Koelnmesse, the organizer of the leading worldwide photo/imaging exhibition, photokina, has canceled the Cologne event “for the time being” after 70 years. The 2020 edition had already been canceled but dates for May 2022 were announced. It’s an ignoble end to the largest and, arguably, the most influential photo/imaging trade event. For most of its existence, photokina was held every other year as a technological and as a cultural event. The city of Cologne was as much on display as the photographic industry, with the streets, taverns and restaurants filled with executives, retailers, lab owners, photographers and more. Many lifelong friendships were developed over a draft of kölsch.
photokina was a unique photo trade event, unlike its competitors like the annual U.S.-based Photo Marketing Association International (PMAI) show or even CES, in that it welcomed consumers and end-users to browse the aisles. This made for completely different energy than a trade-only event, with enthusiasm and displays promoting photography in general, for the enthusiasts and the masses. In the heyday of photokina, booths filled entire halls, with public areas featuring models, acrobats, and shiny gear displays and private trade-only areas, usually filled with cigarette smoke, for doing business and for press rooms.
As the photo trade class began to shrink with the onset of digital photography in the 2000s, the relevance of a trade-only audience shrank. PMAI’s attempts to pivot to add more end-user and enthusiast content didn’t gain traction, leading to the association’s eventual demise. The photo/imaging section of CES has dwindled to irrelevancy. In its later years, Photokina had shrunk to a fraction of its former formidable size. At one time, Eastman Kodak, Fujifilm, Agfa, Canon, Nikon, and Polaroid had stands that filled entire exhibit halls. By 2018, the event had lost much of its size and influence as a world trendsetter.
Don’t blame COVID-19
photokina is a victim of an on-going macro trend in business. Yes, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a part in the trade fair’s demise. But Koelnmesse had already embarked on steps to make Photokina relevant, including shifting to an annual schedule. (Probably more distressing to long-time attendees was the shift of the event from the traditional autumn/early Oktoberfest timeframe to the spring.) The fair’s biennial schedule made sense in an analog photography world when technology was shown under prototype in a booth’s back room, not to be brought to market until one or two years later. In the digital world, entire companies and market segments can come and go in that two-year timeframe.
Also, the trade-event industry has struggled for more than a decade, across all channels. Big exhibitions with expensive booths and media launches are no longer necessary to launch products. For companies selling large capital equipment, it’s probably more cost-effective to fly prospects to a destination to wine and dine them than to set up a large tradeshow booth and hope the prospect actually shows up for the booth appointment.
Further, big exhibitors can afford to put on their own events, which gives them the opportunity to control the audience and the message. That’s why big firms like Apple, Microsoft, and so on departed CES years ago and have their own conferences and press events. They don’t have to wait for a trade show to launch products and get media attention and customer feedback/orders (two of the primary goals of a trade show). Market consolidation also comes into play; there are not as many customers to talk to anymore. When HP can sell 60 Indigo digital presses to one customer, why do they need to have a booth at a trade show?
For many entrepreneurs, however, a trade show event was a great marketing tool. PMA show attendees would come for the glitz and glamor of the Kodak, Canon and Nikon displays but usually find the real innovation in the 10×10 booths in the back. Those “super-saver” booths were Kickstarter before Kickstarter was a thing, a percolating launchpad for new companies and products. With large-scale exhibitors abandoning shows, these events can’t survive on just mid-size and small booths.
Future of trade events
The demise of Photokina, PMA and other shows is sad for the industry. Fortunately, in response, a series of conferences and other events have risen and even grown to serve their markets. Photo retail buying groups like IPI Member Network, PRO, Futuresource, United Imaging Group and others provide their members with valuable training, networking events and resources to build their businesses. These niche, focused events are more likely to serve their respective audiences.
Below is the Koelnmesse statement:
After 70 years, decreases in the imaging market force a hard cut
In view of the further massive decline in markets for imaging products, Koelnmesse has decided to discontinue organising photokina at its Cologne location for the time being. “Unfortunately, at present the framework conditions in the industry do not provide a viable basis for the leading international trade fair for photography, video and imaging,” according to Gerald Böse, President and Chief Executive Officer of Koelnmesse. “This hard cut after a 70-year shared history was very difficult for us. The trend in this industry, with which we have always had a close and trusting partnership, is very painful for us to witness. But we are facing the situation with a clear, honest decision against continuing this event, a decision to which, unfortunately, we have no alternative.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, the imaging market was already subject to strong upheaval, with annual declines in the double digits. The momentum in this direction intensified massively in 2020, most recently reporting a decline in the 50-percent range. Recently, these developments have had a profound effect on photokina, which – in Cologne since 1950 – for generations has been the top address for the imaging industry and ranks among the most favourably and emotionally charged brands in the trade fair world.
Since 2014, Koelnmesse, together with the German Photo Industry Association, has taken its cue from downward market trends, responding with adjustments to the underlying concept of the trade fair as well as considerable investment in new exhibitor and visitor segments. “These changes in conceptual design, along with a shift in intervals and a change of dates, did not fundamentally improve the situation of the event,” says Oliver Frese, Management Board member and Chief Operating Officer of Koelnmesse. “While there are more photographs taken today than ever before, the integration of smartphone photography and videography, together with image-based communication, e.g. via social media, was not able to cushion the elimination of large segments of the classic market. As a result, the overall situation is not compatible with the quality standards of photokina as a globally renowned brand representing the highest quality and professionalism in the international imaging market.”
Koelnmesse has made its decision in close coordination with the German Photo Industry Association. Kai Hillebrandt, chairman of that association, remarked: “Our partners in Cologne have done everything in their power to maintain photokina as the leading global trade fair. Nonetheless, an event held in 2022 could not have met the expectations of the entire imaging community that those efforts were intended to serve. That is why we, on behalf of our association, are joining them in taking this regrettably unavoidable step. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the team in Cologne for a tremendous 70 years together!”