House of Blues sings over VoIP network

The House of Blues Concerts Canada is singing a happy tune these days, according to its director of information technology Howie Gold.

The concert provider recently replaced its Nortel Networks Ltd.’s Norstar analogue telephony system with a digital Nortel system and incorporated voice over

IP for some of its locations. And this, says the Toronto-based Gold, has saved the company about $40,000 to $50,000 a year in local and long distance charges. It has also made workers at the House of Blues (HOB), many of whom are often on the road, more efficient, Gold says.

The House of Blues originally wanted to replace its analogue system, which is now about 10 years old, with a digital system to make it easier to manage its inbound and outbound lines and to provide its staff with more functionality, such as caller ID. Voice over IP wasn’t in the original plans, Gold says.

He looked at systems from 3Com, Siemens AG and Cisco Systems Inc., but rejected them because they were all too expensive.

“”All of them were just far too pricey when we started factoring in the cost of replacing the physical phone sets as well as the hardware, the software, the key codes, so on.””

By choosing Nortel’s Business Communications Manager (BCM), the House of Blues could hang on to its existing phone sets, thereby saving $40,000, Gold says.

To replace or not to replace

This is one of the main differences between competing VoIP systems, says Fox Group Consulting president and senior partner Roberta Fox in Markham, Ont. Some providers, such as Cisco require companies to go 100 per cent with their products. Others, such as Nortel and Mitel Networks Corp., ,allow companies to add their equipment to existing technology. The latter choice is the more popular, she says.

“”Financially, business cases are not compelling to throw out your existing technology to put in voice over IP.””

The digital BCM system the House of Blues installed also had voice over IP capabilities, which Nortel offered to the HOB on a trial basis, Gold says. He put some IP phones in the HOB Vancouver office and found that workers were lining up to use them to communicate with the Toronto office. Soon,every employee in the Vancouver office had an IP phone.

With the VoIP capability, employees in Vancouver and Toronto can talk to each other by dialing a four-digit extension. This, Gold says, has been a great boon for productivity.

“”By having this inter-office communication, it increases our level of communications tenfold,”” he says. “”People now speak voice-to-voice. We get to know people in the other offices now.””

People are more likely to pick up the phone these days than to communicate using e-mail, Gold says. Besides making for smoother communications and saving about $1,000 a month on long-distance charges, it has helped HOB lower its e-mail overhead, he says. The company is also saving about $3,000 a month in local phone charges.

The system has been so successful, the L.A. office has taken note, Gold says.

The HOB is currently in the process of rolling out VoIP phones to all of its locations.

HOB has never experienced any bandwidth issues with the VoIP system, he says. This is true even when the company is doing large, bandwidth-eating downloads.

Nortel’s senior manager of products and marketing, Becky Lane in Nashville, Tenn., says the company strongly recommends its customers do a network assessment when putting in a VoIP system to make sure they have sufficient bandwidth for all of their applications.

One of the greatest benefits of the system has been for the HOB mobile staff, Gold says. A good number of its employees are on the road much of the time, but with their IP phones loaded onto their laptops, they are more accessible, he says.

They can make phone calls without incurring long distance charges and have faxes sent directly to their laptops rather than to their hotels, he says.

“”When our users are logged on, it’s as if they’re sitting at their desk. They can get their e-mail, their faxes and their telephone calls. So it’s helped considerably.””

When they are on tour with one artist, production managers are still planning tours with other artists. Their increased accessibility gives the HOB a leg up on its competition, he says.

“”The BCM has just given us so many functions and features from a mobility standpoint that I’m a hero here. It’s just made us so much more efficient.””

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