of the power distribution for them. We do almost all the heavy rigging. We will handle all the video switching. We'll do 95 or a hundred different TVs and VCRs playing tapes. We do all the soundscaping for venue. We will theatrically light the entire venue with probably 1,200 or 1,300 fixtures and then maybe another 30 or 40 moving ones where we need to create some special emphasis. It's gotten enough attention now that MTV is actually producing TRL out of there on Monday [July 8].

SRO: What's another recent show that was particularly challenging?

Freeman: We did a really cool one on the Hoover Dam, actually in the base of the Hoover Dam down near the power houses. It was for the Bureau of Reclamation, for their 100th anniversary. What we did is we put up a stage there on the face of their power house, did a tomcat roof, and above that I hung maybe an 85-by-45-foot American flag. The dam is above all this; it's a very dramatic setting. Then there are these runways that are along the canyon walls where the giant turbines are and they're about 16 or 18 feet wide; they're designed to roll railroad cars up and down to move the transformer and the heavy equipment back and forth. And what we did was make 8-wide seating [along the runways] from one end of it to another; it was about a 600-foot run. We had a fireworks show and lasers that everyone could see on the dam. It was pretty spectacular.

SRO: It seems like a different technological world than what you came into.

Freeman: Well, not fundamentally. There are more computers, sure, but you still have to get the truss out of the truck and roll it onto an arena floor and you still have to put nuts and bolts in them. And there are still pieces of cable to plug in the lights to make that stuff happen. So a lot of the fundamentals are the same. The tool set of a crescent wrench and a pair of gloves has not shifted. You can still walk into the vast majority of those environments that I walked into 15 years ago and be expected to put in a good day's work and get paid for it.

The first lighting console I got to use was an [ETC] Expression, which is a pretty advanced piece of equipment. Whereas the generation before me was sliding 60 faders back and forth to try to make their show go.

SRO: Is there anything on the horizon technologically that excites you?

Freeman: I lay in wait for the next projection revolution. I spend a lot of time on Texas Instruments' website and I actually bought stock in the company so I'd have access to their R&D to see where their next generation of equipment is going to be. [Laughs]

I actively watch the guys like IMAX, who owned Digital Projection for a long time, to see where they're going to put their R&D dollars for the next generation for that kind of technology. It wasn't until those guys settled into a groove and said, “We're going to build movie projectors,” that I went out and bought 15 SX projectors 20 months ago. It's still a leading-edge piece of gear I can rent for a reasonable amount of money. But the biggest problem I have right now is that the technology turns over at such an incredible rate, why buy it? You have to keep up with what's happening and you have to keep an eye on what's coming down the road. But then in this business that's always been true. That's part of what makes it challenging, and also part of what makes it fun.

Blair Jackson is senior editor of Mix magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].