By David Weiss
Coldwater Creek, a fast-growing retailer of women’s apparel, accessories, jewelry, and gifts, has launched a new training center that is designed to help the company keep pace with the rapid growth of its retail store fleet across the United States. The Sandpoint, ID-based company constructed a state-of-the-art space for training employees in a program called Coldwater Creek University.
Today, Coldwater Creek (www.coldwatercreek.com) employees learn about the company in a 15,000-square-foot training center bristling with the latest in AV, networking, and videoconferencing technology. The benefits of the ambitious design go beyond simply ensuring that employees are well educated, however.
“Particularly for a company like Coldwater Creek, who really relies on an image for people to purchase from them, it’s important for that image to be consistent,” observes James Lake, division manager for the systems integration group of CompView (www.compview.com), the AV systems designer and integrator on the project. “In order to do that, you have to automate your training in order to get your message to every single person. If they were trying to do that without the use of AV and videoconferencing, I’m sure it would cost them 10 times as much.”
Adds Steve Leary, “We really wanted this space to be multipurpose and on the corporate campus.” Leary is a senior network architect for Coldwater Creek. “When managers are out at a store all the time, all you are is just a store number. With a dedicated facility, we can really build the teamwork. We also had to have a space that was flexible, so for the times when we don’t need all 200 seats, we can break it down.”
The new Coldwater Creek training facility gives the company a breakthrough resource for making cutting-edge presentations and ensuring trainee comfort and increased information retention, even through 8-hour sessions. Built within a former warehouse on the property, the flagship of the facility is the expansive 73- by 87- by 23-foot auditorium-style training room, where warm earth tones, wood, and fabric treatments mirror the friendly corporate personality of Coldwater Creek.
The commitment to AV is immediately apparent on entering, with dual 15- by 11-foot screens fixed at the front of the room to ensure optimal viewing for all participants. A forward-thinking approach to video, audio, control, and advanced networking for presenters and their audience guided the facility’s design and construction at every stage.
“The overriding challenge of this space was, ‘How do you take a room of this volume, and then create conference rooms and a bigger auditorium space that can be subdividable?’” says John Manning, principal of ALSC Architects (www.alscarchitects.com), the project’s architectural firm. “Then we had to provide a platform that would allow a host of AV possibilities - known and unknown - and data networking; that included videoconferencing and presentations that ranged from slide shows to PowerPoint to video and more complex displays.”
Working together, the professionals at ALSC Architects, Coldwater Creek, and CompView - which included Lake and systems integration manager Michael Criss - devised a flexible plan for the space that would allow it to be easily split up into different configurations. The full-size 200-seat room can be split in half by a moveable wall, with the additional space capable of being divided by another wall into a two-thirds/one-third configuration for large- and medium-sized conference rooms. The first eight rows feature stadium-style tiered seating, evening out to a flat floor for the rear, subdividable space.
In keeping with the Coldwater Creek spirit, the needs of the audience were given high priority in the facility’s design. “Every single seat in the stadium had to have power and network connectivity,” says Leary. “We installed networks because, at the time of the design stage, wireless networking wasn’t at the security level we were comfortable with. Each seat has a pop-up box for the connections, which comes up smoothly from the table when needed.”
This simple request had a big impact on the architectural program. “A lot of the laptop connectivity had to get run into the floor, so the exact locations that people were sitting in had to be precisely figured out early in the design,” Manning points out. “You’re building this space before all the conduit gets in, so you have to have a detailed layout of furniture to run it there correctly. Once it gets cast in concrete, it’s pretty difficult to move!”
Technology Empowers Presenters
Next, the design team set their sights on the complex needs of the presenters. The result is a custom-made Martin + Zegler lectern that can be positioned in any of three locations at the front of the room. This uncommon mobility comes courtesy of floor boxes with quick-disconnect “umbilical” connections for the lectern’s housed electronics, which include a Marantz DVD player, Mitsubishi DVHS player, Elmo document camera, Audio Technica microphone, and guest laptop connection.
The seemingly innocuous detail of selecting the best location for the podium is a science in and of itself. “We do a lot of research on AV presentation areas,” Manning explains. “The questions we ask include, ‘How far off the back wall should the presenter be? How close to the audience should they be? How do they want to engage them if there will not only be people there, but people tuning in to the video conference as well?’ It’s all part of knowing what needs to happen for a presentation and making a plan for that.”
At the presenter’s fingertips are a 17-inch computer monitor, as well as a 17-inch LCD touch panel for operating the room’s deep but highly intuitive AMX Modero control system. Proper programming of the AMX system became especially critical when the team found out at the last minute that the facility would not feature a staffed control room, as had originally been planned. “We had to allow a single presenter to have everything they needed on this touch panel to replace the control room,” says Lake. “It had to be very apparent to them what they needed to do to advance their presentation with audio or video.
“When we design the Graphical User Interface (GUI), we typically have a number of sit-downs to understand the look and feel they want: Do they want it to match their website, for example? Once that’s done, the programmers make several screenshot rough drafts that are sent to the client digitally or on paper for approval.”
An important ergonomic addition is seen in the presence of dual 30-inch LCD “confidence” monitors placed on the face of the first row of seating and facing the presenter. As a result, the presenter can see what is being displayed on the large screens behind him or her without having to turn around.
Video needed to appear as bright and sharp to viewers in the back row as to those in the front. Images are transmitted to the large video screens via two NEC GT5000 projectors capable of up to 6000 ANSI lumens apiece, which are mounted on motorized lifts that retract flush into the ceiling when not in use. “We gave them two positions,” Lake states. “One is a show position, and the other is a service position that allows Coldwater Creek to change the bulb or clean the filter by dropping them down so they sit only 5 feet off the ground. That’s important, because once the furniture went in there, it was the only way to service the projectors without a man-lift.”
Ours may be a visual society, but CompView’s experience taught them that clear audio is even more important than sharp video. “Speech clarity was key,” Lake says. “People will tolerate somewhat poor video, but they will not tolerate poor audio, particularly in a videoconferencing environment. We used Crown amplifiers along with JLB SR series speakers, and the 7.1 surround sound in there for speech and program audio is stunning - we put on Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ and you could hear the change dropping crisply from everywhere in the room.”
By far the biggest audio challenge was ensuring that all participants would be heard properly during a videoconference, meaning that microphone selection, placement, and signal path were critical. For smaller videoconferencing situations, the first two rows feature Crown boundary microphones, one for every two seats. Also present are an array of Audio Technica wireless and lavaliere for presenters, as well as handheld microphones that are passed to outlying audience members during larger videoconferences.
“We worked with ALSC’s interiors department to make sure that the microphones could plug directly into the furniture,” says Lake. “In addition, they were dressed out underneath with a technology channel that allows wire to be run underneath the furniture without being seen. Because they had such a large number of microphones, we needed the Polycom Vortex microphone/matrix mixer, which allows us incredible flexibility in terms of automatic gain control, equalization, and echo cancellation in one unit.”
All of the audio, video, and control systems tie together to give Coldwater Creek an easy path to videoconferencing via either ISDN or IP connectivity. The size of the space, however, presented the design team with a challenge to solve. “This was a very large room,” Lake notes. “Videoconferencing is typically more intimate than this, so we had to figure out how to get enough coverage while letting one person control everything. As a result, we developed a ‘quadrant’ system with four Sony EVI-D100 pan-tilt-zoom cameras located throughout the room. Those quadrants are represented on the control panel, so when a question is asked, the presenter can touch that quadrant and the associated camera goes there and gets full coverage of that quadrant.”
Architect John Manning points out that the Coldwater Creek facility was a good lesson in how to cover a quickly changing situation. “When they took out the control room at the last minute, they had us scrambling to say, ‘How do we make this facility usable without this huge piece of the puzzle?’ What we learned is we should probably take a more modular approach with a place like this, so you’re not caught in a situation where you suddenly have to figure out, ‘How do I make this more operable by a single person rather than a control room with operators?’
“The other key is to have real consistency of the people you work with on the client side. We had people involved who made it a lot simpler to get us answers in the rapid-fire manner that we needed. For example, when we found out that the control room was remaining but we couldn’t put anything in it, we were able to communicate about adding functionality for a later date or relocating it. As a result, we still had everything they wanted to accomplish worked out. ”
The proof of the team’s ability to work well together is in the final product, a highly inviting space that means “training” is not a dirty word to Coldwater Creek employees. “We’ve gotten great feedback,” Steve Leary concludes. “There were a few start-up bugs, but that’s true of any highly integrated space. We have people there all day, every day for a week, and it’s proven a warm and comfortable place to be. Both students and teachers are very happy with it, and just being able to show it to people and hear them say, ‘Wow, this room is awesome!’ makes it a lot of fun.”