Stage fright

5 August 2010


Entertainment lifting and rigging suppliers are battling recession, whilst trying to meet the ever increasing demands of their customers. Ruth Ling reports

Members of recent Boyzone and X Factor touring shows were ‘flown’ above the stage, for example. The custom flying winches used in both extravaganzas were produced by Hoist UK, based on its popular range of electrical pile-wind winches. The company also supplied a custom winch and control system to open and close the video wall for the performers’ entrance and exit on the X Factor tour.

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Of course, you might expect fancy hydraulics from such popular and high income-generating spectaculars. But entertainment industries can be early casualties in a recession. Where does that leave the companies in the lifting industry that specialise in the entertainment and sports events sector?

French firm Verlinde, which was established in 1858 and was acquired by Konecranes in 1993, has worked in the entertainment sector since 1975, when it introduced the first reverse hoists to the events industry and patented the Litachain L104. This was designed specifically to meet the requirements of concert touring and theatres, allowing installers and designers to be far more creative with their lighting movement solutions.

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Stagemaker is a division of Verlinde dedicated to lifting equipment and solutions for the entertainment sector. Its recent projects include lifting two huge Sony video walls in Amsterdam’s Arena Stadium, providing hoists for a MILOS M950 trussing system in the newly revamped FuturShow Station venue near Bologna, Italy, and installing hoists and a controller to elevate the giant media cube inside the Arena sports hall in Zagreb, Croatia.

Despite such high-profile commissions, Verlinde has not been immune to the effects of the recession, says marketing manager Jean-Yves Beaussart. “The entertainment sector has suffered as much as industry has,” he says. “Some events have been cancelled, long-standing theatre projects have been revised, reduced or ended, and a number of entertainment trade fairs have been cancelled this year (for example, Siel in Paris and Show-way and SIB in Italy).

“Prices remain stable; for example, Stagemaker products have been kept at the same level since 2008. Competitors in the USA, however, now have the advantage of the dollar rate against the Euro. And, as in the USA, we are beginning to sense some recovery now.”

Stagemaker hoists were used on recent projects such as the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, the Alamo Dome, the Banff Centre in Toronto and the Haze nightclub at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. Rick Montgomery, business development manager for Stagemaker concert hoists in the US, reports that his company is still seeing significant growth.

“The third and fourth quarters of 2009 were slow but we recovered well in the first and second quarters of 2010,” he says. “There are currently no signs of slowing down in the third and fourth quarters of 2010. Competition within the product line remains the same and we’ve had no price changes in 2010. Distributors and integrators of our products are operating on lower margins, however, due to increased competition on projects on which they’re competing.”

Lift Turn Move (LTM), based in Birkenhead on the Wirral, supplies lifting and handling equipment to the leisure, entertainment and theatrical sectors. Working with creative aluminium specialist Litestructures, LTM recently supplied a staging, rigging and lifting/control package to the Manchester Central convention complex as part of the venue’s £20m redevelopment.

The computerised hoisting system is designed to minimise working at height within the Grade II listed Central Hall, utilising 54 LTM LoadGuard 1,000kg chain hoists to the British Entertainment Hoisting Standard BS7906: Part 1, Category A. The hoists allow the aluminium rigging grid to move to a number of positions within the hall without the need for secondary restraint when rigged.

“The entertainment lifting sector is made up of many niches, and we see this market having the same difficulties as any other,” says David King, operations director, LTM. “After initially showing some resilience, it has followed every other market in the world. There are fewer projects around and clients are making do with equipment they already have. That said, in my opinion many clients (entertainment sector rental companies) were probably over-stocked anyway.

“More suppliers are chasing fewer projects, so the result is a pressure on prices that have inevitably dropped,” he adds. “The value-added services we offer give us some protection against lowering margins but, even so, we’ve had to spend more time focusing on driving down our cost base to reflect the size of the current market, whilst still maintaining the service level demanded.”

Hoist UK manufactures and supplies lifting and handling equipment to both the industrial and entertainment markets. Director Paul Jordan says: “In the entertainment marketplace the work is project-based and installations are normally discussed in the long-term, so the recession has more of a time lag than the standard industrial supply projects.

“In the actual year of the recession, whilst the industrial side of our business suffered a significant reduction in sales, the entertainment side remained at a consistent level. However, during the first part of this financial year, we noticed a reduction in entertainment business due to this time lag, with the industrial side on the upturn.”

Rigging Services specialises in the hire, sales and servicing of rigging equipment to film, TV, theatre and event production companies. Recent projects have included the G20 summit, Sports Personality of the Year (requiring more than 300 electric chain hoists) and the Madonna world tour.

“Occasionally, one of our clients will require more than a basic ‘dry hire’ option and we’ll assist with design and technical issues to turn the creative director’s vision into reality,” says Rigging Services’ director, Paul Fulcher. “A good example of this is the design and rent solution we provided for two clients for a month-long promotion in the main atrium of Les Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

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“In our experience the part of our industry most affected by the recession was the corporate sector, in particular the large blue-chip companies and banks that would normally have quite lavish and expensive AGMs,” he adds. “These have all but dried up. The AGM will obviously continue as an event but on a much smaller scale and the requirement for rigging will be greatly reduced in line with the lack of demand for lighting, sound, etc.

“As we progress through 2010, it’s clear that some of the companies that have supplied the corporate sector in the past are now finding things tough. They’re fighting for a reduced market and for clients with smaller budgets. The events sector is far from immune from the recession although some of it is more robust than others. Because of the spread of industries that we supply—for example, TV, film, concerts, exhibitions, sport and corporate—we have seen a diluted effect.”

Fulcher continues: “Competition within the events market most often comes from companies that don’t have rigging equipment as their core product. Rigging Services is unique in that our focus is on the ‘dry hire’ and sales of equipment, plus ancillary services such as LOLER inspections. Most other companies own rigging equipment as a means to an end, for example, a lighting company with its own rigging equipment to rig lights from.”

“Over the last two years, we have seen a decline in sales in the entertainment industry similar to that in the other hoist-using industries,” says Matthias Hühn, general manager of Hoffman Fördertechnik GmbH in Wurzen, Germany. “As for competitiveness, we’re seeing many more Asian hoist manufacturers trying to enter the entertainment trade in a way that could influence safety standards, prices and competition.”

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Given this increased competition, is the entertainment sector increasingly demanding in what it wants done, and when? And are there any creative demands that the lifting industry can’t meet?

“The entertainment business as a whole operates on an extremely rapid timeline,” says Montgomery. “Companies are reluctant to release money any sooner than they have to. As a manufacturer, we have to realise this and come up with ways to decrease our lead-time to meet increasingly shorter deadlines. There’s a good balance to meet most demands between electric chain hoists and wire rope winches within the industry.”

King agrees: “This industry has always been demanding and the pace never stops. It would be fair to say the demands are increasing. Budget limits probably restrict creative demands more than the equipment itself. There are some very clever and innovative companies and individuals within the market that never stop raising the bar.

“An example of our innovation at LTM is our move into higher specification hoists and control systems in jobs like the moving grids at Manchester Central.”

“In terms of creativity, we can provide technical solutions for most requests we get from an artistic director,” says Beaussart. “Only two considerations might restrict a project: if the client’s budget is unrealistic for what they want, and if the solution they want doesn’t meet regulations or comply with safety standards.”

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“The entertainments industry increases its demands only to keep pace with the innovations of its creative designers and producers,” says Fulcher. “The rigging supply chain has to respond to this change. I would say there are no demands from the creative side that lifting equipment can’t meet; we keep coming up with innovative solutions to meet the creative demands.”

Jordan says: “The general trend is for high quality, silent, invisible, safe, low-cost and instantly available products that meet the customer’s exact requirements. Timescales are always a potential issue in that projects must be completed on time as it’s very expensive to cancel a show and tickets are often sold months and years in advance.”

He says there are no demands for mechanical handling or stage effects the creative teams can come up with that lifting equipment can’t meet. “But what we hit regularly is that their budgets often mean concessions need to be made, and the one thing we won’t compromise on is the safety of the equipment. We would rather walk away from a project than compromise the safety side to meet a financial constraint.”

Hühn is more circumspect, saying that “the entertainment industry usually asks for the impossible, far from what the standard production of hoists can do, and requiring a big R&D effort, which does not always lead to success. We would be glad to see stronger requirements for training and certification for riggers and engineers who use this equipment. The bigger players in the market have gained much more experience but there are many smaller companies and even freelancers working in this sector who lack knowledge.”

That view begs the question of whether set designers and production teams really understand hoists. “For a long time, a hoist was actually known as a ‘motor’, so it was thought of just as a simple lifting unit to move up a truss,” explains Beaussart.

“Today, users are more familiar with what they can do with a hoist in terms of creativity, so that means not only lifting but also, for example, playing with variable speeds to create complementary stage effects during a show, in addition to lighting and audio. There’s now also a global understanding of what cannot be done with a hoist, regarding technical details and different countries’ regulations.”

“Most companies we work with understand the basic chain hoists very well,” thinks Montgomery. “Larger production companies also tend to understand the capabilities of our more technical offerings, but we’re also finding more small venues such as nightclubs and churches that are seeing the benefit of having our more technical products. We spend a lot of time educating them all as to what’s actually available and how they can make the best use of our technical products.”

King’s experience is the same. “I would say that, in 99% of cases, people who use the equipment understand hoists better than they are sometimes given credit for,” he says.

“The market is very knowledgeable about hoists—in fact, it has developed electric hoists considerably for its own requirements, such as intelligent hoists that can be controlled in multiple quantities, at variable speeds and with increased safety factors,” adds Fulcher.

“Generally our customers have a good understanding of what is involved, but tend to spend more time on the actual look and feel of the show and effects than the mechanics of how it works, which is where we come in anyway,” says Jordan.

LTM finds it is increasingly being used to provide solutions to reduce working at height, while Beaussart says that, along with an increased demand for automation, Verlinde Stagemaker is receiving more requests for variable speed and fully computerised systems with automation from a single (lifting) hoist to a group of 512 lifting and travelling units.

Montgomery reports greater demand in the USA, too, for more high-tech products such as Stagemaker’s variable speed and programmable hoists. “Shows are becoming more technical and designers want to move more objects together, more often during a performance and at higher speeds,” he says.

Jordan also sees the use of automation in both large and small shows on the increase. “As shows become more of an experience, we need to be able to produce effects that are precise, safe and repeatable. The automation systems we supply are state-of-the-art and can be used to control all the stage machinery in a show from one central point with a single operator. The operator programmes all the motion prior to the show and plays back these movements on cue.”

The next step for automation systems, adds Jordan, is the full integration of other systems used in a show environment, for example, sound, lighting, RF tracking and projection.


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