The scene is fairly typical. You go to a business meeting where someone has planned a multimedia show or at least brought along a projector to show slides -- and the bulb burns out or a fuse blows. Some unknowing waiter is called in to fix it because the set-up guy has gone home.
Recognizing that meeting presentations are far more sophisticated today, Visual Aids Electronics, a $1.5 million D.C. company, is broadening its market from supplying and installing audio-visual equipment to offering a total communications package to hotels complete with in-house technicians.
The need for communications systems in hotels has "grown dramatically" with the flood of business, trade, international and government groups convening in Washington, according to W. Thomas McMahon, Visual Aids' executive vice president. And hotel managers "are only beginning to learn how profitable it is for their business."
Operating out of an unassuming three-story building on 15th Street NW, the 11-year-old company sells, leases or rents audio-visual equipment, provides engineering, programming and installation of the systems, and staffs seven Washington hotels.
The technicians come in, set up the system, test and operate the equipment and handle every detail just short of determining the meeting program -- a concept the company calls media management -- with a percentage of the profits turned over to the hotel.
VAE founder and President John Ponchock anticipates a 35 percent to 50 percent annual sales increase during the next decade. He attributes his company's success to its technical orientation.
"We want to know the ins and outs of everything we're involved in," he said. "This is our stronghold; we can handle any business, system or conference."
Executives rationalize that because the state of the art has outgrown yesterday's flip-chart and projector presentations handled by a single engineer, meetings easily can fail without proper technical backup support.
"The best thing that ever happened to us was the sound loss at the [Carter-Ford] presidential debate," McMahon said. "No one ever notices when the systems are working, only when they go out."
The $1.5 million firm, known nationally for its technical services, also offers what it calls simultaneous interpretation systems for international meetings. On-site portable or stationary sound-proof booths for language translators are hooked up to the audience with wireless headsets.
The largest contract was the International Chamber of Commerce meeting at Disneyworld which called for 3,500 headsets and a $50,000 contract.
Now executives believe the timing for their concept is ripe. "D.C. has grown up," McMahon said. "Washington has become a business-oriented town. And meetings have a serious tone."
The firm is expanding into Baltimore, Williamsburg and San Francisco, and is working on a $125 million installation project in the Cable Beach Hotel in Nassau.
A subsidiary, DIS-USA, is a joint venture with a Danish firm which manufactures the interpretation equipment. VAE is the sole U.S. distributor of its translation hardware.
The 50-employe company has made a commitment to Washington as Part of company philosophy and access to clients: community programs through churches and organizations for the handicapped and a training program with veterans.
The company also has a record under its belt called "Everybody's Town" that it has been trying to peddle for nearly three years as the theme song for Washington.
As part of a self-initiated project to accompany a slide show promoting the city, the song has received the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce and some funds to refine the show. And executives are attempting to get Mayor Marion Barry to approve it as the official song.
As a kind of reverie on the city, the song relays the symbolism of the momuments, the impact of history and the significance of the city, not only for Washingtonians but for the entire country.
The three-minute song was recorded by Greg Devlin, a technician for VAE.
Further, management encourages employe participation, and its staff helps write company policy, determines benefits and working hours and participates in profit sharing. "We regularly sit down and discuss our business with them," said McMahon, a concept which apparently has worked.
"We're a small business that'a dug in its heels," he said.