May 1, 2014

Superyacht A/V - the case for standards and warranties at the contract stage

Clyde & Co's John Leonida looks at how bringing A/V into the contract stage, and utilising warranties and standards could save a world of legal and financial headaches later on for yacht owners.

My late father was a short, barrel  of a man, much  li ke myself, but only  shorter and barrelier. He owned  a barber shop in Peckham. Like all great  barbers, his skill was not  just the way he yielded his Dovo cut-throat razor  but his barbershop philosophy. My father's mantra was "above all be straightforward". Say what  you mean. Be clear. Clarity avoids  the mystery of fog.

This mantra came to mind  a recent yachting industry dinner  when the subject turned to audio visual systems  on superyachts. We all had our war stories: the  failures, the disasters. War stories make for better conversation than the successful  projects, which  do, however, provide a useful counterpoint that set the failures  in sharp relief.

A common theme underlying the  failures was just  how late in the  projects owners  turned their minds  to A/V. On many  yachts, the audio visual content is something 'to be sorted  out later.' While other areas of the specification will be heavily negotiated, it is not uncommon for the NV component to be glossed over by the  insertion of a provisional cost - a financial allowance reserved  in the contract price, founded on experienced guesswork. At best  a list of brands  and boxes may  be identified in the A/V specification, the  challenge to this being that the list  will have evolved at the  time of ordering, and the  net result being  added  cost, added delay  and a compromise to ensure  the technology fits with the overall design.

A disconnect also exists  between how the A/V is actually used versus the original intentions behind the A/V spec, which is often  inspired by the latest technological gizmos that are packed  with the sort of functionality which  the owner  pays for but may  never use. That said, many  owners are not  sure  exactly  what they  want, in terms of technology, at the time the build contract is signed or assuming the owner does know, technology will more than likely have moved  on significantly by the time the build  project reaches the  procurement phase.

Another challenge, albeit of a different nature, is a disconnect between the technology and the overall aesthetic of the build: state-of-the­ art is designed  and installed below  deck to provide the holy  grail of sound and graphics, but  the  interior designer might recommend the installation of poor  quality flat  screen TVs. The sound  system is compromised when  a structural cross beam lies in the  way of a finely tuned speaker location - the effect  being  an €10,000 speaker that sounds  much  like a child's enamel  potty.

When negotiating a build  contract, warranties addressing  noise, vibration, speed and range, and paint are the norm. We may still argue over the details, but the key principles are determined early in the life of the project. Let us not  forget, just  a few years ago it would have been rare for a builder  to agree to any kind of performance warranty. However, the benefits  of warranties are clear, providing clarity as to what is being built  and arguably lifting the overall  quality  of yacht building generally.

In recent  years, a regular  complaint from owners  has been about AV being treated as an afterthought. Ihave sat in meetings where the discussion on A/V does not  extend  beyond the owners  desire to watch Sky Sports  and films, which in turn explains why so often the A/V specification will amount to little more  than x number of sky boxes, a DVD player  and a requisite number of screens and one size fits all touch screen remote control.  Iforget the number of times  Ihave seen such a fancy touch screen abandoned  by an owner  in search of a physical grey remote control, which switches  the TV on and allows for a simple  flick through the channels!

The alternative to the above is when the owner delegates the responsibility of A/V to the crew and what's  delivered is a €2-million behemoth that looks the part, earns the provider a small fortune in fees and is so complex  the owner  struggles to use it, and, what's more, when the crew member who proposed the installation has moved  on, the owner  is lumbered with the high costs of maintaining the system.

Should we be asking at the contract stage, in parallel  with  everything else, what owners want from  the A/V system?  Such that when the owner's  team is ready  to order the boxes, there are a set of minimum A/V performance and installation criteria. On the sea trial should the owner's team  be trialling and verifying access to satellite TV and tracking how long it takes to change  channels? How long it takes to load movies  and music? How about accessing iTunes at sea? What about  streaming using a sling box? What about  simultaneous movie watching in different locations with different start times? How long should a movie  take to load? Should the system  be future-proofed, albeit  for two or three  years in advance?

Given the importance we place on multimedia in our existence  should we not be advising  owners and encouraging builders to spend more time  at the contract  stage addressing  A/V? Should the builders  be making provision for standards to deal with  A/V cabling?

What we don't  want to see is any yacht  owner, having  abandoned  the €2 million, state-of-the art A/V system in frustration and turning to the sling box  with V-Sat airtime to the tune  of €140,000, in addition  to the €2 million already  invested  in A/V.

Outside the yachting space, InfoComm International, which is a trade  association  representing professional audiovisual and information communications industries, publishes on their website a whole range of standards  and guidance  that  might form  the basis of how we might look at A/V in yachts going forward. For example,  nfoComm  recently published a draft  international standard  for Audiovisual System  Performance Verification (NI FOCOMM 10:2013 ds1).

In the foreword to the draft, Ann Brigida, Director of Standards at InfoComm International says that  the  need for a standard comes from the increasing complexity, the chances  of misconfiguration,improper installation and failure  to conform  to project requirements. Sound familiar?  Perhaps we should  be learning from others.  Some added standards at the contract stage could save everyone headaches  down the road.