“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should”, Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.
Just before Christmas of 2022, a video of a tech rehearsal at a large church circulated throughout the church AVL community. It featured drummers suspended from the rafters, with automated rigging flying them over the auditorium while giant LED screens radiated “JESUS” from the stage. The response on social media was almost as ostentatious as the video itself. “How many hungry people could be fed with that money?” was a common response, along with more colorful commentary like, “Welcome to ‘Church’ Du Soleil.” And now, as Easter rental production equipment has been returned, along with rental livestock in some cases, my media feed is once again filled with clips and commentary from over-the-top church productions. As I’ve stated in the past, every church must develop its own voice when it comes to production value. I have no issue with churches putting their best foot forward for high-impact weekends. But as the dust settles from one of the biggest weeks of the church year, I think it’s a good time to reflect on current trends in church AVL technology and ask ourselves a simple question, “How much is too much?”
Excess is not success
As churches of every size navigate AVL technology, decisions for new buildings or renovations, they need to be aware of common practices and current trends in the marketplace. Some churches have very technically skilled team members, while others don’t have the resources to employ specialists. In either case, it’s very likely your church will at some point require outside technical expertise to help you achieve your goals. It’s been my experience that most churches want to build lasting relationships with companies, or more accurately, with the people who represent those companies. However, any business relationship requires a certain amount of vetting and healthy skepticism prior to full engagement. Even throughout the life of the relationship, trust must be continuously earned to be maintained.
Any individual or company that sells equipment to churches has a financial incentive to do so. This is not wrong, but it is a fact. This may seem obvious, but taken to its logical conclusion, a party that has a financial incentive to sell you equipment inevitably has an incentive to sell you more equipment. I am concerned that in some cases, churches are being oversold systems. Sometimes this manifests itself in the amount of equipment; in other cases, it is in the type of equipment.
I have a friend who recently took the Technical Director position at a large local church. The audio system is only a few years old and is clearly oversized for the sanctuary and their style of worship. Additionally, the complexity of the system makes it very difficult for volunteers to operate. This locks the church into hiring outside contractors for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common example of a church being over-spec’d and oversold. To quote my TD friend, “I don’t want anyone selling me more equipment; I want help equipping my people.”
In my day-to-day conversations with church leaders, financial consultants, architects, and builders, a common question is asked, “Does AVL really need to cost this much?”
What I consider my healthy skepticism towards the AVL industry comes from over 25 years of working on both sides of the aisle; as a church stakeholder and as an AVL provider. In the post-COVID era, as AVL providers have been bought, sold, merged, rebranded, etc., there is more pressure than ever on their sales teams. Although competition is usually a great thing for the client, churches have historically relied on the advice of AVL salespeople, and they are now finding that advice less and less reliable.
For churches to make wise decisions, they need to have as much knowledge as possible. There are three typical business practices when it comes to church projects and AVL providers. Let’s look at each of them and examine how they work and what to watch out for.
1. Competitive-Speculative Bidding
This model is used by some churches based on internal by-laws. In this scenario, leadership typically issues a directive to their technical team to get three bids for any project. This process can be very effective in some areas, but not for large AVL projects. There are companies that will “spec” a project, and not charge a design fee in hopes of winning the bid. But any three such companies will have their own unique approach, along with their equipment preferences and manufacturer’s allegiances, making it almost impossible for the church to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Due to the complexity of AVL systems and the required coordination with other trades such as electrical and architectural, getting three accurate, comparable bids without a common design is highly unlikely.
The companies that will bid on a project without a design process are not actually completing a full design prior to developing the bid. Therefore, full build-out costs are rarely accurate in this scenario, resulting in unanticipated costs later in the process when it’s too late to change course. A word of caution here; companies that deliver designs for large projects at no cost may not have highly skilled designers. If they do have competent staff designers, they may be supporting that “free” service with higher prices on equipment.
One area where the spec-bidding process works extremely well is when you already know exactly what equipment you need, have all the infrastructure in place, and know all the accessories required. Then it really is just a matter of shopping for the best price from a reliable provider.
The most widely-used current model is for a church to engage an AVL company in a design-build contract, where a fee is collected to design the system, and then the equipment sales and installation are executed under the build portion of the contract. During this two-phase process, the AVL firm (often referred to as the Integrator) engages in a contract for design with the church. This is typically a predetermined fee, limited to the design. During this process, they will have a series of discovery meetings with the church to develop a plan. Simultaneously, they are working with the architect, submitting drawings including structural, electrical, and acoustical requirements and other coordination efforts. At some point, the Integrator will submit draft equipment lists, which include costs for the equipment, installation, training, etc. Sometimes, if the build budget has not been firmly established, they will develop good, better, and best options. Once the church agrees that everything is accounted for, a final draft becomes the backbone of the official build contract.
Even though this is the most common practice, it is not without problems. First, it puts you in the position of purchasing everything from the same party that advises you on what to purchase. For insight as to why that could be an issue, many AVL companies market themselves as “gear agnostic,” meaning they can sell almost all major manufacturers’ products to design a system that meets your specific needs and budget. This is true in most cases. But like any business, they have some products that yield a higher profit margin than others. They are also under tremendous pressure to maintain sales quotas from the manufacturers they represent. In the good, better, and best scenario mentioned above, the “best” option will almost always be their most profitable product line, or the product line that they need to sell the most to maintain their dealership or partner pricing. So, it is a fair question to ask, “Is this the equipment I need or is this the equipment they need to sell?”
I have also encountered problems with the accuracy of documentation on design-build projects. When the AVL company’s designers are producing drawings for coordination or construction, it is not uncommon for them to use a type of in-house “shorthand.” This is because their onsite installation managers are typically reliable, get-it-done kind of people. The real-world kind of employee that can interpret the designer’s intent in lieu of accurate documentation and make it all work. The problem arises sometime in the future when the church decides to make some upgrades. Only then does the church realize their construction drawings were incomplete or inaccurate.
3. Independent Consultation-Design
The Consultation-Design process, and in some cases with the added service of client representation, is somewhat of a blend of design-build and competitive bidding and is typically performed by an Independent Consultant. True Independent Consultants do not sell equipment or have any affiliations with manufacturers or providers. When engaging with an Independent Consultant, the intention is for them to perform all the functions of design while providing unbiased advice and counsel to the church. Once a design is completed, the consultant will take the design/equipment list out for competitive bidding on the church’s behalf. This process is intended to compel competing AVL integrators to bid aggressively on the exact same equipment list. The full benefit of working with an Independent Consultant would also include client representation throughout the life of the project. Thus, the church has an advocate that has no incentive to over-design or specify equipment beyond what is required. There is a burgeoning industry of Independent Consultants from the Church AVL community endeavoring to provide unbiased advice, consultation and client representation. These services are available for entire projects or on an ad-hoc basis.
Of course, there can be substantial costs associated with this service and churches must consider the costs versus the benefits of engaging a third party to develop designs and oversee others to implement their vision. Some churches are understandably hesitant to engage with an Independent Consultant for AVL design for fear of paying for overlapping efforts with an AVL integrator and the potential for accountability issues on the project.
Protecting the church
To be clear, none of the 3 methods listed above are inherently good or bad. They can each be amazingly successful or disastrous.
So, what can we, as church leaders and tech creatives, do to protect ourselves and build trust with companies that can help us achieve our goals?
- When you assemble your internal team for the AVL project, include technical and executive-level personnel. If your staff does not have both, consider filling in the gap with a trusted third-party industry consultant.
- Educate yourself and your teams on all the various types of services available, and network with multiple churches that you respect in order to learn from their successes and mistakes.
- Do the research to help you establish a realistic budget. You may not want to reveal your total budget to potential providers early on, and that is ok. But having discreet discussions with trusted industry experts who have no stake in your project will be an invaluable asset.
- Avoid “Blue Sky” meetings. Make sure you have a realistic understanding of where you are currently and where you want to be in the new building or renovation. If any provider is going to help you grow, they need to be well-versed in your growth so far. The best partners are the ones who are willing to walk along with you, not shoot you out of a cannon.
- Consider the current skill level of your volunteers and staff and the impact new systems will have on them. Obviously, you want to grow your team’s capabilities, but don’t bite off more than they can handle.
- If you engage with a design-build firm. Insist on two separate contracts, one for the design phase and a separate one for the build phase. Most design-build companies will accommodate this. The design phase is where you will develop a good understanding of how responsive the company is. It’s a good sign if they coordinate and communicate well. If not, you don’t want to be locked into a large build contract with them.
- When entering into a design contract, regardless of the type of company, make sure you have a thorough understanding of what is included in the design. What are the deliverables, and what level of detail can be expected? Who owns the design once it is delivered? In the case of the design-build firm, find out how they will handle it if you are dissatisfied during the design phase and decide not to enter the build phase. This should be addressed in the contract.
- When it comes to equipment lists on bids, make sure you understand what you’re looking at. I tell providers, “If you can explain this to me in a way that I understand, I can in turn explain it to leadership.”
- Insist on line-item pricing for equipment. You should be able to clearly see the cost of each item with a model number. You don’t need the price for every nut and bolt, and some bundled or batch pricing should be expected for rigging, connectivity, miscellaneous wire, etc. If there are very large bulk costs, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for more detail.
- Regarding non-equipment costs, make sure you have a good understanding of what services are being performed. For example, be aware of categories like Shop-Build, System Configuration, Programming, Burn-In, Mobilization, Commissioning, and Freight. These are often unique to each provider and may contain redundant costs and hidden excesses, so don’t be afraid to ask.
- A reputable AVL representative will be able to answer your questions and be as transparent as possible. Generally speaking, these are good people trying to serve your needs. But there’s a lot to be said for the old maxim, “trust but verify.”
Many years ago, I was meeting with a pastor about potentially working on his upcoming new church build. He asked me, “How would you describe the perfect church AVL project?” I said, “Actually, I have yet to experience that. There are problems on every project I’ve worked on, but I do know that when you are a partner with someone, you don’t tell them what you think they want to hear, you tell them the truth.”
He took a chance on me and my company, and we’ve worked together on every project they’ve done since that day. Transparency builds and maintains trust.
I hope this has provided some helpful and entertaining insight. I would love to hear from you and your church soon.
About the author
Ron Cochran is a Worship Arts Consultant for AV Coalition in association with Church Creatives Network. Ron and AV Coalition are fee-only based independent consultants with no affiliation with manufacturers or service providers. Ron is also a highly sought after audio engineer in the church AV community. Here is a 60 sec clip of his broadcast audio mix from Perimeter Church on Easter Sunday 2023.