Is there a place for photo at CES?

A hot CES 2017 item: An automatic self-cleaning litter box. Photo courtesy of Marty Shindler.

Another Consumer Electronic Show (CES) has come and gone, heralding the beginning of the year for the tech industry and the beginning of trade-show season for the photo industry. Of course, the former Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show was the traditional kick-off for the photo year for decades, but with the 2016 merger of that august group with Photo Imaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association (PMDA) to form The Imaging Alliance, “PMA” is all but a pleasant memory.

Prior to the demise of the PMA show, several of the major camera exhibitors had already moved their big booths to CES, in a bid to consolidate 1Q marketing expenses. It’s hard to argue with accountants that a photo show attracting 18-20,000 trade members is a better value than a tech show attracting 150,000 people and A-list tech and consumer press. You want headlines, you go to CES.

Of course, industry consolidation played a key factor, too. For the camera makers, you didn’t need to go to PMA to see your top dealers like Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, B&H, Samy’s Camera, or Adorama. They were so few in number, manufacturers could see them at CES a few weeks earlier or even visit them when needed.

Several years have passed, though, and it’s clear from my conversations with photo-industry execs and business owners there’s something missing. PMA was also the place to get deals done; to make that key contact who could turn into a business partner later. The photo industry was a close-knit family, dysfunctional at times, but joined by the common silver-halide platform.

The value of a PMA show is photo industry people – no matter the segment – could see something of interest. Whether they were a photofinisher, a camera store, a mass retailer, school photo lab, gadget-bag maker, etc., there was something for them. Most every exhibitor had something related to film, whether it was a piece of processing equipment, negative-sleeve system, packaging, etc. Once digital photography became popular, that common platform became less important.

Now, to see specific products or services, you have attend specific shows. For a photo lab or online photo printer, their best events may be DScoop, GraphExpo, SGIA or PRINT. For an independent retailer, you are better off at a buying group show, like IPI, PRO and Fotosource. Some online retailers are even going to events like Internet Retailer. If you are mobile photo app maker, your best option may be Mobile Photo Connect. If you have international aspirations, there are Business Forum Imaging conference, photokina and CP+.

The problem with this, however, is this encourages a bunker mentality. By only speaking with similar businesses, owners will not always get the new ideas needed to keep their business fresh. And, frankly, with the digital nature of business today, you don’t even have to go to any of these events to open a business.

In the heyday of PMA, the early online photofinishers like Ofoto and Shutterfly, became active in the association because that’s where the photofinishing equipment was. Today, you can download a dev kit, write an app, plug into an API, and you’re in the business.

As one vendor recently expressed to me: “I’ve got to meet new customers. I love my current customers, but where do I go to meet new ones? What photo show do I go to?”

PMA tried a last-gasp conference in Fall 2015 with the Innovation Now conference in San Francisco, bringing together Silicon Valley technologists with photo-industry veterans and startups. The content was well-thought out and the speakers were from Amazon Cloud, Google Photos, Disney, Mixbook and more. Unfortunately, despite the rave reviews the conference received, the association ran out of runway.

The gadget press turns on you like a snake

The challenge for companies exhibiting at a gadget-obsessed, press-driven show like CES is you not only have to have new products, but they have to be revolutionary or borderline stupid to even get a mention. Failure to do so risks backlash from snarky bloggers who relish attacking established companies while heaping praise on quirky Kickstarters. Example: This headline from The Verge: “The big camera companies slept through CES because their ideas aren’t futuristic enough.” As writer Sean O’Kane posits: “If you’re a fan of big name cameras, this year’s CES was a bore. Sure, Nikon released a pedestrian entry-level camera. Canon’s G9X Mark II is another unnecessary sequel. The beastly Panasonic GH5 was a lone bright light, especially for shooting video — but we knew it existed months ago. Sony, Fujifilm, and others essentially sat the whole thing out. So if it’s the Consumer Electronics Show, and cameras are one of the most ubiquitous consumer electronics, where the hell are all the cameras?”

The hit of CES 2013: the Haptic Fork

Of course, the tech blogs have a selfish need to have their demands for new products met: Without exciting gadgets – like the haptic fork  that was all the rage in 2013 , who would read their blogs? No matter if they are vaporware or failed Kickstarters, it’s new content for their mill.

One of the most written about new imaging-related products was a pet feeder with a webcam – or was it a webcam with a pet feeder? How about a self-cleaning litter box? Really.

And, ironically, sometimes the most-written about products aren’t even CES exhibitors at all, but tabletop exhibitors at side-show events like Showstoppers and Pepcom. That’s a smart play for those companies who are looking for press coverage without having to invest in a booth (or even a week-long Las Vegas stay). The press loves those events, because it packs a ballroom with free booze and food, along with tables upon tables of coverage-hungry gadget makers, startups and crowd-funded ideas that make more interesting video clips for tech blogs. In fact, quite a few press members don’t even bother with the CES Press Day – which has become overcrowded and inefficient – and official press room anymore, except for maybe grabbing the free lunch box and wifi.

So, the question remains, what direction will the photo industry take? Will it pull together under the banner of Imaging Alliance or other group, or continue to go its own way? Time will tell.

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