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Automation Unplugged

Automation Unplugged is a Facebook Live show recorded weekly with our host Ron Callis, Owner and CEO of the digital marketing agency, One Firefly. In each Automation Unplugged episode, Ron speaks with leading industry personalities and technology professionals to discuss all things business development, technology trends, and more. These interviews are designed to help our clients and members of the custom integration industry keep up-to-date with the latest news as well as learn from experts in the field.

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Home Automation Podcast Episode #159: An Industry Q&A With Shawn Lemay

In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Shawn Lemay, President at Sound and Theater, shares consumer behaviors based in the Buffalo, New York marketplace and Shawn’s thoughts on the future of trade shows

Home Automation Podcast Episode #159: An Industry Q&A With Shawn Lemay

This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Shawn Lemay. Recorded live on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. EST.

About Shawn Lemay

With over 30 years in the industry, Shawn got his start in IT and Computer system sales before discovering the world of smart home automation when he and his business partner attended their first CEDIA trade show event in 2004.

Their Buffalo, New York-based automation company, Sound & Theater, was created to provide consumers easy-to-use, simple, and concealed smart technology throughout their homes.

Shawn is a CEDIA Registered Outreach Instructor and volunteer. He holds various vendor certifications and is an active writer with multiple published articles to his credit.

Interview Recap

  • Shawn’s origin story and how he went from creating an ISP company competing with AOL to venturing into the smart home automation space
  • Consumer behaviors based in the Buffalo, New York marketplace and how 2020 treated Sound & Theater
  • How his business has weathered the storm caused by vendor supply chain issues.
  • Shawn’s thoughts on the future of trade shows & events

SEE ALSO: Home Automation Podcast Episode #158 A Custom Integration Industry Q&A With Matt Cwiokowski


Ron:  We're going to go ahead and bring in my guest. I've known this fellow for many years. I've personally been a CEDIA instructor. CEDIA is on the residential side of the business, the Global Trade Association for the custom integration industry. I'd say they lean more on the residential side, and you have Avixa on the commercial side or maybe NSEA as well. But I've been a volunteer on the CEDIA side since around 2010, and that's when I really got to know Shawn, my guest. He has been a long-time volunteer. Not only does he run his own business up in Buffalo, New York, but he's just been a significant volunteer in many different capacities for giving back to the industry. I've enjoyed getting to know him and both as a friend and as a mentor. Let me go ahead and get you introduced to Shawn Lemay, President and CEO at Sound and Theater. Shawn, how are you, sir?

Shawn: I'm doing well, theater, it's not theater.

Ron:  I'm from Virginia, and when necessary, I can bring out my drawl and yall.

Shawn: I'm from the New England area. Now and then, you'll hear a slight tang of a Boston accent that'll come through, and people pick on me for that.

Ron:  I totally just heard it right there. I heard that Boston accent. Why don't you inform our audience maybe a little bit about your business first? Where are you guys based? What type of work do you guys do? And then, as always, I want to jump into your back story.

Shawn: Sure. Sound and Theater was established in 2001. We were a company called S.A. Enterprises primarily. We started doing primarily wire pulling on smaller networks and whatnot and that sort of stuff. It wasn't until we were doing that for a couple of years and we slowly started to grow into the residential area where we started adding and playing with the Phillips prototype remotes, the infrared universal remotes, and getting into very small home systems and integrating the technology and that sort of stuff. It wasn't until roughly '04-'05 that we discovered CEDIA.

We went to our very first trade show and then also at that time discovered Control4, and they were a brand new company that did not have any product shipping or anything like that. But we decided at that point that was a product line we wanted and that transformed our company. We became Sound and Theater. We took the initials, the S and T, and we had to find a name to fit those. Sound and Theater is where that came from.

Ron:  Where did the original S and T remind me where that came from?

Shawn: It was originally a play on my business partner's name and my name. Sha for Shawn and Tim for Timothy. It is still to this day our legal name. But it's a DBA of Sound of Theater.

Ron:  Got it. When you discovered C4 in the mid-2000s, and you took this path into integration in the home, that's when you became Sound and Theater.

Shawn: That's about right. We saw the opportunity, not just Control4, but it opened our eyes to the whole automation market opportunity. And we're in a very blue-collar market. It's difficult to go into a home and sell a Crestron system in this market, but Control4's price point and everything just hit that market. We were so interested, and we started to build up an entire company in a model around that whole platform. Everything we were doing, we were putting that product into it, at least that philosophy. It may not always be that product, but philosophy is if we want to be integrating everything. We want to make it stupid, simple, easy to use.

Ron:  Got it. And then bring us just in terms of your business, bring us to the present. What does the business look like today, and what type of jobs do you guys find yourself doing?

Shawn: We do probably about 30 percent of our business is commercial. The rest is all residential. And we're doing anything from new construction to retrofit. We do quite a bit of retrofit. Our core specialty, as I said, is making it stupid, simple, easy, and a flip of it is hiding the technology. I know that's becoming easier and easier to do today. Now that we're doing more streaming services built into TVs and that sort of stuff. But when we originated and started all of this, it was a set-top box for everything. You had your Blu-ray player, the cable box. You had everything. There were five remotes on the coffee table. There were four or five pieces in the rack of the TV. The wife factor was, this is disgusting, get it out of my living room. That was our whole forte was again making it easy and at the same time hiding it all. All that was there was a TV and a single remote.

Ron:  Do you find yourself primarily serving the Buffalo market? Do you leave the city of Buffalo or the region of Buffalo and work throughout the state or throughout the northeast? Or is it primarily right there in your backyard?

Shawn: It's kind of a trick question. We've become nationally known as a go-to integrator when it comes to Control4. We've had customers come to us as far as Austin, Texas. We've got many customers in Florida. We've got customers up and down the east coast, North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire. All in between, we've got clients that have to go to. But our primary market focus is the western New York market. We actually served daily, probably as far east as Syracuse. That's probably a good two-hour drive from here. We don't necessarily cross the Canadian border. Geographically, Buffalo sits right on the Canadian US Canadian border. We are up in Niagara Falls, which is only a 30-minute drive. But then we go again, primarily probably down to the Pennsylvania line, which is two hours south of us. It's a good two-hour ring.

Ron:  Later in the show, I want to get into the pandemic and how you guys have coped. But you telling me that you're right there in Buffalo on the border, I want to say I think I know that Canada has had a pretty strong quarantine or they closed down the border. Is that still closed?

Shawn: It's still closed for a year now.

Ron:  What does that mean for life in Buffalo? What is the city dynamic life like before and after?

Shawn: I'm going to get shot for saying this, but all the good beaches are on the Canadian side. Summer has been different last year for sure. If you've been to Niagara Falls as a tourist to the Canadian side is definitely where it flourishes. The U.S. side is sadly lacking quite a bit. We've managed, but we can't wait until that day that the border is going to open again.

Ron:  What's the current state of affairs? What does it look like? When might that happen?

Shawn: It's month to month, and it just got pushed out again another month. We're already looking at April now before they'll consider opening the border. I take that back right now. I think it's still the end of March. Maybe March 21st, 22nd, somewhere around there. It'll definitely get pushed out again and then month to month. It'll get pushed out the April and hopefully as vaccination rates and stuff like that go up. We're going to start to see those rates go down on the Canadian border, be a little more interested in opening up their doors once again.

Ron:  Now, Ted just posted a comment, and he says, "How about them Bills ?"

Shawn: I'm with you, Ted. We're very proud of them this year. Sadly. I'm actually a big hockey fan and have season tickets to the Buffalo Sabres, and they are the opposite of our Buffalo Bills. So we just watch the Bills now. We watch the reruns right now because watching the Sabres has been tough.

Ron:  Gotta love that. OK, so I want to learn and understand. How did this all start for you, Shawn? What did you study in school? What's the origin story of how you landed to be this nationally recognized integrator, doing lots of volunteering and the trade association and having a nice, strong business? Did you know you would do this from day one, or what did the beginning look like?

Shawn: I was going to say, how far back do you want me to go?

Ron: Post-high school. Let's go. What did you do next?

Shawn: Well, I am not native to western New York. I'm actually a New Englander. I was born and raised in Vermont, so I moved at the very young age of 18. A company here called Ingram Micro hired me out of the blue. Unprecedented didn't have a college degree, and they typically only hire those with college degrees but hired me to become a sales rep here, and their East Coast operations were based out of Buffalo. I agreed to move to Buffalo. I started working for them and quickly ran up the ranks and became a senior sales rep within three and a half years, which is almost unheard of. That gave me a lot of my I.T. networking background. Ingram was huge in promoting education. If you're educated, you know the product, that sort of stuff. And of course, I've always had an I.T. fetish for it that I've loved to tinker and explore it and whatnot. That only helped further things. While I was still working at Ingram, I then actually went in to finish my college degree, which I never actually did. I went to a college here in Buffalo called Mudi College, went to night school evenings, weekends, summer. To add to the topping of that around '96, a colleague at Ingram and I decided to open an Internet service provider and company. At the time, the only ISPs that existed were AOL, and they charged per minute. I had the IT background and the knowledge, and at the time, my business partner for that company had some of the savvy and the marketing skills to make it work. We started a company called Web Technologies.

Ron:  You became an alternative for the customer that did not want to use AOL. You've got mail.

Shawn: You've got mail. And that was exactly it. We were at a flat rate, and of course, our growth went through the roof when AOL also went flat rate, and they had busy signals galore because they didn't have the infrastructure to support it. We, of course, did. We went through and smashing success. I would literally go to work in the morning at eight. I'd leave work at five to go to another office and work there until ten, eleven o'clock at night. Go home, go to bed, get up the next day and repeat it. Or I'd be going to college.

Ron:  You worked at Ingram Micro. You were running a startup business as an ISP, going head to head with AOL, and you were getting a college degree all in the same week.

Shawn: All at the same time simultaneously, you got it. That was being twenties—nonmarried life. No kids. Yeah. Lots of time to do that kind of thing.

Ron:  That sounds very tiring.

Shawn: It was after a few years for sure. Yeah, by '98, I actually left Ingram and did the web technology thing for another year or two and did that full time and it helped pick up. I was able to get my bachelor's degree in business management in the four-year timeline. That was going to school again, weekends and nights, and filling in with summer school and stuff like that to make sure that I wasn't one of those five or six-year degree candidates. After that, the dial-up Internet market started to fall apart and stuff like that, so eventually, I started moving over. I met another colleague who is today my present business partner, Tim, and we started seeing a lack of where we could make some money. We thought of pulling wires and doing some very low-end IT needs for some companies and homes and stuff like that. Thus, in 2001, S&T Enterprises was born.

Ron:  You go back to the ISP. Were you able to spin that off or sell that? It seems like you'd have monthly subscribers that, in theory, would have been worth something, right?

Shawn: We were able to take that. I actually ended up becoming a business partner for another company, an ASP company at the time, doing web development and web application design and development and that sort of stuff. Then I actually sold off my portion of that company and then became this company, S&T.

Ron:  OK, so there was an exit for you in that effort.

Shawn: Yep.

Ron:  Got it. You were there. You entered this industry. It's neat. I didn't connect the dots before this interview for you, and I was chatting just before going live. You and I essentially entered this space, integrating custom integration space, in a similar time frame. I entered in 2000. You pivoted to custom integration. You said around '04-'05.

Shawn: Around '04-'05, we really went into the home automation market aspect of it for the first three years before that. It was more of the tinkering with it. It was kind of a side gig. It was kind of a let's see what we could do. Let's see if we can make this become something kind of an exploratory company, to be honest with you. At the time, that would've been the third company that I had owned. It was a let's figure out the type of approach and see what the industry is. That's about when and I'm guessing it was '04-'05 somewhere around there that I went to my first CEDIA, and literally, my eyeballs popped out of my head because it was such an eye-opener as to what the industry could be. Here in the Buffalo, New York market, there was nobody here that just wasn't existent. A couple of companies were doing some of this sort of stuff, but there was nobody really doing this aspect of it. After walking into CEDIA and saying that it was in Indianapolis was my first CEDIA around that time frame. I came back so invigorated with life to start building a company around these concepts that I had seen. Fast forward to 2021, and that's where we are today, is 70 percent of our businesses is the residential market space. It's all encompassed around making it stupid, simple, easy, and hiding that technology.

Ron:  I love that. I want to start jumping into some additional topics here. I'm going to give just a couple of quick shout-outs. Jeremy says, "Hello. Hey, Ron and Shawn." Hello, Jeremy. Thanks for tuning in. Allison says, "Great to have you on the show, Shawn," so thank you, Alison. Jason says, "Welcome to the show." I'll do one more what's up, Mr. Carlos.

Shawn: Carlos, Jason, Allison, Ted, all of you, thanks for tuning in. I'm a boring guy. I don't know why you wanted to come to watch me.

Ron:  Exactly. Of all the shows to watch, guys, this one. Shawn, you're fascinating. You don't even know it. I think there's a song there.

Shawn: Do you sing?

Ron:  Definitely not. Everyone would leave immediately if I started trying to belt the tune. Sometimes when I drink, I've been known to sing, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Haven't we all?

Shawn: Haven't we all? Isn't that why they put karaoke in the bars?

Ron:  Exactly. I think there's a reason. What's up, Jo? Jo Whittaker.

Shawn: Mr. Whittaker!

Ron:  He just tuned in. Alright. 2020, how did that wrap up for you? What went right, what didn't go right?

Shawn: I mean, we all know, obviously the stressors on everyone on the planet in 2020. How did you make out personally and professionally? Well, as I said before, we're kind of a Buffalo, New York, which is kind of a blue-collar market. It definitely doesn't follow the trends of a lot of other marketplaces. And the typical mindset in this market is that penny-pinching atmosphere. Everybody saves the buck when they can compete against other markets. I joke and say that we've got quite a bit of snowbirds flying down to Florida in our winters. Buffalo Winters, where we're nationally known for them, and the snowbirds go down in their homes or second homes down in Florida, and they'll always promote.

I spent one hundred thousand dollars and putting this whole dinner and look at it now. That sort of stuff in this marketplace, people are the exact opposite. Same homeowner. Because they're standing in Buffalo, New York, they're literally saying, "Look at the twenty-five dollars that I saved on the paint job or whatever it is that I did." It's that marketplace. We were expecting to lose money last year. We were expecting a downturn. And then I was pleasantly surprised to see at the end of the year that we actually maintained. We didn't really grow, but we didn't lose any market share or revenue. We were very happy and pleasant about that. But we've come into 2021 on a huge up. Our numbers are up right now. I'd say about 25, almost 30 percent from a year ago. When we said a year ago, that's pre-pandemic. Q1, you could argue, is mostly revenue for jobs booked in '19. That was not affected by COVID.

Ron:  Exactly. People are looking at it. They're getting bored. They're coming around. They're starting to think, let's start doing some new stuff. Let's start upgrading. That mindset of we're going to wait. We're going to be penny-pinching. But now they're like, OK, we've been inside for a year now. We're trying to do something. Is that snowbird maybe not going to Florida because of quarantine or something? Are they staying local, and maybe they're deciding to upgrade their home?

Shawn: I've got to think that that's probably part of it. I mean, New York State does require a 10 day, but it was a mandatory two-week quarantine if you came back from another state. Yeah, I think that's definitely having people rethink that. But a trip to Florida or that trip to wherever they were going to go.

Ron:  I want to touch on a subject. I'm not trying to raise any feathers here or maybe the hairs on the back of your neck. But I know that. I've heard. That there are this is stating the obvious, there's a lot of supply chain issues. Going back to say last summer. You're laughing so. Clearly, I'm poking the bear here. But last summer to the present, I've heard of all sorts of grief from folks. What do you see right now?

Shawn: I think it is a global shortage of just any device, anything we've got of receivers that are still to this day on backorder from October. That's now pushing six months. We have touch screens that we're being told we're not going to be able to see until July, August potentially so the glass is on backorder. The shortage of DSP chips for receivers seems to be the reason for that. And that was the two factor. Not only did you have COVID and a pullback in production, but then you also had that major fire in the one manufacturing facility that was notorious for doing the DSP chips and stuff like that. That's definitely there. We've seen everything from remote controls that have been back-ordered to controllers to TVs that we can't get our hands-on. You name it, even some of the networking gear. I've still got backorders for several months now on access points from some vendors.

It's been painful, but it hasn't been just related to our industry. It's been global. I talked to the interior designers that we work with. They're saying the same things: they're sitting there trying and waiting and waiting and waiting to get furniture. Things that typically are four to six weeks are now taking months and months. I say that ironically because I had a couch that we ordered last February a year ago. February was supposed to be delivered in March, and it did not get delivered until June. I get that a lot of that was also the shutdowns because everybody went into quarantine right away. But that was the early signs of everything going to become difficult to get. I think most of the customers understand this because it's a global thing again. It's not just us. They see it everywhere, you know? We were talking like I've got a Logitech webcam. I remember when I repurchased this thing, and I think it was April. Maybe it was May. The thing was on backorder for two months. I know there were a demand and that sort of stuff, but it's just it's across the entire industry, I think, in every aspect of everything that we're buying.

Ron:  Are you finding some vendors are having less of a problem than others? Are you finding that you or your peers around the industry are, in fact, investigating other lines when maybe you normally wouldn't have because of differences? Or is everyone uniformly being affected?

Shawn: My aspect to it, from what I can see, it seems to be across everybody. It's not just the Snap AVs or the Control4 or the AVIs, the distributors or the Sonys or Samsung's or LG's or fill in the blank. It's everybody. But yes. To your second thought there, we are starting to explore other product lines. For example, amplifiers weren't able to get from our primary sources that are two different primary sources are back-ordered. We've gone and started to experiment with other vendors. I am always a little hesitant to jump into a new product. I don't mind playing with it in-house, but it's very difficult to go and play with it at a customer's house, especially when it's not proven.

In my experience, doing this now for 20 years is our 20th anniversary this year. It taught me that if you play with something at the client's house, it will bite you in the ass later. And it almost always does. But because of the COVID, because of the pandemic, we're forced into some of those cards, some of those situations, and we're bringing them in-house and playing with new products that we wouldn't previously even think about. But after a week or two, you've got to go back to the client with something. Our phase of testing, so to speak, in the house has become a very short-term beta test. It's the two to three-week turnaround. It didn't fail, yet it performed as we expected it would. OK, we're going to go live with it.

Ron:  You're being forced to take some of those risks or change some of your processes just to cope.

Shawn: Yeah.

Ron:  Is there any insight that you're receiving from your vendors that anything's changing any time soon with accessibility to products?

Shawn: We always hear that.

Ron:  You're being given a bunch of lines.

Shawn: But isn't that the job of the outside sales rep? For every vendor says, "Oh, it's going to get better, it's going to get better, just give us a couple more weeks."

Ron:  "Eat these donuts I've brought to your office. Let's have fun. But let's not talk about that."

Shawn: I've got some that are more truthful than others. Some that literally do say, "Oh, it's going to be a couple of weeks." Some as months go by, they have no more excuses, and they've given up on the excuses. And I've got others that are very upfront, saying it's going to be July, August. It might show up before that. But we're honest with you. The sense of touch screens, it's not the technology, and the touch screens, it's back-ordered. It's the glass. Suppose I'm Control4, Crestron, Elan, AMX trying to get touch screens. They're all buying basically the same glass, more or less, but they're not buying it in huge quantities like, say, Amazon or Samsung or Apple for iPhones and all that kind of stuff. They're buying in pallets of a million pieces. Those backorders take forever to get through. Yeah, we've got manufacturers that are being honest and saying, "It's this part, and this is what we're waiting for. And that's why we're telling you." It's probably going to be midsummer before you see it. 

"Business is, in your words, doing really well. I've heard from manufacturers around the space that Q3, Q4, 2020 were exceptional. The residential custom integration space is doing well. We fared better than most spaces. A lot of the manufacturers, by default, had not been able to go to a trade show or buying group events because they haven't been held for the last 12 months. The savings are going right to the bottom line for them. And at the same time, their business is better than ever, and your business is better than ever."

Ron:  Business is, in your words, doing really well. I've heard from manufacturers around the space that Q3, Q4, 2020 were exceptional. So far, Q1 looks exceptional, and we're lucky. Roll of the dice. The residential custom integration space is doing well. We fared better than most spaces. A lot of the manufacturers, by default, had not been able to go to a trade show or buying group events because they haven't been held for the last 12 months.

And the question is, when will they be held again? It's a big question mark. Events planned for later this year. We'll see what happens. The savings are going right to the bottom line for them. And at the same time, their business is better than ever, and your business is better than ever. I'm setting all this up to get your perspective. What is the future of trade shows or event gatherings? As an integrator serving the Buffalo market? How do you think about it? If events do happen, will you go? And if you will, why would you go?

Shawn: I will tell you that we're Zoom fatigued, we're becoming a Zoom fatigued society and this new medium for hosting meetings and talking to people. I've done interviews for job openings in our company via Zoom. We're getting really fatigued with it. And it's very easy to lose attention now in the online formats.

Ron:  How did the online format work for you? Many different players in our industry, from associations to manufacturers, have tried the virtual stuff. What do you think about them?

Shawn: I'm not a fan. It's good to fill in on-demand training and that sort of stuff. The problem is that Zoom fatigue is too easy for us to tune out because of that Zoom fatigue. I've got a thirty-eight-inch monitor here, so I've got this gigantic desktop space on my computer here. It's very easy to put a window over there with the training in it, but yet do some programming on a project or do some tech support or do some marketing or check my emails over on the other side. When I do that, I become disconnected from what I'm actually supposed to be paying attention to concentrating on. I'm picking up maybe a third of the content when really I should be picking up on two-thirds of that context. But nobody ever picks up one hundred percent of any training.

"It's for us to sit down, have meetings, and talk to peers in other industries and markets. It's to understand what other markets and people are doing, what's successful, how they're doing it, where they're seeing industry trends and growth, that sort of stuff. It's also to do that same networking with the manufacturers. I'm able to talk to them and understand what we see as potential issues or problems in the industry and where we need things to go in the future. That's really the core reason for doing a lot of these trade shows.

That's the first problem. At least for my company and me and why we go to trade shows, the reason is not necessarily the most obvious. It's first and foremost networking. It's for us to sit down and have meetings and talk to my peers in other industries and other markets, even sometimes to talk to my own competitors in my own market. Meet them out at a restaurant, and then we have a bar or drink or something like that. But it's to understand what other markets, what people are doing, what's successful, how they're doing it, where they're seeing industry trends and growth and go and that sort of stuff. But it's also to do that same networking with the manufacturers then. Now I'm able to talk to them and understand what we see as potential issues or problems in the industry and where we need things to go in the future. That's really the core reason for doing a lot of these trade shows. Now, I'm not saying I need to go four times a year or anything like that.

One or two times a year is more than enough. But there are two other reasons as well. But networking is the primary reason. The second most important reason was the manufacturing aspect. To get access to the manufacturers, engineers. I'm going to pick on Sony, for example, although lately, they haven't been sending their engineers. They've been sending more of their technical people. But that's still okay because those people have that direct line back to the engineers. But it's to tell them, listen, we have a problem with your product. I'm selling your product all the time. I'm selling hundreds of them a year or whatever. But this particular piece of it is causing us grief all the time. And for them to be able to literally hear that feedback and go back in the next model year and correct that which has happened before, or to tell us, well, this is why we dropped the 3.5-millimeter infrared input jack on the back of TVs several years ago, because it may only be a dollar or two to put it on, but we manufacture millions of TVs a year. That becomes a one hundred million dollar expense that less than one percent were using now. That's the light bulb effect going on. OK, now I understand why manufacturing's doing what they're doing, and they're also now hearing from us. These are our pain points. This is why the software that you put in and you force an update in the middle of somebody watching a movie, why that's not a good idea, that sort of stuff where they don't think about that.

I've got manufacturers that come out with pieces for the racks, and we all love to dress our racks and make them look really pretty and nice and smooth. Well, one year after another, the manufacturer, the power cords, we're flipping from side to side, one year, the product line that's coming on the right side. The next year, it's on the left side, back on the right side. We literally had to the point that out to them and say, listen, this is a nightmare for us. We need to be all on the same side of the rack. The people that are manufacturing and designing these products don't think that. Some of them may come from our industry, but they may not actually be active in the industry or have forgotten that aspect of it and didn't put those pieces together. That was that light opening. Of course, the third reason is for the training. I do a lot of training with CEDIA and host a lot of training and stuff. I don't get around to a lot of the training, but I do get to some of them. This is especially with the CEDIA Expo. This is the one time of the year that we literally tell all of our customers. We're going away. We're closing down the business for a week. You can call us, it may be four hours to eight hours before we get back to you, but we're literally bringing every technician and every salesperson to you to get trained. This is our their opportunity to get exposed to the new products to see what's coming. Me personally, I love to walk the trade show on Saturdays because it's dead. I know that used to be on the Sundays when CEDIA had trade shows on Sundays. I'm hoping that we don't lose those Saturdays because that's my time. I don't like fighting the crowds to see the product. I enjoy being able to walk up to the booth and spend my six hours or seven hours on that Saturday, going from both looking at the new technologies and asking those questions.

That's the time of the year that we actually then start to evaluate looking at new products that we might test out. We might play with what we might bring in house for a couple of months and see how it works because we saw something at expo or trade show like Avixa or something that was pretty cool, pretty neat, pretty interesting, and gives us that ability. Me personally, I don't see the virtual aspect taking over. It was nice. I know several manufacturers host them. I know CEDIA did some. Really, my attention was on a 40-inch monitor here. It's too easy to get work done over here on the side when my training is going on right there.

Ron:  What's your message to the manufacturers listening to this interview? What should they do about CEDIA or Infocomm or ISC or all of the plethora of events? You can't be at those events.

Shawn: There is going to be that hands-on element that I can physically touch. I can physically see you install it or physically watch you configure it. I can ask you the questions. I can see what other people are asking for questions. Sometimes, that's more valuable than me asking for questions, seeing what other people are asking things that I hadn't thought of. And the light bulb goes on and goes, oh, gosh, yeah, that's right. I need to know that. I forgot about that aspect of it. In the virtual environment, you really don't get a lot of that. Some of that you get through text messaging the online chat. But again, part of the dilemma of that virtual aspect is if I'm paying attention to the online chat, I'm no longer listening to the instructor who's teaching anymore. My attention's been split. That's not the best element. Some of the manufacturer's pieces of training that were virtual weren't live. I couldn't interact and ask those questions. You couldn't do some of that stuff. Some of it was life. There were a lot of technical barriers to that live platform that prevented things from operating smoothly. For manufacturers and vendors thinking about it, I will tell you for at least the next 10-20 years. I don't see trade shows going away.

Do I see that we could do a hybrid environment of them? Sure. I think we could go and take some of the training, and we could do some of the presentations, move them to an online format, and be in-person. Could you put, and I hate suggesting, put a camera and a booth concept because that's never going to work. But one of the local school districts here, I sit as a trustee on a school board here in western New York in Williamsville, New York. With the whole pandemic, we went to a model called High Flaks, a hybrid model where, yeah, we are putting cameras in classrooms, but we're teaching the teachers how to utilize that environment. It's not just a window into the classroom, and the remote students are watching it. It's a whole new aspect. Teachers were actually given several weeks of Hands-On training before this went live. They continue to receive product development and professional development on Wednesdays to increase and improve it. We've actually started walking through some of the schools, watching how this actually interacts. It's absolutely amazing to watch the in-class students interact with the students at home who are all interacting with the teacher in the classroom. I think there's something to be learned there that we could adapt into the trade show and make that High Flaks type environment successful so that we can get access to people that can't travel or don't feel comfortable, especially this coming year, may not feel comfortable traveling in but can be that hybrid approach between the two. I don't see where we're going to replace the networking aspect, though.

As I said, that's my number one reason and my business partner and some of my associates. That's the number one reason why we go to trade shows is to talk to our colleagues and peers and stuff like that. It's not the same as dropping an email or picking up the phone and calling them and talking to them or sitting on a Zoom meeting and seeing them in person. It's just not the same aspect.

Ron:  It's so valuable. I had no idea, Shawn, that you were so passionate about this subject. It was a couple of days ago. Jeremy from Origin Acoustics had made a post on Facebook asking that question or putting out the question. If you haven't seen that chat string, you should check it out. It's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of replies on that—so much emotion on both sides of the issue. The variable here is obviously COVID. What role do you think the vaccine or your ability to get vaccinated or your team's ability to get vaccinated in before the show? What role does that have in any decision-making that you have or that you're thinking through?

Shawn: I think it's going to make a major factor for everybody, not just for us as a business, but for anybody that wants to send people in and attend. Public gatherings in general, we're very scared of it right now. I know that changes from state to state. New York was a very heavily quarantined state, especially because it started here in New York City. Now, Buffalo, New York, just for the record, Buffalo, New York, is nowhere near New York City, a hundred miles away from each other. But we are in the same state. With the major outbreak, we took many cuts and literally were in some pretty heavy lockdowns for some portions of it to the point where I think a lot of people still are very hesitant to do anything. I'll admit myself. I'm still a little hesitant. I mentioned the Buffalo Sabres at the beginning of this. I'm a season ticket holder. And they've reached out to us and said, are you interested in coming to games? Well, besides the product that's on the ice, not being as stellar as we'd like it to be. I got to say that I want to be in a facility with at full capacity 18,000 people.

But even I think the rules right now, they're looking at 10 percent capacity. That's 1800 people. That still makes you a little nervous. I'm also a season ticket holder to the local theater here, Sheas Theater, which brings six, seven musicals a year. I'm very hesitant to go in watching Hamilton on stage again right now because that's a closed environment.

Ron: Pivoting it back to CEDIA then. I hear your passion for attending. What is your position on are you going because you're vaccinated, or are you going in regardless of whether you're able to get vaccinated?

Shawn: I will be going because I will be vaccinated, and so will my staff. If I believe what our politicians are telling us, that by this summer, by the mid to end of the summer, and I know that yesterday our president came out and said that everybody should have at least the first shot by the end of May. I'm optimistic that that's going to be a reality. I don't know what that will be. But I'm optimistic, too, that by the end of summer, I think we can have seventy-five eighty percent of the country vaccinated, which does create that herd vaccination. It's going to be safer. When summer comes, we all tend to venture outside, and we tend to be a little less guarded. I think that's going to help with our perception, especially if we were all vaccinated today. I think the perception wouldn't be there yet for us to go out in bulk and to be with five hundred other people.

Ron:  We've trained for twelve months not to do that. We're going to have to untrain that a little bit for patterns or habits to change.

"I think this summer will help with that, especially with more and more people being vaccinated and us getting outside and doing the various local community things that we'll all be doing and going to the beaches and amusement parks and whatever. And it won't just be a flip of the switch; it's just every day is going to be that little bit more and more that we do. By the time CEDIA rolls around the end of August, beginning of September, I think we're going to be there. I think we're going to be ready to go, at least from my perception."

Shawn: Exactly. And I think this summer will help with that, especially with more and more people being vaccinated and us getting outside and doing the various local community things that we'll all be doing and going to the beaches and amusement parks and whatever. And it won't just be a flip of the switch; it's just every day is going to be that little bit more and more that we do. By the time CEDIA rolls around the end of August, beginning of September, I think we're going to be there. I think we're going to be ready to go, at least from my perception. I think from our company's point of view. I think we're going to be ready for that. As I said, everybody on staff right now has either gotten the vaccination is scheduled, and some of them aren't scheduled until the middle of April or in the middle of getting vaccinations. Ironically for myself, I just got my first shot on Monday.

New York is allowing. There's not an age restriction on the shot. There are various groups and entities. Because we also are an IT company that some of our customers are doctors and doctors offices and stuff like that. We fall into the 1B classification, which is the first group of frontline workers because we can be in those doctor's offices working on the I.T. aspects and stuff like that. I know this changes. It varies from state to state, but yeah, for New York State, it started at seventy-five and up and front line workers, and then that requirement got a little lessened or opened up a little more. It became teachers, and my own wife is a school teacher, so she's actually going to get her vaccination or for a shot tomorrow because she falls in line with the teachers and that sort of stuff. It depends on the states, how many vaccinations there are where you fall in line. But New York, because we can be classified as a frontline worker. That's how we're able to get in and get our vaccinations.

Ron:  What is the status? You've been a long-time CEDIA instructor of many the I.T. content course, curriculum developer, and instructor. How's that looking for 2021?

Shawn: For 2021, I think in the sense of expo presentation?

Ron:  In the sense of that content, will you be instructing at Expo this year?

Shawn: I will be at Expo. I have one class at this point. I have a panel that I'll be hosting on Wednesday. I believe it is. Because of social distancing and the question marks still around, we do not have any of the in-class instruction for the labs. For those who have attended CEDIA I.T training before, we put all the labs. We usually have two or three people, sometimes for people depending on how big the classes, all sharing the networking equipment, social distancing. If you've got to do six feet, that's one person per equipment. Literally, you have maybe eight, ten people in the classroom.

"Even at the fundamentals, when people just don't understand any of the concepts. It is the first time they've ever touched a router or a switch and configuring it. It's great to give them that environment where they can break it, and we show them how to troubleshoot so that they can figure out how to fix it instead of just giving them the answers."

It's not worth bringing all that equipment. And that does sadden me a great deal because I really am a firm believer that the hands-on labs and that sort of stuff are crucial to understanding and deploying and playing with the stuff. I've taught everything from some of the higher and advanced classes all the way down. Last year they had me teaching one of the fundamental classes, and I love teaching them all. Even at the fundamentals, when people just don't understand any of the concepts. It is the first time they've ever touched a router or a switch and configuring it. It's great to give them that environment where they can break it, and we show them how to troubleshoot so that they can figure out how to fix it instead of just giving them the answers. I'm saddened that this year at CEDIA, we won't see that, but I'm optimistic that we will see the return of that next year. In 2022, for sure, we're going to see those come back. And I know CEDIA has been trying to do a lot with, again, the virtual labs and the virtual training and stuff like that, which is great. We can still get the training and the I.T. stuff done. But again, it falls back to that, being able to touch it physically, break it, and fix it. That aspect, there's nothing that's going to replace that anytime soon.

Ron:  Shawn, I know you have places to be and things to do. How can those that are watching or listening either live or in replay or through the podcast? How can they get in touch with you everywhere?

Shawn: Website, www.soundandtheater.net. Facebook is facebook.com/soundandtheater. They can email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. They can find us on Twitter @soundandtheater. We're all over social media and the internet.

Ron:  Awesome. And for those that are watching, I am sharing the Sound and Theatre website. Congratulations on your new website, by the way.

Shawn: Thank you.

Ron:  It looks amazing. You did a great job. Well, thank you very much. You gave us some great content. I want to commend you. I was looking through your gallery before we went life, and there were some really fun projects in here. I love this. There was a theatre. There it is. Look at that thing. Alright. You have to tell us about this room. That's a pretty cool-looking room.

Shawn: This was a fun project. This customer loves his sports, so he likes the five-screen, but he loves his movies as well. If you look, you'll find some other artwork and clip art on the new website that shows you the artwork on the side is actually a different project. But the artwork that's on the side, those are actually album covers, LP covers that are our sound abatement that the client wanted. The wood there is from my old barn. So it's been refurbished wood. You can't see some other photos in this photo, but directly behind where the photo was taken is a bar of which has the Han Solo refrigerator door. He's frozen and kryptonite. There you go. Also, I forgot about the pool table in this one as well. You can see the Han Solo kryptonite door there. It's an amazing theater, which you don't see on the opposite side is that he's got to shoot off. He's got a small arcade, a bunch of arcade games, and stuff like that that sit in there as well, from foosball to air hockey to you know what. It all links back, simulcasts to the monitors and stuff like that to this room as well. This is definitely one of those more fun projects to work on.

Ron:  Awesome, Shawn, I'm glad to hear that you're doing so well, and it was a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks again for coming on.

Shawn: Thank you, Ron. It was a pleasure.

Ron:  Alright, folks, there you have it, the one and only Shawn Lemay from Sound and Theater out of Buffalo, New York. And if you are a regular attendee or participant in CEDIA, you'll recognize Shawn's face because he's again an active volunteer and trainer and curriculum developer over there, which is pretty awesome that he gives back to all of you watching and listening gives back to the industry in so many ways. Well, I want to thank you guys for tuning in, and we'll let you get back to your regularly scheduled programming. I will remind you that this live video or this replay video is also available in audio-only format. If you go to your favorite podcast app and just search up Automation Unplugged, you'll see it. You can subscribe. Don't forget to leave a review if you would be so kind, and we'd be indebted to you for a long time if you would leave a review that would help more people actually see it, see and hear the show. Here's our website, onefirefly.com. There's our phone number if you want to get in touch. And I will see you guys next week with another show. Thanks so much. Be well.


Shawn is a CEDIA Registered Outreach Instructor and volunteer. He holds various vendor certifications and is an active writer with multiple published articles to his credit. Shawn got his start in IT and Computer system sales before discovering the world of smart home automation when he and his business partner attended their first CEDIA trade show event in 2004. Their Buffalo, New York-based automation company, Sound & Theater, was created to provide consumers easy-to-use, simple, and concealed smart technology throughout their homes.

Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly become the leading marketing firm specializing in integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team works hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution Mercury Pro.

Resources and links from the interview:

To keep up with Shawn and the team at Sound and Theater, visit their website at soundandtheater. You can find Sound and Theater on social media on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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