Opinion: There’s no business in show business

Happier trade-show times: Outside of PMA 08 in Las Vegas

The recent announcement that CES 2021 was being changed to a virtual or “digital-only” event didn’t come as a surprise to industry watchers. In fact, the announcement was greeted with some level of relief. In the past 10 years, CES has gained a well-earned reputation as an expensive event that was difficult to attend – due to the enormous crowds – with less and less relevance to the photo/imaging industry. Sure, big shots like Canon, Nikon and Sony had floor presence in recent years but more and more imaging attendees opted for meeting rooms (if they chose to exhibit it all). For some, it’s more cost-effective to just attend and walk the floor.

Just in the last weeks, we’ve seen more shows drop off the in-person scene, including PhotoPlus Expo, Imaging USA, Printing UNITED, Photokina, Visual 1st and many more. Even our own Pro Imaging CONNECT conference and golf outing was postponed until next year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought devastation on the tradeshow and conventions business. The massive decline in the business travel industry is going to have long-term effects on host cities. Not only are airlines flying at diminished capacity, but think of all the support services related to a show: Concessionaires, taxi drivers, security guards, exhibit builders, and so on. Add on to this the hotel and entertainment losses. This will be devastating to Las Vegas and other convention-destination cities.

The struggle is real

Photofinishing equipment at PMA 08

For the photo industry, which has long used tradeshows and events as milestones for technology developments, the decline in trade shows has been dramatic since the heyday of PMA and photokina. Products had long development cycles back then; a prototype shown in a smoky meeting room in photokina would make a public appearance two years later. Now development cycles don’t wait six months, let alone two years.

Big booths were a source of prestige and pride. Big booths were a validation. Your company made it. Having a booth on the main aisle of PMA during the heyday was a sign you were an industry leader. But… big booths are also expensive. As the industry shifted from film to digital, much of the industry profit went with it. And, from a PMA standpoint, many of the vendors went as well, as analog equipment makers like Crown Photo Systems, Refrema, Photoquip, Lucht, etc., went out of business and there weren’t digital replacements for them.

One of the most valuable things about a trade show is the ability to launch products and companies. The tiny 10×10 booths in the back of the PMA floor were a fertile breeding ground for new ideas, concepts, products, and profit centers. Smart dealers knew they had to visit Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Kodak, etc., but it was going to be small booths in the back that would yield the new profit-producing products that made the trip worthwhile. In the days before Kickstarter, that’s how new companies launched. It was always a point of pride that companies like GoPro got its start as a 10×10 at PMA show.

But the “trade” part of the show business has long been in decline. During the last years of PMA, it was more and more evident. From an ROI standpoint, a large camera manufacturer didn’t need to spend millions on corner booth at PMA just to talk to the dealers that mattered. After Canon departed PMA 2010 in Anaheim, the writing was on the wall. And for associations and organizations like PMA, which derived most of its revenue from its annual events, the collapse in exhibitors buying floor space had a direct impact on overall revenues.

Understandably, major manufacturers shifted their dollars to end-user events where they could directly affect purchasing decisions, like WPPI, Imaging USA, NAB, PhotoPlus Expo and more.

Trade shows also serve as a marketing tool, where vendors can meet with press and analysts. It’s a relatively efficient way to reach the press, assuming press attend in big numbers. In recent years, however, the big daily newspapers have cut back on tech product writers, while the number of tech bloggers increased.

The other major point: Big brands don’t need trade shows. 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 of follow-up posts. It’s exclusive media coverage a trade show can’t match. The vendor doesn’t have to compete for the journalists’ attention.

In a way, COVID-19 accelerated the decline that was already in progress.

The digital pivot

Fortunately in the age of COVID, technology has been a boon to the meetings industry. Virtual events, workshops and Zoom calls are trying to fill the gaps left by postponed meetings. The IPI Breakthrough virtual event concluded this week, with several days of app-based virtual sessions for members around the world.

In the meetings industry, there seem to be two schools of thought on the future of events. One, online events are the future. They are easier to attend, open at all times, cheaper to attend, friendlier for the environment and a host of other advantages. For a content-driven conference, a virtual event has appeal.

But there’s more to a business meeting than simply content. There’s certainly a place for in-person events. There are simply some people who aren’t comfortable doing business virtually. As compelling as video presentations can be, many people have to see in person, touch and inspect new products and equipment prior to purchase. For photographers, hands-on workshops are vital to understanding equipment and advanced techniques.

As we move to a post-COVID world in 2021 and 2022, the tradeshow landscape will change drastically. Some big, trade-only events will not come back. Events aimed at end-users will continue but likely on a smaller scale. It will be quite some time before the general public will be comfortable gathering in large crowds.

Conference and events built around tight communities, however, will continue. Buying group events like PRO, IPI, FotoSource and so on will continue, as those smaller scale events will be able to adapt to new business models. Events like Visual 1st can go on, as the organizers have begun to build a community around its attendees.