Life in the Fast Lane
Mar 1, 2002 12:00 PM, By Christopher Buttner
America, the land of opportunity, has given rise to many companies established and built by immigrants coming to these shores in search of a better life. At 13 years old, Mohammad Ahmadi left his family and travelled to the United States to seek an American education, first arriving in Enid, Oklahoma, and relocating years later to Los Angeles, California.
Ahmadi got a job as a technician with a local sound company, WaveLength Systems and Design, in El Segundo, California. Several years later, WaveLength partner Brian Edwards went on to start his own company, Edwards Technologies. Ahmadi joined Edwards' team soon after in 1993 and began handling project management, systems design, engineering and business development.
Edwards Technologies' wide range of clients, especially in the area of themed entertainment, had Ahmadi working with the latest in systems technologies for clients like Warner Brothers, Disney and Lego Land, to name a few. By 1998, Ahmadi was vice president of design and business development. With the glass ceiling getting ever closer, Ahmadi recalls, “There was nowhere else for me to move up to. I had always wanted to do my own thing, and it was time for me to go”
Now 38 years old, Mohammad Ahmadi is the president and CEO of Integrated Media Systems Inc. of Culver City, California, one of the fastest growing systems integration companies in the United States. IMS was founded in October 1998, and already the company has 26 employees in the Southern California office and another eight in the Columbus, Ohio, office.
“It's interesting,” Ahmadi points out. “With the slow-down in the economy, the bigger guys — who concentrate on the high-profile projects such as amusement parks and themed attractions — have really experienced a downturn in business. When I founded my company, I wanted to create a foundation of a lot of repeat business from chain nightclubs, restaurants, sports bars and entertainment centers.”
One of Integrated Media Systems' first clients was Damon's International Inc.'s chain of 140 restaurants. Damon's previously bid all projects out to contractors that were near each new site, which caused great inconsistency in the systems that were installed. IMS was able to standardize the entertainment system designs; streamline, simplify and bulletproof the interfaces; and, as a result, quickly bring costs down. As of March 2002, IMS has designed and installed systems into 40 new Damon's locations and anticipates 15 new Damon's locations coming online by the end of 2002.
Once IMS established themselves within the Damon's chain, they began working with Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grills chain (13 restaurants) and then developed a strong relationship with the Jillian's chain of entertainment facilities.
JILLIAN'S: AN AMERICAN HOT SPOT
founded over 10 years ago, Jillian's is a destination that offers food, beverages and social interaction in an exciting, non-threatening environment. Jillian's has developed into 37 individual clubs in 20 states. Varying in size from 15,000 to 75,000 square feet, the Jillian's venues have been some of IMS's largest projects in scope and physical scale. Each location operates a variety of entertainment and dining venues all under one roof, and many locations include two restaurants, a classic billiards lounge, an over-the-top bowling experience, the latest electronic simulation attractions, dancing, live music, and high-end sports and multimedia viewing. Each Jillian's location also features four nightclubs designed to entertain anyone of legal age. (Quite different is the Damon's chain, which has 8000- to 9000-square-foot sports-themed eateries, featuring video, audio and multimedia entertainment.)
“At the time IMS began working with Jillian's, about three years ago, [the venue was] just about to get ready for a very aggressive build-out,” says Ahmadi. “I believe our first few Jillian's jobs were tests [against] the two other systems integration firms who were already working with them. After our second project, Jillian's management decided to contract with only two systems integration companies, so it became IMS and another firm sharing the workload. As time went on, we began to understand what Jillian's operational needs were, and I believe our execution and support was greater than what they experienced from other contractors. As far as hardware was concerned, Jillian's found that our technology interfaces were easier to use.” It wasn't long before IMS became the sole vendor for Jillian's, as well as for Damon's International. Presently, IMS services all 37 Jillian's locations, and the company designed and installed systems in 14 of them.
Simple Operations. IMS's systems are designed to be user-friendly. States Ahmadi, “We designed a very [attractive] AMX touchscreen front-end layout that allows any user to operate huge systems without any problems. In these types of establishments, turnover is very high and management moves around a lot. Because operations and training staff go from one location to another, we felt it important that the interfaces stayed consistent. The system is designed and protected so that no probing fingers can get into places where they shouldn't be.” The system interfaces have become so popular with management that IMS was recently given the task of designing all the control interfaces for all of the architectural lighting throughout each facility.
“Jillian's systems are very big, yet very simple,” says Ahmadi. Customized content comes in through servers, DSS and VCRs. Audio is fed into the Peavey MediaMatrix, which is used for both matrix switching and processing. Audio then goes out to the amps and speakers. On the video side, sources come into a matrix switcher and go out to the monitors. The distributed system, run by management, feeds all the common areas of the Jillian's complex; and each concept, restaurant or sub-theme of the facility has its own smaller subsystems capable of receiving eight channels of program material. These are controlled through 10.5-inch AMX touchpanels installed at the individual locations.
Bowling and Shmoozing. There are two main, high-energy entertainment systems in each Jillian's facility: the Hilife Bowling Center and the Atlas nightclubs. The Hilife features a DJ spinning and mixing all night in an elaborate environment of lighting, music and video presentations. There are 14 to 16 lanes, with a Draper 150-inch screen and Panasonic 6500 Series projector spanning every two lanes. In the middle of each pair of lanes there is also a Martin Professional MX-4 scanner and a localized Mach M72i loudspeaker. Ahmadi points out, “We've tied our control system into the Brunswick bowling system, so when someone gets a strike or a spare, the payoff is a programmed multimedia presentation consisting of a localized light show, video and audio playback. And we even have bass shakers in the seats.”
The Atlas dance club is capable of entertaining crowds of up to 1000 people (depending on the overall size of the facility). The Atlas clubs, like the Hilife, rely on the same formula of products that keep the crowds happy.
Operating from a short list of only six major equipment manufacturers, Ahmadi's credo is, “Give us the support we need to support our clients, and we're with you for life. And the manufacturers with whom we work do that. It's all proven technology. In these types of projects, we're talking about equipment that is driven very hard during 14- to 16-hour days, everyday. The client cannot afford a breakdown of any kind, so we rely on some pretty solid gear.”
Hilife Bowling Centers. From the loudspeakers backwards, the sound systems consist of Martin Professional's Mach series loudspeakers driven by QSC PLX and CX series power amps. The Hilife's dance system consists of 12 Mach 125i three-way, near-field, full-range loudspeakers driven by three QSC PLX2402 power amps; two Mach M182i dual 18-inch subwoofers driven by two QSC PLX 4.0 power amps; and four Mach M151i single 15-inch subwoofers driven by one PLX2402. Peavey's MediaMatrix 208 Mini Frame System (24 in/24 out) handles processing.
The bowling alley special effects audio consists of six Mach M72i two-way, near-field, full-range loudspeakers driven by a QSC CX254 power amp. Thirty-five Aura Audio transducers, powered by three Rane MA-5 multichannel power amps, are installed in the bowling alley's seats. The DJ booth consists of a Rane MP-24Z DJ mixer, a Denon DN2500 dual-CD changer, and a Sabine 1020 feedback suppressor. A Shure LX24/58 wireless mic system is used for announcements. The Hilife's Martin Pro lighting complement consists of six MX-4 scanners (over the lanes), six MAC-250 scanners, four RoboScan Pro 518 scanners, six CX2 color changers, and two ZR22 smoke machines. The Light Jockey Lighting Controller software runs it all through a 17-inch touchpanel powered by AMX.
The Atlas Lounge. The Atlas audio systems consist of house and dance-floor systems. The house system is made up of two Mach M125i three-way, near-field, full-range loudspeakers driven by a QSC CX1602 power amp, and eight Mach 82i two-way, full-range loudspeakers driven by one QSC CD12TT power amp. The dance-floor sound system has four Mach M129i two-way, medium-throw loudspeakers driven by two QSC PLX3002 power amps, and two Mach M152i dual 15-inch subwoofers powered by a QSC PL4.0 power amp. System processing is handled by a Peavey MediaMatrix X-Frame processing system. The DJ booth consists of a Rane MP24Z DJ mixer, Denon DN2500 dual-CD changer, and a Sabine 1020 feedback suppressor.
Says Ahmadi, “With the ambient room levels so high in the game room and video bar, we have had a lot of success with the Mach M72i speakers. They put out enough sound without becoming overbearing.”
The Atlas Lounge's Martin Professional light show consists of 12 Martin CX-2 color changers, five Martin MAC 250 scanners, one ZR22 smoke machine, and the Direct Access Controller and the Light Jockey Lighting Controller software running the show. “I've always liked the Martin lighting control interfaces and software,” Ahmadi states. “For Jillian's, lighting programs are tied into the MediaMatrix software, so no one [can] screw around with programming. We've written several lighting scripts for Jillian's, and we give the employees an assortment of run cues accessible from an AMX touchpanel. A DJ or an employee simply accesses the lighting-run program and calls up whatever show he or she wants to run.”
Finding a perfect match between the Mach loudspeakers and the QSC power amps, Ahmadi says, “QSC builds workhorses; you can't kill [their] stuff. I've been working with the Martin guys for about 12 years on lighting, so I was very open to the loudspeakers when they became available in early 2000. Mach gives the performance and output of a much higher-priced sound system, which was originally what was wanted for the Jillian's installations.”
ROSY FUTURE FOR IMS
ims has recently taken their skills overseas and handled systems integration in Stockholm, Sweden, and Barcelona, Spain, thanks to Ahmadi's well-regarded industry reputation. Hooking up with an industry associate (“A friend,” corrects Ahmadi) at an Urban Land Institute conference, IMS was retained to design the audio and multimedia control systems for Barcelona's and Stockholm's Heron City malls. With locations in Valencia and Madrid as well, Heron City is Europe's fastest growing indoor entertainment and lifestyle mall chain. At an average of 1.5 million square feet of floor space, the Heron City concept features a health club, retail stores, an 18-screen AMC movie theater, a 20-lane bowling center, 11 restaurants, two flight simulators, a huge interactive water fountain and lighting show attraction, and enough lighting and sound gear, as well as stage space, to host concerts by Europe's leading musical entertainers.
In their first two years of business, IMS grew a staggering 330% and another 200% in the third, exceeding their projections for the first five years. Ahmadi says, “I believe IMS's strength is our ability to extend our talents across a lot of markets and disciplines. This is why…we're always busy when other companies are experiencing downtime because of changes in the economic climate. Our objective is to grow through diversification.”
On the topic of success, Ahmadi concludes, “We have to be on our toes at all times. Every job is a proving ground, especially for a start-up company like ours. We can't sit back and relax.”
Christopher Buttner is a freelance journalist covering entertainment technology industries, including musical instruments, audio, video, broadcast, lighting, staging and multimedia systems integration. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mohammad Ahmadi and IMS Focusing on Foundation Clients
Integrated Media Systems was recently retained by the video game giant Namco for the company's XS entertainment venue project. With a tag line of “Dine. Dance. Defend the World,” XS advances the penny arcade far beyond a Star-Trek-meets-Jetsons future.
Located in Orlando, Florida, XS is a 3-floor, 40,000-square-foot entertainment complex featuring a 240-seat casual restaurant and nightclub at the base of its 45-foot-high atrium. It houses $500,000 in multimedia equipment, including 6×8-foot plasma screens, to host meetings and events for groups up to 2000. The XSperience game facility on the second floor also features 110 simulators and attractions, valued at $1.5 million.
For XS, which went live in July 2001, IMS designed and installed the sound, lighting and control systems.
Establishing the Core Business. The XS facility project typifies IMS's business strategy. Although it is Disneyland, Universal Studios and Six Flags that usually come to mind when one thinks of family entertainment centers, the bulk of IMS's business does not come from this sort of large, high-profile amusement park project. Ahmadi explains why: “Projects like that take a long time to develop; from blue sky to implementation, they can take two years before they come online… even longer. As a start-up operation, IMS needed an immediate cash flow. Therefore, we had to go after the clients who could also offer a lot of repeat business. With our existing clients, every year we know we're going to be working on a number of projects to sustain healthy growth.”
Ahmadi continues, “This is not to say we are not going after the larger projects, such as theme and amusement parks, cruise ship entertainment and control systems. But the most important aspect of IMS's business model is that we have established a core business and revenue stream that…does not leave us at the mercy of market trends. With the cutbacks in themed entertainment over the past six months, the big guys are feeling the pinch while we are still expanding.”
Company Growth. IMS recently opened a new Columbus, Ohio, office. This branch office focuses on targeting new clients and servicing those existing ones with smaller projects that come to fruition more quickly. Its location close to the corporate offices of Damon's International, based in Columbus, and Jillian's, based in Kentucky, also allows the new office to handle the bulk of the project management for the firm's foundation clients.
When asked how IMS acquired so many clients so quickly, Ahmadi humbly states, “Reputation. I've been in the business for a long time…so I've had the chance to meet a lot of wonderful people. I don't think of my clients as clients. They've become very close, personal friends. Actually, starting this company was a matter of friends and clients all essentially [saying], ‘Just do it.’” Ahmadi laughs, “I thought they were right.”
Once Ahmadi had made the decision to go out on his own, word spread quickly. In fact, almost as soon as he had turned the lights on, IMS seemed to have plenty of clients. “We pride ourselves on the no-hassle transaction,” he says. “That is what has kept…our existing clients and [helped us] pick up new business.”
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