Brandon Harp On Why Electrosonic Stays Focused On Immersive And Experiential Integration Work
March 8, 2023 by Dave Haynes
When I see an ambitious new visual display project lit up at a new or reno’d airport, office tower or attraction, I just about assume that if it’s in the US, the company that put it in is probably Electrosonic.
The company is, technically, an AV systems integrator, and there are lots of them out there, of all sizes. But where corporate meeting spaces, control rooms and reception areas are the day-to-day work for most of those companies, the bread and butter work for Electrosonic is in locations where experience is the primary consideration and mindset.
The company – which has offices in the US, Europe and Asia – has a ton of experience and expertise in delivering AV and IT jobs that involve more than getting infrastructure in place. They work a lot with creative design and technology shops who are fantastic at the big ideas and compelling visuals, but want and need to hand off the install to a seasoned team.
I had a great chat about Electrosonic with Brandon Harp, a senior business development manager working out of the company’s New York offices.
Brandon, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on Electrosonic and what it does that’s different from a lot of the AV integrators who are out there?
Brandon Harp: Sure. Thanks, David. I appreciate you having me on the podcast. I’ve been a longtime admirer of your content and so forth, so I’ve been following you for many years, so I really appreciate the opportunity.
So Electrosonic is a technology professional services firm. We design, build and support innovative technology solutions that create unforgettable experiences where people live, work, and play for many years. You probably know of us from the museum and the theme park world but we’ve expanded over the years and have really started to focus solely on immersive and experiential environments, and so for us, we’re a bit of a specialized firm. We do consider ourselves still a boutique-style AV systems integrator, but the kinds of projects that we work on are global level and span a multitude of different industries, including corporate and retail and attractions and a multitude of others.
You said you expanded into this from museums and those kinds of attractions. Was that a conscious decision or is that just where the business was going?
Brandon Harp: Right after Covid, we made a decision to go back to our roots, which were always these complex sort of custom environments that we had been working in for many years, which our clients best knew us for. We’ve done away with just the kind of typical hang-and-bang conference room projects. We still do a portion of those if there is an element to a more project that fits better into our scope. But we’ve really done a good job, I think, as a company of being able to identify where our strengths are and where we can really add value for our customers. And that is really in that experiential and immersive sort of environment working with video walls, various different interactives, projection mapping, and things of that nature.
Is it a situation where you don’t really want to do the meat, potatoes, boardroom, collaboration displays, all that sort of stuff because there’s no money in it or minimal money in it, or is it just not terribly interesting?
Brandon Harp: I think it’s a combination of all those things, Dave, I think with the standard corporate conference rooms, it’s really become a race to the bottom, and we just as a company have recognized where our strengths are on delivering these projects and really our delivery model best lends itself to more of these custom really high-end engineering projects where we need a certain level of technical ability that not all integrators have, and so those are the kinds of projects that we’re setting our sights on, and that’s the ones that we continue to get hired for because of our ability to not only project manage, but engineer and design.
Something you might not know about us is that we actually have a full design consulting firm within our larger company, and we look at things through, I would say, a much more creative lens. So it’s less about just engineering a system, and it’s more about looking at it through a creative lens and saying, all right, what’s the user experience? What is the story that you’re trying to tell? How does that all get fused with the architecture? And then really thinking about at the end of the day, what is the human connection and what are they gonna feel as the system gets implemented and they go on to use it.
Yeah, you’ve found this niche and pretty lucrative niche in that a lot of the AV/IT systems guys can be very good at the technical side of putting something in. But they’ve probably not spent a lot of time with video walls or projection mapping or inversive environments, and you just start talking about that and they’re looking at you like, could you say that again?
Brandon Harp: Yeah, absolutely. I think, again, it goes back to our roots, working on dark rides and so forth in theme parks. If you can imagine some of the complexities of being able to projection map in an environment like that, we’ve been able to essentially replicate that and bring that same methodology, that same sort of design consulting and engineering into corporate spaces, briefing centers, visitor centers, lobby attractions, things like that where you’ve got this sort of experiential element that we’re best known for, and then we help you think through it creatively and our creative technologists and knowledge experts can really help the clients think more about, okay, what is that user experience? What do you want them to feel? As opposed to just looking at boxes and squares on walls and trying to price technology.
So our approach has been a bit different, but it seems to be very effective with our clientele, and they like the fact that we’re not afraid to take the technology away from them in order to really think through that content experience, to think through what is it not only short term but also the longer term for their environment.
It’s interesting because so many places are now being defined as attractions. So 20 years ago, an attraction was a theme park or a museum but now, as you alluded, a corporate lobby is an attraction.
Brandon Harp: That’s right. We’ve seen a big uptick in that right around the time of Covid, so 2020 and onward. What we’re also seeing is that there are quite a few real estate developers now who are trying to take on these attractions. I think one that you’re probably familiar with, that everyone has either been to or is aware of now, is SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, where SL Green was the real estate developer behind an attraction like that, which is an observation deck that spans multiple floors and is multi-sensory.
So working with real estate developers like that who have a good understanding of real estate and square footage, how do we apply that to an attraction-based environment and help them be able to have the very best system to create that guest experience, and that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s why we’ve continued to get hired for these large scale projects that seem to have those sorts of elements.
For that one in New York, what was driving SL Green?
Brandon Harp: What was really driving SL Green was the vision that their CEO, Mark Holliday had to have this observation deck that sits high above the clouds in New York, and as part of a major building that went up just next door to Grand Central Station, which is One Vanderbilt and so 90 stories up in the air, you’ve got this multi-sensory experience where people can not only come and see and enjoy the views of New York but also be immersed in these various different rooms and environments that really lend itself to something for everyone.
You don’t necessarily have to be a tourist to enjoy it. You can also be a local or someone just passing through. But it really lends itself to something for everyone, and now we’re starting to see more and more of these major supertalls that are going up, that are changing the New York skyline, having an element of an immersive experience in it, whether it’s an observation deck or a lobby experience, an elevator experience, things of that nature.
And where did they see the money out of that? If it’s an observatory high up, I assume they’re charging for that.
Brandon Harp: They are. It’s a paid attraction. So that uptick in paid attractions inside of corporate, what were typically fully corporate buildings is now something that we’re seeing more and more of.
Yes, you may have, all the other floors in the building are corporate tenants, just like One Vanderbilt. But it also has this attraction there that spans four floors. So you’re starting to see this mix of not only corporate, but attraction-based entertainment, and think about it, in New York City, it’s not a theme park like a Disney World or a Universal, where you’ve got lots and lots of acres to play with. We’re talking about going vertically here for these attractions that go up in New York City. So we’re starting to see a real uptick in that and really being able to apply all of that methodology that we’ve developed over the years in how to deliver those projects successfully for the theme park business to these corporate institutions.
I’m assuming it’s a bit of a delicate dance for these property developers if they do that sort of thing because if you turn your building into a tourist attraction, you’re at the risk of a lot of crowds and people wandering around, and the regular tenants are fighting their way to get to the elevators and things.
Brandon Harp: Yeah, I think to combat that, what they’ve done is for example, One Vanderbilt, they have all the tenants have their own lobby, so they’re actually utilizing their own elevators and so forth. So their day is not interrupted at all by anything in terms of crowds or anyone trying to get into One Vanderbilt. For the observation deck in SUMMIT, it’s got its own separate entrance and it’s actually very well thought through. I think what impressed me most about SL Green was their ability to adapt to the ever-changing kind of design and environment, and they really did a good job of listening to all of the consultants that they brought in.
Again, they’re real estate developers, and so to take on a major attraction inside one of the largest buildings in Manhattan is something that was a bit foreign to them. But they really brought in great consultants to help them think through every aspect of this, which is why it runs so effectively and efficiently now.
You mentioned that you have a design consultancy. What is all that about?
Brandon Harp: So our design consultancy practice is based out of Las Vegas. We do have design consultants now that are remote as well. So we have a few here on the East coast and in Denver and a couple of other strategic places around the US and overseas in Europe.
But for us, it’s very much about AV consulting. What you may not know about us is that we also do security surveillance, access control, as well as information communication technology, which is your structured cabling as well as acoustics. So oftentimes we find ourselves in these conversations very early on with architects and owners and people who are designing these experiences, and so they want us to be a part of their team to help steer the technology decisions, and so we’re finding that we’re being hired more and more early on in these projects because we look at things through that creative lens. We consider ourselves creative technologists, very true to our trade and very client-focused throughout, and being involved very early to help steer and guide the solution through master planning is very important to the outcome of these projects, and so now what we’re seeing is an uptick in design-build as well, because we’re working very closely with the owner and the owner reps at an early stage to really flush out the design and the intent, and then if we’re able to come in and do the AV build, which we’re finding is happening more and more, there seems to be a real desire to have one hand to shake at the end of the day when it comes for all design-build and all the way through to support, which is what we offer.
Do you find that the end users, whether they’re property developers or just building owners or major tenants or whatever, that they are smarter or more sophisticated about what they wanna do than maybe they were 5-10 years ago?
Brandon Harp: That’s a great question. I think it’s still a mixed bag. Honestly, I think there’s oftentimes when clients come to us with blue sky ideas, or maybe they have some sort of concept renderings that they had hired a firm to put together for them and then they ask us, “How do we execute this?” and “What do we need to be able to be successful?” And I think that’s where our design consulting practice comes in. We help them really think about not only the technology but more importantly, what’s the outcome, how the user feels and what are they gonna experience here that’s gonna make them want to continue to come back and continue to talk about this.
So getting in early like that has really been very effective for us, and then the build portion of it as well, which we’ve always been very known for. Having a good understanding of the project from day one has really made it very effective for us.
How important is scale? We’ve seen all kinds of press releases about a LED video wall that’s 60 feet wide or 100 feet wide, whatever the dimensions are. But I’m wondering if you’re starting to see a more sophisticated approach where you are not just thinking about the scale, but how it fits, how is this gonna work within the environment? All those sorts of things.
Brandon Harp: Yeah, I think some of the clientele has thought that through or they’ve gathered information from other projects. Some do have maybe a bit of a more sophisticated approach, or they have someone who’s a technology advisor who’s been helping them think through things. I think where we come in is really to be able to help them take that to fruition, right? And take it to the next step. So I do think it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.
In terms of the scale itself, it depends on the project. I think we do a number of projects that are gonna have multiple locations over and over again, and we create this blueprint for those, but we also do a lot of these one-off projects, as you can imagine, especially when it comes to museums and theme parks and briefing centers and things of that nature where it’s one of a kind experience and we really have to be able to deliver on what the client’s looking for.
Yeah, and that’s a bit of a challenge I would imagine. One-off projects are awesome when they come along, but it becomes a bit of a roller coaster ride as opposed to the predictable recurring services you might be providing.
Brandon Harp: It is very much and we find with these one-off projects that because of the size and the scale of them, typically they take anywhere from a year onwards to be able to complete. So you can imagine that requires a great deal of patience and skill and making sure that we have updated schedules just strong project management, and strong design engineering early on to make sure that we have the very best system in place. But, also the supply chain is another thing, right? And so not to go too far of a rabbit hole on that. But if your projects are typically a year to a year and a half in length, often what we’re finding now is that the client wants to know right out of the gates, are there any stumbling blocks in terms of supply chain challenges? And then we have to order this material, and equipment very early on in the process in order to combat that or we have to find something else that we can use in order to deliver the system on time and within budget. So it’s a bit of, as you said, a rollercoaster is a great way to describe it.
You said a year and a half. With some airports and let’s say hospital campuses, that’s probably more like a 4-5 year planning cycle, right?
Brandon Harp: Certainly, yeah. I think the year to a year and a half seems to be average, but yes, to your point, we often find ourselves involved in airport projects and so forth where the delivery date is 2026 or 2028 even now. And again, I think it has to do with being able to get in early with the right people, make sure that we’re providing them with what they need to be successful, and then staying in touch and in tune with what’s going on through the life cycle of the project and the management of it. Project management in AV has always been a hot point, right?
And so for us, it’s very much about the project managers being able to see through a project of that length properly and show it the adequate attention that it needs to be successful.
I’m also guessing that because you’re sometimes looking that far out for an airport or something like that, you really need to stay on top of emerging technology and think about, okay, I’m not thinking about what I’m going to put in right now with what’s available right now, I’m thinking about what’s going to be out there three years from now, which might be micro LED or something else that isn’t really commercially available right now.
Brandon Harp: That’s very true and that’s a great point. It’s certainly something that we take into consideration on all of these projects.
I think you have to look at the manufacturers and the longevity of their companies. Are they gonna be around for many years to come? And what does the product roadmap look like? And I think that’s why we have our key partners that we work with who are very good at understanding what’s coming, what’s future, making sure that they stay top of mind with all of our designers and our engineers to ensure that at the end of the day when the system is installed, that it is the most recent and up to date technology, and it’s not something that’s going to be phased out or end of life that just simply isn’t feasible when it comes to spares or replacements, anything like that.
So Thinking that through, especially on these longer projects is really important and that’s what makes us effective.
I’ve been intrigued when I’ve seen big design agencies like Gensler or content-driven technology shops like Moment Factory where they’ve worked with you guys a lot because I get the sense they know what they’re good at, they know how far they can take a big idea, but at some point, they have to hand it off to somebody who’s good at the execution.
Brandon Harp: That’s exactly right. We have developed, I think, the kind of the secret sauce for being able to work with companies like Gensler and Moment Factory, because you’re right, at the end of the day, they’re the big thinkers, right? They’re the creatives who ultimately generate the user experience that is on those LED video walls, or on the digital signage or the interactive, or the inside of the projection mapping, and so forth.
For us, we have to play that supporting role and not every project is exactly the same, but we do understand what their strengths and capabilities are And then we play a very supporting role in that, and we’ve now made it so that it’s a well-oiled machine and as partners, we’re very agile and limber enough to be able to say, we need to pivot a little bit, or we need to look at this a little bit differently than the last one. And again, not Two projects are all the same, and so I think it’s our ability to work with them and adapt to ever-changing circumstances and projects and environments that allow us to be as effective together as we are.
Do you try hard to stay in your lane, so to speak, and not get into the creative stuff?
Brandon Harp: I think at the end of the day, you have to have a creative vein in you to work here, right? That’s ultimately what we do. We’re constantly pushing the envelope of what’s possible, but we also have to put the trust in our partners, and I think we do a really good job of that.
We’ve never been a company that’s done content or experience design, and the reason for that is that we have a multitude of partners who do and who do it very well, and so for us, it’s more about playing that supporting role with making sure that the technology is something that they can work with when they’re creating their content but it’s also something that is gonna be easy for the end user to use if that’s a requirement, and really just play that supporting role.
I think that, at the end of the day, what people see in what they view on these large displays, as you talked about, is really the product of the creative minds that go into the content and the storytelling, and we’re there to play that supportive role.
I think that’s more what I’m asking is: you guys conceivably could have a creative team that would produce the big visuals and so on, but because you work with some great partners, you do your thing and let them do their thing and don’t get into a competition.
Brandon Harp: That’s right. There’s no competition there. Where I think we do is supplement them very well is our executive consulting. So we have Will Bolen, Chris Conti, and Chris Moore, who are executive consultants who work for us, those three individuals are super talented. They’ve got a great deal of experience, both working hand in hand with clients to help them think through what it is that they’re looking to do with their space. But they’re also very technical, right? So they come up with sketches and little drawings and things like that can really make them multi-faceted individuals within the company, and that’s why they’re so effective.
Oftentimes they get paired with the likes of Moment Factory or Gensler or an architect or an experienced design firm who’s looking to help their client uncover what is possible with the technology and then from there, we work it through design consulting and into systems integration, and then all the way through to service.
Do you have end users who are coming to you and just basically saying, “I want that!” because they’ve seen something?
Brandon Harp: Yeah, believe it or not, they do, and I revert back to SUMMIT One Vanderbilt again because it’s very unique. It’s award-winning and it’s just something that everybody, I think is aware of or familiar with now, especially in New York City and they constantly are saying, how do we create that, or even in the airport environments like we just did Terminal A at Newark, I’ve had multiple airports say to me, “We want that 232-foot long video wall right at departures or behind the check encounter” and our response to that, Dave, is often, do something different.
It’s great to be able to pull inspiration from other projects, but no one wants to see the same project replicated. So how do you pull inspiration from something that’s that unique, but then put your own spin on it? And especially in an airport environment, because it is high traffic, it’s a public place, millions of people and users go through there. How do you do something that differentiates? And that’s what we always try to coach our clients into thinking about, what is it that’s gonna make you the next talk of the town? How do you get yourself to that point where people are taking selfies or people are talking about the technology and the experience that they had as they moved through the airport? So those are the kinds of things we keep in mind.
Yeah, there are really two tracks in airports. You’ve got the big immersive experiential, almost like public art installations, but then you’ve got a lot of LED and flat panel displays that are just about making the experience of getting your way through the airport to a gate and onto a plane easier.
Brandon Harp: I actually think there are three, Dave. I would add the digital out-of-home experience as well there, because there’s the Clear Channels and the Intersections of the world all have these large contracts with these airports and real estate owners who have their screens as well And in a lot of these airport environments, like Newark for example, there are over 80 displays there that is specifically geared towards targeted advertising.
Then you’ve got your art piece, which you mentioned, which is more experiential and immersive, and then the third pillar is the typical airport communications, right? Because people have to know where their flight is and how to get from point A to point B, whether it’s wayfinding or something of that nature. But there’s really a multitude of digital endpoints that go into any airport or terminal experience.
Yeah, I have been blabbering away lately that if you really wanna see the state of the art of digital signage and how that technology is applied in different ways, go look at a renovated or new airport terminal.
Brandon Harp: It’s true, and the government’s flushing a lot of money into obviously the infrastructure and redevelopment of these airports.
That trend we feel is gonna continue and it’s gonna continue to push the envelope for what is possible. I think at the end of the day, you’re finding that these old, outdated airports really just need a refresh, something that’s gonna make people wanna fly out of there. Something that’s gonna set the tone for the trip that they’re about to go on. But also just as silly as it sounds, put a smile on their face. If there’s a way to make people feel at home or comfortable or keep them entertained so that they’re buying more concessions within an airport environment, that’s a huge win for that terminal and that airport.
I just wanna know where my gate is, how to get there, and how long is it gonna take me to get through the various lines.
Brandon Harp: And maybe where the bar is?
Is there a trend that you’re starting to see emerge?
Brandon Harp: Yeah I think there is. I think, just at the start of 2023, we’ve seen a real uptick when it comes to experiential and immersive environments in higher education, but also in sports.
We’re finding more and more of these higher education institutions wanna give students access to a big video wall that may have a multitude of interactive touchpoints and ways of being able to use the system itself and interact with it across a multitude of different tracks throughout the school.
So there’s been a lot of that recently and then sports as well. These kinds of one-off experiences within stadiums and training facilities and things like that. There really has been an uptick in those through since the start of the year and we’re expecting that trend to continue.
Is there a big project that you’re allowed to talk about that we’re gonna see in the next calendar year?
Brandon Harp: I can’t really get into the specifics and the name of it, but the one that comes to mind for me is an immersive museum experience that’s gonna be happening downtown in Manhattan, just outside of The Oculus, so a well-traveled area. It’s a building that probably anybody who’s from New York or has been to that part of the area is gonna be revamped and it’s gonna be led by an immersive artist and a team of people who are really invested in not only the video but the audio portion of any given museum experience.
So you can expect upwards of 20+ video walls and large-scale rooms with huge projection-mapped walls, floors, and ceilings. Just a variety of different experiences as you travel through each room. So it’s something that’s on the horizon, and the scheduled opening date is right around Labor Day of this year. So we’ll see if that holds true. But in any case, it is something that’s upcoming and we can give you more information on it as it unfolds.
That’s led by a real estate developer?
Brandon Harp: It is another real estate developer, so much like we were talking about earlier in the conversation with SL Green, this is another company that’s very prominent in New York. This is the first real venture for them into more of the attractions type of space. So they do need a lot of help, but we’re there to provide it and the support that they need to be successful, and we really anticipate this being a game changer for them and especially for lower Manhattan.
All right, Brandon, thank you!
Brandon Harp: Yeah, thanks, Dave. I appreciate you having me on today.