High Fidelity

Surround sound, DLP TVs, DVRs – oh my! That’s just a sampling of what goes into today’s entertainment/media centers. As cutting-edge electronics and the pursuit of the perfect home theater experience take a more prominent role in homes, there’s a growing opportunity for kitchen/bath dealers and designers to turn them into profit centers for their firms.

Entertainment/media centers, as well as multi-media rooms and home theaters, are increasingly becoming part of the kitchen/Great Room experience, part of the master suite experience, or rooms all unto themselves. In fact, the greater availability of audio/video options, coupled with a decline in their prices, has translated into a surge in popularity for customized entertainment/media centers.

Products making up these rooms cut a wide swath, ranging from the high-tech in the form of flat-screen or panel TVs, DVRs and/or VCRs, game stations, multi-CD/DVD players/recorders and other stereo equipment, and surround sound systems, to storage in the form of custom cabinetry. Custom entertainment/media centers are also being paired with undercounter refrigeration, wine coolers, built-in microwaves, secondary dishwashers, wet, juice and/or coffee bars, and more.

Sound Value
Because of all of the different products out there that can be combined into everything from a “simple,” customized entertainment/media center to a dedicated home theater, there are a growing number of dealers and designers moving into this new niche – to varying degrees.

While Kleppinger Design Group, Inc. in Fairfax, VA is currently not doing a lot of entertainment/media centers, “of the few we do, I believe the interest is generated by those who want the design flexibility that cabinetry offers,” says Andrew Gay, designer with the firm. He adds: “For the ones we draw up, the price can be a deterrent.”

But, according to many other dealers/designers, that can be turned into a positive. For instance, they say fellow dealers/designers shouldn’t be afraid to broach the subject with clients, and quell their possible objections to price by selling the quality, flexibility and detail that can be obtained through investing in a custom entertainment center created by a designer.

“I don’t think it’s that hard if the client sees the value,” believes Gay. “Like the kitchen, you get what you pay for. If there’s a specific look or component they want… then clients already sold themselves on a custom built-in.”

“Because of those feelings, we’re able to capitalize on the possibility of a media center sale by indicating that we have the skills... to build these [customized] furniture pieces,” says Susan Knight, president of Korts & Knight Kitchens in San Francisco, CA.

Peter Ross Salerno, CMKBD, says that at his own firm – Peter Salerno, Inc. in Wyckoff, NJ – when he sits down with clients, he goes over the entire floorplan of the home, and asks what they are planning for each room. That invariably turns the conversation toward pointing out that, yes, his firm does custom cabinet work in other rooms of the home.

For him, designing these centers is what helped his firm through the recession of the early 1990s. “It soon made up about 10% of our business, which is pretty substantial,” he recalls. “Some of these can cost as much as a kitchen, or at least half of a kitchen. Say you do one a month at $20,000, times 12, that’s $250,000 of business!”

Kennedy Hahn, which has showrooms in Appleton, Fitchburg/Madison, Milwaukee and Waunakee, WI, employs a similar approach. “I encourage our sales team to constantly ask about rooms outside the kitchen. The key question is: Where do you entertain? It’s simple, but there are plenty of different answers. [For instance], in addition to a noticeable rise in game/media room projects, outdoor entertaining is also gaining traction,” explains Ross Blount, the firm’s director of corporate and builder sales.

“Never miss an opportunity to ask clients what their needs are, whether it’s a living room or a dedicated home theater. It’s something not a lot of people are doing, but it could be a huge revenue source,” notes Elizabeth Spengler, ASID and CEO of Dorado Designs in Oro Valley and Tucson, AZ.

Her firm’s involved in a lot of high-end, new-build homes, the majority of which have dedicated home theaters. And these homes have as much as $150,000 to $400,000 in case work, she says. “There’s a lot that can be done in terms of storage. For instance, you could have architectural columns that pull out that contain CDs, DVDs and video games. In a master bedroom you could have a seating area with a plasma TV mounted over a fireplace behind pocket doors and speakers installed in the master bath.”

Bev Adams, CMKBD and president/CEO of Denver, CO-based Interior Intuitions, uses a slightly different approach. “I get clients to make a wish list. Then I show them how they can work in different rooms. For instance, in a kitchen/family area, they need to be connected to the news and the world around them. In a master bath, they need to feel relaxed, so maybe talk to them about a stereo system that pipes in some soothing music.”

Knight says her firm sells entertainment/media centers “by informing our clients of our interest and abilities in this area. We also have large color photographs of some of our completed media centers in our conference room so clients can easily notice them. That always elicits the response, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you did this kind of work, too… That’s great; we wondered who was going to do this for us.’”

“I use my portfolio to show them what I can do. In doing so, I, too, usually find clients are surprised at the fact we do more than kitchens and baths,” Salerno adds. “We’re also trying to build a portfolio,” says Susan Palmquist, CKD and co-owner of Minneapolis, MN-based Sawhill Kitchens & Baths. “But we do communicate our ability through a newsletter to past clients and by doing local seminars that link us to this area.”

Show Off
“From a builder/distributor standpoint, builders are going to dealers that show products in an environment that illustrates true functionality basically because it helps them understand exactly what they need to do/build, cutting down their project time. Dealers have started to catch on, so they’re moving more toward this,” observes Blount.

“Our displays are what first catch the eye of the customer, and our sales team takes it from there,” he notes. At his firm, for instance, there’s a “bar suite” that features undercounter refrigeration products from Perlick Corp. Blount says the display helps people visualize design possibilities for their own entertainment/media centers and home theaters.

Spengler’s showroom also has a display that helps clients visualize the possibilities. It’s done in conjunction with a local AV specialist, Automation Specialist, in Tucson. “They’ve put a plasma-screen TV over a fireplace in our conference room. It’s flanked by cabinetry on both sides. It’s very good for the showroom – we can show products to clients while having the expanded presentation capabilities,” she expounds.

Kennedy Hahn takes this one step farther. The firm is designing a $125,000 media room for Flanner’s, a very upscale electronics store in Wisconsin. In it there will be Perlick products, which Flanner’s will also be selling.

Expert Advice
In tandem with having a great portfolio and/or display, “[you need to] get to know the products and their usage. If this isn’t at the top of your list, talk to someone who gets into it. Learn some of the products. The more knowledgeable you are about media/entertainment centers and equipment, the more credible you become in the eyes of the customer,” elaborates Gay.

In fact, Theo Kalomirakis, affiliate member of ASID and owner of TK Theaters in the heart of New York City, says it’s paramount to call in a specialist because there are so many things that are very specific to creating a true home theater experience.

“There are two types of rooms to consider. One is a media room, which is usually casual with a sofa, a plasma TV, a sound system, and some windows and doors. The other is a dedicated home theater without windows or doors with recliner-type chairs. It’s more conducive to the movie experience. In high-end homes, these two rooms co-exist peacefully,” explains Kalomirakis, whose firm specializes in high-end home theater design.

“But both have specific sound requirements, which affects how the walls are treated, for example. If it’s a home theater, there should be no glass or windows because sound is reflective, and you could end up with muffled or echoing sound after a client has spent $20,000 to $50,000 on a room like this. Thus, it’s imperative to work with a specialist,” he stresses.

That’s why Spengler’s firm has aligned itself with an AV specialist. And it’s not alone.

“We’ve been working with one for a couple of years,” says Charles Testa, CKD and president of Patchogue, NY-based Island Kitchens & Baths. “We coordinate with him so that everything we do ties together nicely. A lot of homeowners we work with want all of their electronics in one spot – mainly in the great room/family room – but want to control music from their home office, for instance, which we can do.”

“Electronics change so fast today, so align yourself with a good technician. That person will help you become the expert. Clients are pleasantly surprised if you speak the language and get it,” adds Palmquist.

“The challenge is the equipment… So ask for the business, but make sure that you have the technical person on staff that understands the ramifications of dealing with media equipment,” advises Knight. “We’ve designated one individual in our organization who specializes in media centers. This person meets the clients and analyzes their needs, and then meets with their equipment specialist. Our person then hammers out the details in terms of the sound, visuals, function and the layout of the room’s furniture.”

But what if dealers and designers are just getting into this, and are unsure? The best way is to ask the experts. “When in doubt, find out. Ask your specialist. He/she will be able to tell you about the latest in electronics the same way you can tell that person about the latest in kitchens and baths,” says Spengler.

If you need to find a professional, Kalomirakis notes that there’s an association called the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) based in Indianapolis, IN that dealers and designers could call upon to find a qualified expert in their area.

On The Same Page
There are also some design issues for dealers and designers to consider in order to make entertainment/media centers a profitable portion of their firms. And they really boil down to getting all of the equipment in order. “We demand a complete list of the equipment and specs that the customer is going to use. If you don’t do this, you will find that the customer calls you every day with the latest wish-list items, and they’ll invariably be a different size,” comments Knight.

And that could present significant design challenges. “That’s why it’s important to get everyone from the architect, builder, designer and cabinet people to the AV specialist and clients on the same page because one minor change or upgrade in equipment and the whole design could be thrown off course,” notes Spengler.

But be sure to be somewhat flexible in the design, say dealers and designers. The reason? They say that as more Gen Xers and Gen Yers walk into showrooms, dealers and designers will find that they will take more interest in having the latest electronics. Therefore, they’ll be more likely to change out components at a much faster rate as the technology changes.

And last, but not least, another issue to note is that media rooms cannot be decided on without understanding furniture placement. “We were originally an interior design company, so we have a great deal of experience with full room interiors,” concludes Knight. “If you don’t have any [experience] in this area, then you’ll have to interface with the client’s interior designer, so you have a full grasp of how the room’s furnishings are going to be laid out.”