50: Talking Custom Integration and CES 2021 with HTSN’s Hank Alexander

Written by Rob Stott

December 22, 2020

2020 was a whirlwind year for the custom integration space. Hank Alexander, director of HTSN, reflects on the tech trends that the pandemic helped accelerate, and he looks ahead to an all-digital CES 2021.

Rob Stott: All right, we are back on the Independent Thinking podcast, and for the first time? This might be a first time for you, Hank.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, first.

Rob Stott: Wow. It’s been a year. We’re coming up on a year of the podcast and I can’t believe this is the first time I’m having you on. That’s my fault, I should apologize.

Hank Alexander: All good. Good to be here.

Rob Stott: Right? But no, we got a little busy and sidetracked along the way, but Mr. Hank Alexander, our director of HTSN here at Nationwide Marketing Group. First of all, I appreciate you and your elf on the shelf taking some time to join us on the podcast.

Hank Alexander: Yeah. It moves around a little.

Rob Stott: Here and there. You got to keep an eye on him back on that shelf.

Hank Alexander: Oh yeah. Totally. Totally do.

Rob Stott: I’ll watch while you talk, but.

Hank Alexander: There you go. Yeah, let me know what he’s doing back there.

Rob Stott: We’ll keep an eye. But Hank, appreciate you joining. And we talk about the craziness of this past year, I talked to a lot of different members in other areas of the business about what this year has been like. Custom integration, what’s the big takeaways from 2020 as you kind of look back at what the space has had to navigate?

Hank Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, certainly 2020 started off with its own challenges. Even before COVID and everything, we were looking at some challenges in the business and COVID hit and things obviously changed a lot. Depending on the market, people couldn’t get into a client’s home, projects were shut down and then as we kind of spun into the middle of the year, projects really sped up. Everybody needed networks taken care of, and everybody was obviously staying home. So they’re looking at the old 55 or 65 inch TV and everything just in the CI space, obviously in all consumer electronics, but the CI space really, really accelerated. We come into the back half of the year with nice strong double digit growth in our CI business, and the word in 2020 is supply chain, right? If everybody could get another receiver, another panel, another whatever, they could get another job done or complete a job, or some of those kinds of things.

So 2020 has obviously been an interesting year. In fact, I actually just read this morning, where there was a container ship that got caught in some bad weather coming over and lost 2000 containers. And some of its product, from brands we know and we do business with, bound for the US. And so it’s as if 2020 wasn’t strange enough, we’ve got a container ship that loses 2000 containers at sea, with product bound for the US for consumer electronics. It’s like, well, that’s-

Rob Stott: I feel like that’s something to do… I don’t know if you’ve seen these monoliths that have been popping up around the world, but some “art installations”. That tells me that some signals are being sent, that someone’s messing with the globe and mother nature. It’s just too much at this point.

Hank Alexander: We deal with port issues in a normal… Oh, there’s a strike or a port issue or a ship loses some containers or some little thing, this year, it’s been all of them together. And it’s just really refreshing to see the CI guys, our guys, how resilient they are. Pushing through it, doing well, getting new jobs, staying busy, staying healthy, all those things. It’s really refreshing to have that.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And you mentioned, specifically the thing that comes to mind when I think about this space, is the projects. We’re talking about a time where, a global pandemic going on, it seems like people would be hesitant to welcome a company or contractors into their home to work on upgrades and things like that. But it almost feels like, from what we’re seeing and hearing, that the need for upgrading that TV experience and audio experience, outweighs the potential… Not that there’s harms of doing it, because these guys are being safe as they go into customers’ homes and things like that, but it really didn’t have, in the back half, as big of an impact as we thought.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, it really didn’t. And certainly the name of the game was PPE protective gear, and making sure everybody was wearing face masks or gloves and wiping things down, or all of those kinds of things. But yeah, there wasn’t as much of a scare, I don’t think, for the most part, as we all thought there would be, that there was in the very beginning of it. Certainly everybody’s taking a lot of precautions and making sure everybody’s healthy and all of those kinds of things.

But yeah, you’re exactly right, the need for… As we’re all working from home and learning from home and all of those things, the need to upgrade networks and office spaces and the TVs and the audio… And shocking how much home theater is making a resurgence because everybody’s like, wow. I can’t go to a concert. I can’t go to a sporting event. I can’t go to the movies. And now with streaming, a lot of the first run movies, as we all know, are coming right to the home. And some people are like, great. I’ll build out my basement and do a home theater or my media room. And so we’re seeing a really nice resurgence in that side of the business as well. It’s really good.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Because I know in recent years, not that it’s gotten stale or anything, but it felt like people were kind of getting either more DIY with their home theaters or just sort of taking a simplified approach as opposed to going full blown with home theaters. But awesome to see that come back. And you mentioned the streaming options, you’re now hearing on commercials with new movies that come out, available in theaters, will launch in theaters and available to stream in your home.

Hank Alexander: And at home. Yeah.

Rob Stott: In your home. So I mean, it’s clear that this pandemic has altered every single business in so many ways. But those technologies too, is there any trends that kind of come out of this? You talk about the resurgence in home theater, but any other maybe unanticipated or kind of cool sections of technology that benefited from people staying at home and sort of the new way of thinking with this whole pandemic happening?

Hank Alexander: Yeah, so certainly networks. Networking became first and foremost, the thing that everybody was hyper-focused on. It wasn’t a bad situation when they had to take the occasional call at home or webinar or the kid did something online. It was okay, but when it was 24/7. And so we saw a lot of people beefing up, going to mesh networks. Several of our vendors introduced new products in the mesh network category, so I think that was probably the first kind of push or trend that we started to see. From there, really the home theater. We partnered back, we partnered with Row One for home theater seating. We started really looking at that whole side of the business a lot differently again. Things like lighting, that’s a big push. Everybody’s at home and making sure that the lighting is done the right way and that it’s healthy and it makes sure… All of those things. There’s just a ton of new trends and things that are coming out of the work from home, learn from home side of the business.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Any lasting impacts too? I mean, these are trends that are kind of… Trends come and go and I’m sure we’ll see some of these, not necessarily lose all of their luster, but that kind of fall back to the back burner. Any that are sort of lasting that you can think of, that impacts of this on either technology or just the way business is done?

Hank Alexander: I think the biggest trend that I saw in 2020, that’s been growing but certainly grew a lot in 2020, outdoor living. Our outdoor business has just been crazy. If you look at Traeger grills, you can’t buy a Traeger grill right now. It’s just impossible. Flat panels for outdoors, I mean, are just… So that whole outside living has been growing every year. Some statistics show at double digits every year and this year, it was just insane. And I think that, that continues. I think that continues very, very strong for the next five years, four or five years, because everybody wants to just be outside more and more.

Rob Stott: That makes sense. And that’s where a lot of the social distancing is happening. You get the social distancing parties and people that sort of… You’ve got to stay apart, but that all happens outdoors, right?

Hank Alexander: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: So why not make the most of that space while you’re doing it?

Hank Alexander: Yep. Some rock and roll and some TV out there.

Rob Stott: Don’t forget, you got the landscape acoustics.

Hank Alexander: Oh, yeah.

Rob Stott: There’s so many ways that you don’t normally think of. I mean, yes, you got the grill, you got maybe an outdoor display, but it gets down to the furniture and outdoor audio-

Hank Alexander: Audio.

Rob Stott: …go with that space.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, we did our patio last year and my wife was like, “Why are we putting 10 speakers on our patio?” And it’s like, more is better, right? More is better. That was my excuse for getting more speakers.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. You did it right. That’s all right. They’ll like it when they’re there and enjoying it with you.

Hank Alexander: Exactly.

Rob Stott: Oh no. But we’re talking about all these tech trends and kind of how the CI channel has been impacted. But typically, the place we go to find out about all these things is… We’re talking here in December, about a month from now, we would typically be gathering in Las Vegas for the consumer electronics show. It’s still happening this year, just a little bit different, a little bit different. It’s going all digital.

Hank Alexander: A little different. Normally, we’d all be hanging out with 175,000 of our closest friends and relatives in Vegas. And this year, we can do CES in our pajamas from our office, right? I actually am… From my seat, I think it’s a good thing to be able to get people who haven’t been to CES for a number of years or maybe ever, it’s a good opportunity to expose them to CES and the trends and get them to see new products from different partners and vendors and business and hear keynotes from various people. So from my standpoint, it’s too bad we’re not all there. We really look forward to being with everybody in Vegas. It’s a lot of work, but this year it’s virtual and it’s going to be a fun experience.

Rob Stott: Well, you talk about people that haven’t been to CES in a while or ever. I know one segment of that is consumers, and this will be the first time that… I know it’s on a limited basis and they’ll limit the types of things they can access, but pretty neat to see CTA open up CES to the consumer market and kind of give people that… Always, it was like a pipe dream. What kind of job do I have to get, that’ll let me go to CES? But rather this time, you can sign up. And if you’re just a normal tech lover, you can attend the show this year.

Hank Alexander: Every year I’d have at least one friend that would be like, “Could I go one year with you? Could you just give me a pass? I want to go and see it. I want to experience it.” And it’s funny because now it’s like, yeah sure. Just go register. It’s really-

Rob Stott: There you go. Here’s the link.

Hank Alexander Here’s the link.

Rob Stott: It’s one of those things where, all shows have been… We talk about how everything’s been impacted. PrimeTime was impacted, so. Neat to see that this is something that can still happen in a digital format, and who knows? Maybe it’s something… We’ve been talking internally at Nationwide about what future PrimeTimes may look like because of a virtual show and how that went. Maybe CES, this is something that sort of sticks around as an offering.

Hank Alexander: Rob, you asked a very interesting question about, what’s one of those trends that’s going to stick around? I think virtual aspects of these shows, you’re right, we’ve talked about it internally. Cedia has talked about it, CTA is talking about it. Are there portions of those shows that can take place virtually and incorporate maybe the consumer side of it as a virtual thing, if CES… Pretty sure CES is going to get pulled off next year, that we’re going to be able to go to Vegas. So there’s all of those kinds of conversations with everybody going on. What does that virtual aspect look like next year?

Rob Stott: Yeah. And the other crazy thing too, is that, I think of all the shows I’ve attended virtually and that includes our own and includes CES upcoming, I don’t think that any of them have had the same experience. At it’s core, yeah. They’re meetings like this, a Zoom call, student style type meetings or these virtual webinar type experiences, but they’ve all had different wrinkles to them. Whether it’s the interaction engagement with other attendees or just a virtual lobby, what that looks like and how you can walk through it to the booth experience, is very good. So there’s so many ways that a virtual show can happen too, so it will be… I know we’re talking CTA has a pretty big partnership with Microsoft. They’re trying to run it through Teams, so that’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

Hank Alexander: I have not been on one that’s used Teams. Like yourself, I’ve been to a bunch of different virtual shows this year and you’re right, haven’t been on one show that’s been the same layout or the same, any of those things… So it’s really interesting. And yeah, and right after CES, we got KBIS, right? That’s another virtual show. So it’ll be interesting to see how they… What platform they use and how they pull it all together.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Just a lot of interesting ways to look at these things as they happen. But like we said, CES, it is happening. We’ll be there, from where we’re sitting right now.

Hank Alexander: Reporting live from the CES floor.

Rob Stott: Yeah, right? It’ll have a little bit different-

Hank Alexander: Right here, at my house.

Rob Stott: A little different feel. CES is truly global this year, so. It’s not global in the sense that it’s bringing everyone to Vegas, but it’s allowing everyone to attend from where they are.

Hank Alexander: Yeah.

Rob Stott: I know the experience is going to be different this year, but what are you sort of most looking forward to as we get ready to “attend” CES this year?

Hank Alexander: Yeah. I think one of the things I’m kind of interested in and excited about is, more information and push into the 5G side of things. That’s coming to the house. Obviously 5G’s the big buzz in cell phones and mobile and those kinds of things, but there’s more and more devices that are being built or are going to be built in the next year or so, that are going to be 5G. And I think that, that’s an important build out and I’m anxious to hear more about that and see that and experience that build out more and more, and see that push into the customer’s homes and in their day-to-day life.

So that’s important. There’s obviously all kinds of new display technology, microLED and all of those types of things. So it’s really going to be exciting to see some of those kinds of things come along. We’ve gotten some sneak peaks at a few of those things from some of our vendor partners, and I’m sure they’ll do some new product introductions at CES. So those are the two, in my mind, kind of hot technologies that I’m looking at.

Rob Stott: No, that makes a lot of sense. And I know… It feels like we’ve been talking about them for a couple of years now, but they are… It’s getting to that point where, now it’s starting to become real. Not to call out a single brand, but once Apple announces a 5G phone, it feels like, okay, it’s here.

Hank Alexander: Yeah. When you can go to the Apple store or the Verizon store or the AT&T store or whatever it is, and get an actual device that’s 5G, and all of a sudden, it does, it becomes real. It’s like, okay, now I get it.

Rob Stott: And the cool thing too, is that in the past, when these new networking technologies, 3G, 4G, LTE had been rolled out, it truly was really just a mobile launch. It was, what can the smartphone do now? But, as has been hinted, 5G has a lot wider impact. And so, I mean, what are some of the things about it in the home that you’re seeing that kind of excite you as far as what the customer, outside of their smartphone, will be able to do with 5G?

Hank Alexander: Yeah. I think streaming solutions having 5G potentially built into panels and the streaming opportunities. And again, that’s a big push streaming is now, as we’ve talked about. And so having that massive pipe being brought into your home, it’s just going to give you more options for higher quality TV and more options for streaming and all of those. So I think having all of that in your networking devices and your TVs and all of those types of things, I think it’s an important push, so I’m excited about that.

Rob Stott: I mean, talking to HTSN members, do they give you any sense of what the push has been like to talk about 5G with customers? Are they getting it?

Hank Alexander: Not a lot yet. The most conversations that most of the custom guys are getting, is around cell boosters in homes. So being able to boost that 5G signal in the home with their mobile devices, customers aren’t yet really thinking about it in their TV, but that’s coming. I mean, that’s part of the process.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. And I know, part of the way you overcome hurdles like that, is having a company like CTA with CES make consumers able to attend, so they can see these educational sessions…

Hank Alexander: Yep. The awareness. Yeah.

Rob Stott: Yeah. So you build that awareness as an industry, and then maybe more questions follow, but at the very least, you’re kind of exposing customers to the possibility and kind of giving them that under the hood peek at what’s going on in the industry.

Hank Alexander: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rob Stott: But the other trend you mentioned is panels, and a lot of ways we can go with that because I know the two big things that come out, you mentioned the microLED panels, and we’ll get to that, but 8K too.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, 8K. Massive push on 8K, which also kind of goes hand in hand with a push with 5G, because you’ve got to have that massive pipe to get that content in. So 8K, we’re seeing a resurgence or a push with short throw laser projectors. We’re partnered with several people that have them, and we see some really cool new technology and a push coming that way. So if you have a larger TV, you don’t have to mount a projector to a ceiling necessarily. And there’s some rumors of some 8K short throw projectors coming, some rumors of some 8K… Obviously a lot more 8K panels from the big three, LG, Samsung and Sony, as well as others. So, yeah.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s dangerous talking with you, because I have a little media room downstairs and I have so much I want to do to it. We have these partners, so my Nationwide paycheck should just go right to Sony.

Hank Alexander: Right over to one of our guys. Yeah, I just need that.

Rob Stott: Yeah, just do this. Just get this here. That’s what needs to happen. And sitting at home all this time and like you say, looking at my TV and knowing what I have and what I want it to be, so.

Hank Alexander: We’re all in the same situation. We’re all looking at it, right? Going, oh.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, and then too, the microLED, I know that’s… The thing that comes to mind when I think of microLED is the wall that Samsung has had on display at past shows. Crazy technology, because the panels, the possibility of… You talk about custom, building something custom installations, that is truly, when you talk about displays, probably the most custom of displays that you can kind of navigate and work with as an installer. Do you see a lot of adoption of those, that kind of picking up?

Hank Alexander: Yeah, I do. So Samsung is going to have some microLED out in the market, while not necessarily inexpensive and something all of us… Hardly anybody can afford, but it’s going to be out there. And it’s the early adopters that helped drive that price down. And it also kind of goes back to the Apple conversation. Apple’s talking about putting microLED and miniLED into some of their laptops and iPads. And so as that technology starts to get out there, people are going to see it. They’re going to go, wow, this is amazing. I want this in my TV. And I think it’s just going to start to become the next kind of buzz, if you will.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no. And lots to look forward to in this space. And I know, probably one of the unfortunate things about not having an in-person CES, is the demos and seeing this technology up close. It’s going to be different watching someone talk about it on a recorded session or having their display behind them, holding phones up, that sort of stuff. But to still kind of learn about what’s coming, I know that’s something we’re all excited about. But still can’t beat being there in the booth and seeing it, so while we’re excited that we can have…

Hank Alexander: Demo an amazing media room over Zoom.

Rob Stott: It’s hard.

Hank Alexander: It’s hard.

Rob Stott: Well actually, it’s practically impossible.

Hank Alexander: It is.

Rob Stott: Because then you’re relying on computer speakers or whatever headphones that someone’s wearing. But I know, like you said, it’ll be nice to have that sort of reprieve of being able to wear sweat pants and a button down to CES. But it kind of reinforces the fact that we will miss it. We’ll miss it this year, for sure.

Hank Alexander: Oh, yeah. Absolutely going to miss it. Absolutely going to miss being there.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, we’ll have to… Sooner rather than later, we’ll all be back to it, but for now, I appreciate you taking time and chatting about trends. Anything else coming, that you want to tell listeners about? If not, we can leave it there before we start talking. I’m seeing that elf move in your background, you need to go check on him.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, great.

Rob Stott: Keep an eye on him.

Hank Alexander: Let’s see. If we can do in-person, looking forward to a PrimeTime. If it’s virtual, looking forward to a virtual PrimeTime coming up. And then we have an HTSN summit in May, in Dallas and looking forward to that. So hopefully by May, we’re all traveling and everybody’s healthy and we can do it. So I’m looking forward to it.

Rob Stott: Seems in conversations, that light is… It feels like that light has been at the end of the tunnel for a while, but now it actually feels real and it’s getting a little bit bigger, so.

Hank Alexander: Yeah, looking forward to it.

Rob Stott: We’re getting there. But Hank, I appreciate you taking the time. And this was fun.

Hank Alexander: This was a lot of fun.

Rob Stott: Even if we have to do it over Zoom for now, I can’t wait to get two mics in front of us and in-person, and maybe the elf can join us. We’ll talk.

Hank Alexander: I’ll bring him next time. Let’s not wait a year to do this. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate it. Stay healthy, stay safe.

Rob Stott: Yeah, you too.

Hank Alexander: Right. Cheers.

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