Sue Fenton reports on a UK business that has become a global player in visual display technology.

A business that began as the result of a management buyout in 2007 has since grown to five times its original size and has nearly quadrupled its turnover. Global Immersion, based in Haywards Heath, Sussex, is now a major provider of visual display technology for immersive theatrical experiences, equipping planetaria, museums and other attractions around the world.

Global Immersion (GI) designs, builds, integrates and maintains immersive theatre attractions, including digital planetaria, 3D and 4D experiences and innovative fulldome (digital dome video) systems. One of its overseas customers, the Moscow Planetarium, recently reopened after 17 years of closure after installing six GI digital theatre systems.

GI grew out of a niche division of a company that specialised in flight simulation displays and training solutions. The division took the high-specification visual display systems technology used for pilot and military training and applied it to other uses, notably planetaria.

The head of that unit, Martin Howe, who later became Chief Executive of GI, says: “It became obvious that planetaria were a major market, though one that had high barriers to entry because the technology is extremely complex and it is difficult to get good results on screen because of the massive size and resolutions involved. There was a demand for these systems in science centres, museums and educational institutions, where existing technologies were becoming increasingly obsolete as digital alternatives evolved.”

In 2007, the parent company decided to focus on its core market, and Mr Howe and four colleagues purchased the non-simulation business unit through a management buyout, funded by private equity from Sevenoaks-based Foresight Group. GI’s business plan initially focused on the USA as the biggest market and it won various major projects, including the design and installation of what is believed to be the world’s highest-resolution digital dome system, at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Since then, other markets, notably eastern Europe and Asia, have become increasingly important. “Over the past 10 years, China and Russia have been showing their ambitions and they’re now driving many areas of technological development; those markets are growing faster, and presenting more opportunities, than we expected. This has helped us to remain mainly unaffected by the economic problems in the US.”

Mr Howe explains: “A lot of funding for the science centre market comes from government budgets and private donations, so some projects are simply being delayed. The impact of this economic decline has resulted in customers being a little more cautious. Having said that, some projects have long lead times and were agreed some time ago, so business hasn’t stopped. The American customers are very realistic. They know that if they don’t upgrade their venues, attendances are likely to decline.”

This means there is still business to be gained in the USA, since the economic situation is gradually improving, especially if the company can prove its “value and performance” is better than that of the competition (mainly two American companies, as well as the German organisation, Zeiss).

“We came in as the new boys but we’re innovative; we’re bringing new technology and techniques from simulation and high performance computing and we understand what it takes to deliver an outstanding visitor experience,” Mr Howe added.

GI’s core business remains the upgrading of planetarium technologies at science centres and museums. The potential market is large. There are more than 3500 planetaria worldwide, of which only about 600 have been digitally updated. There are also opportunities in giant screen cinema. There are about 800 of these massive (18-metre-plus) screens around the world and GI has already upgraded four IMAX dome cinemas.

A rapidly growing part of the company’s activities comes from entertainment markets, with clients such as Disney, which offer “the next generation of immersive attraction”. Customers such as this, says Mr Howe, are looking for “what’s next and what’s best, and that’s where we fit, because of our technical competence in high performance electronics, optics, engineering and mechanics”.

This skillset works well in Asia, too, he says, where “there’s an ambition to build the biggest, best and ever more challenging”. The company is also building a range of mid-market products for emerging markets like Russia and Brazil.

There is business to be gained in museums, opera houses, sports venues, popular music events and theatres, as well as applications in science and education. Opportunities are opening up in related markets as the needs of giant-screen cinema, digital video, planetarium and themed entertainment communities converge.

The business has turned a profit every year since its third year and as turnover increases so has profit, as the relatively high overheads of the geographically fragmented business become a smaller and smaller proportion.

Despite the improving sales and profit position, Howe concedes the cash profile can be “lumpy”, particularly as projects get bigger. Clear contractual milestones and regular stage payments help manage cash flow, and Mr Howe says their bank, Lloyds TSB, has collaborated with GI in helping it manage the business growth.

Another issue the company had to face was making overseas contacts and, with exports now making up about 90% of its business, GI credits the UK Government’s export assistance arm, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), with helping it to become a major player in its field.

Mr Howe says: “UKTI has been superb with helping us make contacts at senior levels, especially in governments, and in helping us find agents, resellers and partners. Thanks to contacts engineered by UKTI, we have been able to walk straight into the boardrooms of US$2 billion businesses.”

According to Mr Howe, the company now faces a number of challenges, one being how to manage projects in areas where there are language and, more importantly, cultural barriers. “We’re now quite savvy about exporting but there are significant differences, especially in China, in the way businesses present and behave. Cultural awareness of customers is vital. It’s less about language than about the subtlety and nuances of behaviours.”

Having reliable local partners and help from UKTI to advise on business procedures and etiquette has helped overcome such barriers. There are also differences in countries’ approach to health and safety and building standards, so to overcome this GI has adopted a rigid health and safety policy that it applies to all its onsite teams and subcontractors across the world.

Mr Howe explains that the issue of bribery, which some companies experience when doing business abroad, is less of a problem than might be imagined. “Most of our business is with end users, typically following a public procurement process, so the issue of bribes doesn’t come up. We simply steer clear of situations where it might. Sometimes we’ve had situations that didn’t feel right or legitimate and we have either walked away or found a clearer path to the customer.”

One of the biggest challenges is “being prepared for all eventualities”, he says. “We’re running three business scenarios: running to budget; a number of projects being delayed; and everything we’re hoping for happening at the same time. For example, if one particular project comes off we will have to mobilise another 5–10 people immediately. But we also need to plan for what to do if projects are delayed.”

The company has 40 staff and associates, some of whom are based in Denver, USA, and a small but growing network of partners and suppliers in the UK and overseas. Because of the need to build collaborative teams from individuals who are highly qualified technically in various specialisms, personality testing has become part of the recruitment process.

“Making sure we all work together as a team means understanding what makes people tick. We’re looking for certain characteristics over and above technical and functional abilities. We want some people whose core strengths are reliability, thoroughness and dependability; and we want some who can drive change, who are entrepreneurial, who take risks and who are prepared to make original mistakes.”

The technical story

Global Immersion’s high-performance display systems are 4–32 times the resolution of standard high-definition reproduction. Before the advent of this new technology, planetaria used optical machines with lenses and lamps, capable only of showing star fields, whereas GI’s immersive systems can simulate take-off and travel to the edge of the universe, thanks to access to digital universe databases from organisations such as NASA and ESA.

Top tips for exporters, by Martin Howe, CEO of Global Immersion (www.globalimmersion.com)

  • Visit your chosen market regularly.

  • Have focus — be clear about what you’re going after, and even clearer about what you are not.

  • Take all the help you can get. UKTI has been pivotal to our success. Without it, our business today would be very different.

  • Avoid delays and misunderstandings about money and payment milestones by making your terms clear and very specific at the start of every project.

Last reviewed 29 August 2012