Mainstreaming AV

If Walt Disney had been as adroit with a soldering iron as he was with a sketch pen, he might have come up with what could become the Disney World of AV systems and home automation.
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Texas ‘Theme Park’ Will Bring Residential AV Systems to a Huge New Market

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MainStreet America might be a new milestone in the often-daunting process of educating consumers about home automation, whole-house audio, interactive security controls, and home theaters that don’t come in a box.If Walt Disney had been as adroit with a soldering iron as he was with a sketch pen, he might have come up with what could become the Disney World of AV systems and home automation.

MainStreet America, the forthcoming 14-acre emporium in Houston that custom homebuilder Mike Feigin intends to cobble into a full-scale insitu demonstration wonderland for residential AV and automation systems, even has the same kind of homely moniker that would have appealed to Disney’s middle-America sensibilities–ones that were equally adept at selling as they were at charming those who encountered them.

MainStreet America might be a new milestone in the often-daunting process of educating consumers about home automation, whole-house audio, interactive security controls, and home theaters that don’t come in a box, and getting them comfortable with taking home concepts that they take for granted in their offices and conference rooms, yet avoiding the big-box retail effect in which everything you’ll ever need comes in a blister pack that’s harder to open than the product is to install. Most upscale home systems are sold from integrator/dealer showrooms, which aren’t generally in the mall near Home Depot and Best Buy. Creating a comfortable nexus between them and consumers has proved difficult to establish and sustain–the occasional pop-up emporium run by a manufacturer or demo homes built in trade-show parking lots are catchy but ultimately more ephemeral than effective. And their singular whiz-bang ambience often reinforces a notion that their wares are, like the good china, too special for everyday use.

A Singular Business Model

Feigin has invested a self-reported $20 million into MainStreet America, where he is in the process of building a dozen houses that cover the range of his company’s offerings, which will be ready when MainStreet America is scheduled to open formally later this fall. Control4, Crestron, and Legrand are equipping several houses each with their home control systems and products. Three houses will have an array of mainly local anchor technology providers, such as Houston-based IES Residential, an electrical contractor that specializes in solar and smart-meter technology. But all of the houses will be brimming with a wide range of products and systems from MainStreet America’s partner list, which has quickly become a who’s who of residential technology companies, including GE and Bosch, seemingly overwhelmed by residential outfitters like Kohler, Moen, Schlage, Kwikset, Carrier, and Stanley offering everything from kitchen countertops to fireplaces.

But the AV and control technology occupy an outsized sense of scale at MainStreet America. The company’s spokesman, James Babineaux, said automation is at the core of all 12 showcase homes and is central to their experience there. As visitors enter MainStreet America, they will have their drivers licenses optically scanned, creating an account. They are then issued a custom “Technology Education Device,” or TED (not to be confused with the tech conference of the same name), an RFIDenabled tablet on which they can pull down info on any product in any location on the property, logging their experience there in analytics data that manufacturers can retrieve. (Babineaux emphasized that consumers can opt-out of marketing at the beginning; their personal information will be deleted and only their experience and generic data will be available for analysis.)

But while MainStreet America’s creator is a homebuilder, he appears to believe that the systems will become key sales elements going forward. Babineaux stresses that none of the 12 houses are intended for sale to buyers; rather, they are a permanent part of the sales infrastructure of MainStreet America. “They comprise what we call the experience of MainStreet America,” he said. “They’re intended to let consumers interact with these systems and products as they would in their own homes.”

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All 12 show homes will be brimming with a wide range of products and systems from MainStreet America’s partner list, which has quickly become a who’s who of residential technology companies.And the business model of MainStreet America underscores that. According to Babineaux, in addition to a $10 admission fee that visitors pay, which he said ensures qualified potential buyers, partner companies pay a small fee for each inquiry “hit” on their products or services through the TED tablets, not unlike a basic internet advertising model of payments per thousand views. Incidentally, these charges are a one-time fee for each product type or category; Babineaux said that clicking on, for instance, the same Kohler faucet or Crestron touchpanel in different houses won’t create additional charges for the manufacturers.

MainStreet America is projecting 300,000 paid visitors in its first year. It will also derive income from advertising locations within the park and from what Babineaux asserted is the largest digital billboard on Houston, a double-sided Daktronics display with dense 20-mm LED spacing along I-45 that he said garners 340,000 pairs of eyeballs a day. In addition, MainStreet America will maintain a digital online magazine at its website and sell sponsorships there. Finally, Feigen will have the opportunity to extol the virtues of home automation from his local Saturday “The Better Home Show” morning radio show.

Integrators And Manufacturers Approve

With regular product demonstrations scheduled, seminars on topics ranging from home automation to cooking, and general-purpose Texas-style events like fireworks displays, football block parties, and barbecues, MainStreet America is designed to appeal mainly to customers of the products and systems it hosts, but homebuilders, interior designers, and even AV systems integrators are expected to find it useful.

Randall Duncan is a managing partner at DataSmart, the Houston-based AV systems integrator contracted to install the AV and security systems for the two houses branded by Control4. He’s one of several integrators working on the park, alongside what Babineaux said are about 50 employees readying the facility for it’s opening, when another 30 workers are expected to come onboard. Duncan said MainStreet America’s projections are that as much as 95 percent of visitors will be interested mainly in remodeling, and he said that could be very good for his business, which he hopes will get a boost as the sole integrator referred by Control4 within a limited radius and within certain zip codes around the park site, the major quid pro quo for DataSmart’s contribution of installation services for Control4’s equipment and products.

“It’s a lot of work but look at the list of partners,” he said referring to the companies that have signed on to participate. “It’s potentially a game changer. This is the first place where customers can come in and interact with all of these different systems on a one-to-one basis, in a real-world environment. Plus there’s the educational aspect–visitors will be able to learn about these systems and that’s an inducement to buy them.”

Duncan said the exact terms of the relationship are still being worked out, vis-à-vis how much benefit his company can expect as the pool of visitors widens around Houston, if MainStreet America becomes the destination that its backers hope for. But he’s not overly concerned about it. “This is a new way of doing things, and I think it’s going to be a very good one,” he said.

Paul Williams, vice president of operations at Control4, agreed. “This is going to draw a huge cross-section of population, and it might be the first time that many of them have ever been exposed to the entire experience of home systems,” he observed. Williams is particularly interested in seeing the analytics of those visitors, which he expects to range from AV systems newbies that might be drawn in by more quotidian products like HVAC and power strips to “people who can buy that house, for cash, right then and there,” he said. “The ability to track such a wide demographic is a huge attraction for us.”

Jerrie Anderson, director for Crestron’s southwest region, said he was initially skeptical when the idea was presented to him as “an amusement park for homes.” But the access to market data won him over. “It really began to take shape as a unique market development opportunity,” he acknowledges. Now, Crestron is making its participation in three homes at MainStreet America, all integrated by Refined Systems of Houston, part of a larger new outreach to homeowners, builders, and other components of the residential market. “We want to set up channels for residential as we have for commercial markets. This is new kind of opportunity and we’re very optimistic.”

The destination strategy that MainStreet America is pursuing is rooted in a consumer retail culture; Babineaux said MainStreet America is in preliminary talks with HGTV and Comcast about extending the brand to media. As the U.S. comes out of recession and the capital frees up for newhome construction and more home remodeling, MainStreet America could be well timed to put home automation on a front burner for consumers in a new and more accessible way.

Dan Daley is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.

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