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Azione’s Spring Meeting: A Striking Sense of Camaraderie

When he launched Azione Unlimited (AU) in 2012, one of Richard Glikes’ primary goals was to create a cohesive national network of integrators and manufacturer partners. Five years later, the buying group might be the best example of a tight-knit group of likeminded colleagues that this industry has to offer.

When he launched Azione Unlimited (AU) in 2012, one of Richard Glikes’ primary goals was to create a cohesive national network of integrators and manufacturer partners. Five years later, the buying group might be the best example of a tight-knit group of likeminded colleagues that this industry has to offer.

Richard Glikes addresses Azione members, who were assigned seats at different tables in each session to facilitate new connections.
Marking this anniversary, AU held its spring conference in San Antonio, TX, March 13-15. As a first-time attendee of an AU event, the sense of camaraderie was striking; it felt much like everyone was on the same team, and interactions that defied expectations, such as two integrators who serve the same market in Georgia sharing in jovial conversation, began to seem ordinary.

But why were all these individuals with competing interests so invested in solidarity? After all, the primary impetus to joining a buying group is inherently self-serving: to ensure one’s company gets the best deal possible. For one, Glikes founded the group with a different focus than those he’d been involved with in the past. “There was a vacuum: nobody was addressing integrators,” he said. “And every buying group basically sets up a stress or a conflict between dealers and vendors, and it shouldn’t be like that.” Of the organization’s current roster of 176 dealer members, 93 percent are integrators, and 83 percent have never been part of a buying group before, according to the Glikes.

Another reason is the group’s focus on services for the benefit of members. Launched on March 1 and demonstrated at the conference, AU has created a virtual reality showroom that dealer members can use to give clients a glimpse of the way technology will look and feel in their home. Built using the same graphics engine employed by top video game studios, it features a 6,000-square-foot home that can be navigated using an Xbox controller, and viewed either as a group on a large flat panel display, or individually with an Oculus headset. Inside, users can customize products and their placement, to see, for example, how a different TV will look above their mantel, different projector and seating options for a home theater, and the look of different automated shades. And each dealer can customize the platform so that only the product lines they sell are available, and even set it so the TVs or projectors in the virtual home play a video about their company.

Glikes sees this as much more than a novelty. “People who we do business with don’t want to go to stores, they don’t want to go to offices; they want you to bring it to them,” he said. “So that’s really what we’re doing: we’re bringing the showroom to the client. Then we don’t have to worry about displaying $50,000 projectors, because they buy the concept.

More importantly, Glikes feels that it can dramatically elevate the public’s view of AU members as technology experts. “If you’re the first guy to put a set of goggles on them, or show them virtual reality, they think you’re ahead,” he said. “They think you’re a leader, that you’re technologically advanced. And so they say ‘You’re my guy.’ Because most of the selling is not product any more; it’s like ‘I trust you; you’re my guy.’ And I think this is one leg up on ‘You’re my guy.’”

Members were able to try out the organization’s new virtual reality showroom, which gives members a cutting-edge method of selling to prospective clients.
The list of services for members goes on. AU recently launched an exclusive Slack community, with channels for each vendor, which members can use as a forum for sharing advice and helping one another with technical issues. The organization is also holding a vacation contest that ends May 31 to encourage increased sales and partnerships, in which five dealer couples and three vendor couples will win a five-day vacation to a tropical destination, with the group leaning toward St. Maarten.

Another recently spearheaded exclusive is customizable videos for dealers to display on their websites, furnished by Sony, LG, and Samsung, that utilize the successful model of video storytelling to educate potential clients on the features of new video technologies.

Finally, a major tenet of Azione’s constitution is training and education, which was on display at the conference. Beginning with constructive advice gleaned from the opening keynote by Tim Costello, CEO of Builder Exchange, whose address inspired dealers to look at their businesses afresh, the schedule in San Antonio was packed with learning opportunities. For example, in a small-group lesson on “How to Sell Performance,” Ron Lennox of Definitive Electronics in Jupiter, FL, shared a sales technique his company uses to sell high-end two-channel systems: they simply leave a system of Meridian DSP8000 speakers in a prospective client’s home for them to experience for a few days. According to Lennox, this has resulted in a Meridian sale every time.

Other courses included lessons on growing a business sustainably, presented by Brad Whitehead of Vx Strategy, and a look into the future of video technology by CEDIA’s Dave Pedigo, who exhorted integrators to install fiber infrastructure in every project.

The conference also featured panel discussions that served as a forum for attendees to share concerns with executives of big players in the industry. On Tuesday, a panel featuring Dan Quigley, principal technical product manager of Alexa Whole Home at Amazon, explored the inevitable “trough of disillusionment” that voice user interfaces are bound to experience, as well as hinting at the next big thing in the pipeline: Quigley said that his Alexa software, which is running a beta version not yet publicly available, recently responded to a command with “Ok, Dan.” (In other words, speaker identification technology is on the way.)

On Wednesday, a panel featuring Frank Sterns, VP of AV specialty/custom integration at Sony, spurred on a spirited discussion of the responsibility of manufacturers to support integrators with technical support when product issues arise, and the difficulty on the vendor side of doing so (in large part to the multitude of variables owing to tolerances).

By the second night’s cocktail reception and dinner, held at the upscale Biga on the Banks restaurant overlooking the lovely San Antonio river walk, every single member with whom I spoke had acquired an idea, insight, or approach to improve the way his company did business. Spirits were high, partnerships were stronger, and inspiration permeated every interaction I witnessed.

At five years in, it’s plain to see that Glikes has found a winning formula with Azione Unlimited. Not only are relationships clicking, but members’ businesses are growing steadily, as well. However, the according to the theme of the conference—emphasized in the axiom of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “change is the only constant”—none of this success really matters; it’s all about what’s next. So how will Azione Unlimited look five years in the future?

“I think the business won’t look anything like it looks today,” Glikes said. “I think we’ll transition into service—we’re products and services, and I think we’re going to transition into service and products. I think that the one-percenters still don’t want to touch stuff—and thank God for them—so we’ll still be alive and well, but the model’s going to change dramatically. Everything will be faster and quicker, and we’ll have to be faster and quicker, too.”