There’s no business like show business

In the photo/imaging industry, trade shows have been the defining events for decades. Industry veterans can tell you which PMA convention the Advanced Photo System or Photo CD debuted or which photokina the Four-Thirds system was introduced. CES, Photo Plus, WPPI, Imaging USA have all had their place in the introduction of hardware and devices, and are now facing competition from CP+, Mobile World Congress and more.

Recent events, however, have cast a pallor on the future of big shows. Turmoil among top management at Koelnmesse and the subsequent postponement of the 2019 edition of photokina indicates the appetite for an annual global trade and consumer exhibition may be waning. CEBIT Hannover, the annual consumer electronics confab in Germany, was just canceled.

Photokina 2018 photo gallery

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In the trade show business, regardless of category, the struggle is real, as the kids today would say. While attending the recent Print 18 show in Chicago, it was evident the show was struggling to attract a bigger audience. Show organizers were pulling out all the stops to get attendees on the floor, including hosting receptions, AR technology demos and education events. Major exhibitors were there, but there were also significant gaps on the floor, indicating support from mid- to small-range exhibitors (who often add great value to attendees) was eroding.

This is not to say Print 18 show organizers are doing anything wrong. In a flat to declining market like commercial printing, exhibitors have limited exhibition budgets to spend, and must weigh the value of servicing existing clients at a traditional show or trying a new show. I talked to more than one exhibitor at Print 18 who said there were few new customers, and they would be looking at going to SGIA (now redubbed PRINTING United) in the hopes of seeing fresh clients. Photo Marketing Association International (PMAI) ran into the same problem, when Canon USA chose instead to attend NAB at the launch of HD-video enabled DSLRs, establishing a foothold in that growing market. It was a smart move for Canon but a body blow to PMAI, since a photo trade show without Canon is a tough sell. Cornerstone exhibitors like Canon anchor shows, draw traffic and are generally positive for other exhibitors. Incidentally, for many camera dealers, NAB is now “their” show.

Print 18 photo gallery

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Another issue is the on-going convergence of technology and divergence of interests. Currently, there is no “home” for photo/imaging retailers and labs, at least in the sense the late PMAI was (other than The Imaging Alliance, which does not have its own trade event). Former PMA members have scattered to various events, including buying groups conferences like PRO, IPIC, Fotosource, etc.; user group events like Dscoop and ThINK; broad industry shows like NAB, SGIA, WPPI or Imaging USA; niche vertical events like SPACVisual1st, Rootstech, and so on.

To survive, many formerly trade-only events had to pivot to expand their attendees by allowing end users and consumer in. For a show like PhotoPlus, this has been a good solution, since big retailers like B&H Photo and Adorama have become exhibitors as well. Consumers love to get their hands on new products, so a venue like PhotoPlus is great for the industry. The challenge, however, when it comes to a relative gap in product announcements. This year, PhotoPlus followed photokina, which meant there were few new product announcements to build buzz for the press.

As Digital Imaging Reporter‘s Jason Schneider opined: “However, for all the high spirits and genuine enthusiasm for photography in evidence at PhotoPlus 2018, there weren’t any sensational new product announcements. Most were previously introduced at or before the giant photokina 2018 in Cologne, Germany, earlier this fall. On the plus side, many enthusiasts finally got to handle the exciting new full-frame mirrorless cameras from Nikon (the Z 6 and Z 7) and Canon (the EOS R) they’d fantasized about since their recent unveilings.”

Catering to the press

Press coverage is another benefit of shows, but that demands an on-going flow of new products. Unlike the stalwarts in the photo/imaging consumer press, tech bloggers demand click-worthy gadgets to drive their traffic and shows can be good fodder. On the other hand, product announcements come in waves and the ebb and flow of innovation don’t wait for show premiers. CES has traditionally been a big media event but tech reporters are commenting on the lack of cameras there. Since press coverage is one of the benefits exhibitors hope to garner from shows, it’s a chicken and egg problem. The press won’t cover shows without interesting new products but exhibitors can’t guarantee new products every show cycle.

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.

Different shows have different objectives. Business-to-business networking events like Visual1st, are becoming increasingly popular,  as well as buying group events like IPIC and PRO. Getting like-minded businesses together is important but it does also illustrate the on-going need for new connections. With the continued aging for the traditional photo store operator, the need for young upstarts and new ideas is more important than ever. (This is one reason the DPS is considering our own meeting in mid-April. Stay tuned for more announcements.)

As 2018 comes to close, consider new and different industry events for 2019. Our calendar has been updated for 2019 events. Get started and have a great year!


Visual 1st

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