FEATURE1 March 2004

Embrace the future

Last year wasn’t easy. So what does 2004 hold in store? Liz Sykes, chair of the Viewing Facilities Association, looks forward to the year ahead.

It has been another tough year for viewing facilities. They are still perceived as luxury commodities in the current market, despite working hard to offer a superior service and better value for money. This has meant that when costs have been squeezed, clients sometimes choose to reduce the number of groups being viewed or not to view their project at all.

Clients therefore lose opportunities to get close to both existing and potential customers, as well as to be more active participants within the project team. The goal of the Viewing Facilities Association in 2004 is to reinstate viewing facilities as the integral part of qualitative research that they are, and to re-invigorate client understanding of their value.

Across the great divide
A north/south divide appears to be emerging in terms of demand, with facilities in central London and those near airports in the south getting a larger slice of the action. There have always been more bookings in the south-east due to the concentration of clients, advertising agencies and market research companies in the region, but the current period of budgetary austerity has exaggerated the situation. Naturally, the busiest facilities have been those in central London for UK-based jobs, and those near Heathrow for jobs involving international clients coming to the UK. The obvious savings available on travel costs and hotel bills – for moderators and clients alike – as well as shorter lead times, have meant that time-consuming travel to northern locations has sometimes be scrapped in favour of more analysis time. Again, this is the client’s loss: there are still marked attitudinal differences between people from the various regions. Choosing a wider target audience can provide a broader view on a project, which will only add to its effectiveness. It is to be hoped that 2004 will see this situation resolve itself and facilities outside the south-east get a bigger bite of the cherry.

After all, as with all trends in qualitative research, things seem to go in waves. A few years ago Manchester was the hippest city in the UK. Then it was Leeds. Maybe Liverpool will be next as its year as European City of Culture approaches – or Birmingham with its new toll motorway and reduced traffic congestion.

The lap of luxury
The trend for increasingly luxurious and high-tech facilities is evident everywhere. Perhaps this is a result of the tougher working environment for everyone. People like to be pampered and fussed over, particularly when they are working long, unsociable hours. Everyone feels more important when they are in smart, up-to-date surroundings. More and more people therefore want viewing facilities to benchmark their services with luxury hotels: the food can never be too good or the furniture too comfortable. As always location is the key to every booking, closely followed by the ambience offered by the venue. Equipment is less of an issue as most researchers and clients seem wedded to VHS tapes and tape recorders.

For most research projects, there is not a high demand for new technology. Of course, those facilities that do specialise in technology would disagree. They have marketed themselves as experts in this area and aim to corner the market. But if technology were widely requested, all facilities would have it: as a service to a service industry we have to be very quick to respond to client needs and requests. At present we are on the cusp of change, ready to spring to action when the demand arises!

Quality first
Viewing facilities are continuing to focus on their main strengths: exemplary service, good quality, interesting food and up-to-date equipment (when it is required). Personal relationships are key in this business and they often endure for years. Clients may move around different companies and use different advertising and research agencies but they will still go back to the same viewing facility, project after project.

The world view
Part of the job of the Viewing Facilities Association is to keep abreast of trends for facilities around the world and to ensure that those in the UK are ahead of the field. Our research shows that, interestingly, most facilities around the world are fairly consistent in terms of services. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes those in Central and South America and other emerging markets as well as areas in the third world. However, many facilities in these regions have been developed by international networks using models based on their experiences in Europe and North America.

Looking at the US, since 9/11 there has been an increase in the number of clients using video-conferencing via ISDN lines and video-streaming via the internet rather than travelling to see group discussions. However, the trend has yet to make itself felt in the European market, where clients are still happy to travel anywhere in the world. Interestingly, the most frequently requested service by clients in the US is stationary videotaping on video recorders for playback during research.

We believe that throughout the world there will be an increase in the importance of technology in the next few years and that video may well finally be pensioned off. Watch this space!

Liz Sykes is the chair of the VFA and managing director of the Front Room and Field Initiatives

The Viewing Facilities Association (UK) exists to promote the best practice among viewing facilities. All member companies of the VFA employ at least one member of the MRS and abide by both the MRS Code of Conduct and the VFA Code of Practice.

Compliance with our standards can be tough – in particular, achieving ten completed client assessment forms – but they are a fundamental part of membership and extremely important in a service-led environment.

As the association has grown and evolved, it has rebranded to reflect its new impartial and professional status. This is evident in the website – www.vfa-uk.org – which is now more user-friendly and holds more pertinent information.

Contact details: Viewing Facilities Association, VFA Admin Plus,Davey House, 31 St Neots Road, Eaton Ford, St Neots, Cambs, PE19 7BA

Tel:+44 ( 0 )1480 211 288


March | 2004