Analysis: A stark future for photo trade shows

The announcement this week of the cancellation of PhotoPlus Expo – coupled with last week’s cancellation of PRINTING United – brings to a head the ongoing concern of the future of the trade show format. After missing two consecutive years, it will be interesting to see in what form PhotoPlus returns in 2022. Up until cancellation, the show was still lagging in terms of exhibitors; of the 26 exhibitors listed on the site, none were major camera brands. (And possibly, in a true representation of state of the industry, two of the 26 were law firms.)

The bad news in the show business continues to spread; the NAB show has become increasingly important to camera dealers. For some, it became “their” show after the decline of PMA and the continued irrelevance of CES. Unfortunately, the 2021 edition – scheduled for Oct 8-13 in Las Vegas – was struck with the recent news Canon, Sony and Panasonicthree of the biggest players in the broadcast gear biz – will not attend the show due to COVID-19 concerns.

A weakness exposed

One of the side effects of the COVID pandemic is the way it has exposed weaknesses in business plans. Industries without robust supply chains still face shortages of key components. Small businesses discovered alternative business processes to survive and will continue to adapt; home delivery of food will continue long after the pandemic abates, for example. Businesses that are able to employ automation or AI in place of entry-level or seasonal employees now have an advantage.

In the case of trade shows, the pandemic has exposed the weakness in that business model which, in truth, had already been struggling for years. At the tail-end of the stand-alone PMA trade shows, it was evident from the shrinking booth sizes and the absence of key camera makers that enthusiasm was waning for trade-focused events. Big brands want to reach consumers directly. The ROI became impossible for a major camera brand to spend millions on a booth for a shrinking customer base with a declining market share in a category being cannibalized by smartphones.

In reality, the camera and printing equipment makers were carrying an undue burden. They were required to pay top dollar for premium space to maintain their image and serve as a drawing card for attendees and for media coverage. In the case of the PMA show, annual new camera launches were required; if a major brand didn’t have a new camera to tout, their market leadership was questioned.

And yet, most dealers and lab owners would say the real action was in the smaller booths and 10x10s in the back of the show. That’s where startups and innovation would be featured, a veritable flea market of new accessories, products, and ideas. For example, GoPro started in a 10×10 in the back of the PMA show, back when Nick Woodman was pitching his waterproof single-use camera housings strapped to a surfer’s wrist. Without the big camera and printing equipment makers underwriting the majority of the show expense and attention, those 10x10s are not possible.

The internet broke everything

Like most things, the internet disintermediated trade shows. New product information and presentations could be digitally shared efficiently and with tracking. The ROI of reaching customers at a trade show was already difficult since many of the ways of generating leads like giveaways and raffles were hard to measure.

Another factor was media coverage. At one time, trade shows were common fodder for mass media coverage. Morning news shows, eager for the latest consumer-friendly news, often featured from-the-floor show reports with the latest gadgets. Shows like CES (along with ShowStoppers and Pepcom) served as positive PR platforms for big brands and launchpads for startups. But, as trade shows lost influence, this key marketing thrust changed. Vendors discovered they could command an audience of their own without the expense, the overhead, and the lack of control offered by a trade show. Sony Alpha Universe is an excellent example of how a brand can communicate that same information a future customer used to have to go to a trade show to experience.

When announcing the departure from NAB, Panasonic execs stated with certainty their plans would proceed without a hitch:

In place of participating in-person, we’re planning to meet and connect with our valued customers via our digital platforms where we look forward to sharing our exciting announcements. We are confident a digital experience will be effective, similar to events we’ve hosted over the last 18 months. We will be in touch with updates on event specifics over the next few weeks, but please reach out directly with any immediate questions. – Carter Hoskins, director, professional imaging, Panasonic.

A rebellious press

As we wrote in 2018: “Major brands like Apple and Samsung don’t need third-party shows to get press attention. They have big enough market presence and editorial interest to have their own over-covered events, complete with weeks of speculation leading up to the event, live-blogging during the press conference, and then dozens of posts dissecting every syllable and utterance from the stage. It’s exclusive media coverage a trade show can’t match.”

CES press lining up

And, frankly, the press members and writers grew tired of trade shows, too. Tech journalists are a cantankerous bunch and the long days of travel, of jargon-filled press conferences, of stale press-room lunches, and more didn’t build loyalty to attend. By 2015, tech media were openly rebelling against attending trade shows, as documented here. The blog post “I hate CES and you should too” became a rallying cry.

More on more press information became available online, which further negated the need for in-person attendance. The longtime tech writer John C. Dvorak declared, ” I’ve been to far too many tech shows and my coverage is pretty much the same if I go or not.” While most of these comments apply to CES, they also apply to most other crowded trade shows.

A costly venture

For decades, the trade show business model was built around the idea the exhibits underwrites the cost of the entire event… and those costs can be imposing. Most attendees don’t realize the costs for an exhibitor include the per-square-foot “rental” of the booth space, construction costs, materials, shipping, and storage costs. Add to those costs the travel expenses of all the staff, plus on-site signage and promotional material and it all adds up quickly. In the not-so-long-ago past, physical attendance at an event was the only way to learn about new products and services as well as network and learn new skills. In the age of instant communication and 4K video, it’s not necessary to sit in a trade-show booth meeting room to have a product briefing.

The way forward

If this article seems a bit of a downer, it’s not intended to be. Just as the photo industry needed to adapt to the change from analog to digital, the meetings and events industry will need to adapt to a new model less focused on big displays and exhibits and more on education and networking. Product launches have become increasingly detached from trade shows and events. As Dead Pixels Society readers know, camera, lens, accessory, and other product announcements continue unabated, despite the cancellation of numerous shows.

The value of any trade event is the community connections it builds and reinforces. I think there’s great potential in smaller, more focused and niche events. In our industry, buying groups offer tremendous value to their segments, such as the recent IPIC event and currently underway PRO Convention show. The exhibit portion of these events is more restrained and education is emphasized. In other photo industry events that are focused on photographers like WPPI and Imaging USA, vendor’s expenses will likely shift away from having big floor presences and go to sponsoring education

There will be big changes for attendees, however, as the costs of putting on events will be reapportioned. With exhibit-focused events, attendees were often offered free or very low-cost entry fees to appease exhibitors demanding thousands of warm bodies (qualified or not) to walk past their booth. Without that subsidy, attendees will have to pay their own entry fees which will likely increase. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, since the attendees will likely be more relevant and committed than the attendee who shows up for one day to walk the floor.

Small executive-style networking events, like Visual 1st, Pro Imaging CONNECT, and the new ImagingExecutives@PHOTOPIA conference are examples of these content- and networking-focused events. They may not have the splash and energy of a full-blown trade fair but will continue to be a vital link between business executives and vendors.