The Decline of Large Automation Exhibitions

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Large, central automation exhibitions used to be major events a couple of decades ago, attracting hundreds of thousands of attendees from all over the world. Today exhibitions are steadily declining because there are more effective ways to disseminate information and provide opportunities for customer and supplier networking.

This article was published by:
Check out, July 2005

A shorter column was published by:
Automation World, May 2005

In the past,
everyone attended major annual events

My first introduction to the automation industry was through the big exhibitions. I remember vividly my first ISA exhibition. It was fittingly in Texas at the Houston Astrohall – everything seemed oversized. Those were the glory days of the mid-‘70s, when PLCs were just being introduced and Honeywell had just announced the TDC distributed control system. These two product categories impacted instrumentation and controls for decades. Everyone who was anyone was there and the show attracted about 70-80,000 attendees for the week.

Following the success of ISA in the U.S., which was held in September/October of each year, other organizers tried to replicate its success by holding other exhibitions at different times each year. In the spring there was Control Expo in Chicago, which was then replaced by Manufacturing Week, a combination of several technical interests beyond just automation. In 1978 the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) was formed to provide feedback and information for exhibitors and attendees alike.

The European exhibitions were even bigger. The Hannover Fair in Germany was easily the largest of all industrial exhibitions, housed in its own self-contained city with major entrances on all four sides, streets, traffic light, buses and its own train station with an express direct from Frankfurt, some 200 kilometers away. During exhibition week, hotels in a radius of some 50 kilometers are typically overbooked, and lodging arrangements are made with local people to take in guests. Busses brought exhibitors and attendees every day from as far away as 100 kilometers. The April exhibition in Hannover is for all industrial equipment, including tractors, trucks and other machinery; electronics and automation is exhibited primarily in three large buildings. The event used to attract some 100,000 visitors per day, not only from Germany but from all over the world.

Interkama, in Dusseldorf was the world's biggest automation show, filling some 15 halls every three years – Siemens used to take a hall on its own. When I first attended in the seventies I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the event. Giant displays were filled with instruments and control products, all of which I wanted to see. I stayed for four days and still had not seen everything; after the first couple of days, my brain was cramped, my body fatigued and my feet totally useless.

The great strength of the German fairs was that they seemed to harness the whole world, central Europe, the Middle East, India, Japan and most other countries, as well as the US. There were several other big European exhibitions too – Mesucora in Paris, the HET exhibition in Holland, BIAS in Italy. Clearly those were the halcyon days of burgeoning growth and excitement for the automation, instrumentation and controls business.

Steady decline

But alas, those days have gone. Attendance at all the large automation exhibitions has declined to a fraction of former times. Attendance at the annual ISA exhibition has declined to about 15,000. The vendor to end-user ratio which used to be as much as 10 to 1 is more like 2:1 today and sometimes less (my estimates). Traffic is sparse, with forlorn exhibitors spending their time reviewing each others products and bemoaning hard times. To offset distance/travel problems, ISA came up with a solution – to have smaller, “local” shows. But this hasn’t worked – and the attendance at those is sparser.

The European exhibitions are also in decline. This is troubling to the organizers who are scrambling to find ways and means to return to “the good old days”. Germany's Hannover Fair is still quite large 200,000+, and has a new focused five-day format. Organizers point out that major portions of the show have been spun off as separate events (material handling & logistics, lighting, are two examples). But the downward trends are evident.

Interkama gradually reduced down to nine, and then to five halls in the Duesseldorf Exhibition Center. In the early days, attendance was up in the hundreds of thousands, which steadily declined to 90,000. The organizers played around with frequency and focus, but this failed to stem a reduction in exhibitor and attendance numbers. Two years ago, they gave up and became a sub-section of the Hanover Fair where, in 2004, attendance was down to some 60,000. 2005 Interkama attendance were camouflaged within the overall Hannover numbers.

The SPS/IPC/Drives show in Nürnberg, Germany seems to be the one European exhibition that’s growing. But it too has hit its peak, and the organizers are seeking to expand to other venues in the U.S and Europe. SPS (German for PLC) was successful because it was well organized and is geographically right in the heart of South Germany's automobile and machine building industries—there is probably a greater concentration of factory automation engineers and machine building OEMs there than anywhere else in the world.

Instrumentation and automation trade shows have almost vanished in the U.K. and in France; all that remain are small regional shows. Italy's BIAS, held every two years, has suffered decline, and the control and automation section is about half of what it was ten years ago. BIAS also includes a lot of electronics and test & measurement equipment, so the overall attendance is held up by other factors.

In the UK there is no longer a major automation exhibition. The Control & Instrumentation (C&I) show was the major event with a peak attendance figure of only about 12,000; it folded five years ago. The number two show, “Drives & Controls”, attempted to make the move to the number one slot by moving from a regional center first to London and then to the UK's major venue, the National Exhibition Center, but exhibitors simply didn't support the move. It doesn't look as if it has a serious future.

Strategic reasons for decline

This discussion is not a criticism of any specific organization, but rather a recognition that the days of large central exhibitions are over. Let’s try to review some of the reasons.

Many explanations have been given for this decline of exhibitions:

  • Cost of participation for both exhibitors and attendees;
  • Business decline, which has reduced budgets and personnel;
  • Because of constrained development expenditures, there is very little new to see that can’t be reviewed via the Internet;
  • Greed on the part of the organizers – charging huge booth and overhead fees;
  • Gross overspending by exhibitors on booths/stands.
Consider the end-users (the attendees) rationale: In the past there was no real alternative where customers could compare all the suppliers in one location, other than the large, annual exhibitions. Today the typical user can browse online and review a significant amount of information, usually more up to date than any printed catalogs or literature. And it’s a buyer’s market. Most vendors will be more than happy to visit the potential customer with the latest literature and specific demonstrations tailored to the needs.

Then there is the cost of sending employees to a central exhibition: It includes travel, local transportation, hotel accommodations ($ 150.00 a night in a major city, if you’re lucky) and lost time on top of that. It’s clear that the cost of sending people is itself inhibiting most customers from sending the hordes of employees, as they used to do in the past.

For the typical medium or large sized company, consider the cost of attending a central exhibition, The booth itself can cost up to $ 100,000 or more – though this can and should be amortized over say 2-3 years. Plus there is the cost of the exhibit space; and the cost of transportation and setup at the exhibition location is high, particularly with local, unionized labor. Then add the cost of travel, local transportation and hotel accommodations, plus meals and incidental expenses for company employees, plus loss of normal work for several days, if not weeks. It all adds up to a significant amount. And exhibitors simply do not win sufficient business at exhibitions to justify the expense.

There’s another old, insidious point. In the “good old days”, there was a lot of posturing involved at the large exhibitions. People felt they had to be there because everybody was there, and non-attendance would be seen as a sign of trouble or weakness. There was often hidden rivalry about who had the larger booth, and who had simply turned up with last-years booth. This increased the urge to get a whole new booth built each year (instead of amortizing a perfectly good booth design over a few years). This kind of thinking has always been troublesome, and simply exacerbated the decline of big exhibitions.

New thinking

Compare the old thinking with the logic and rational for contemporary times: Many exhibitor companies have realized that it is more cost effective to organize their own events. Why go to all the trouble and expense to be part of a big, central exhibition which is also attended by all your competitors, who can review all your latest products right alongside your customers? Why not invite all your key customers to attend a private showing of all your products and equipment?

More and more companies are taking this route – not attending the major exhibitions, but instead having their own shows where they can have the exclusive attention of all their customers. This path is now being followed by Honeywell, Rockwell, Emerson, ABB and most of the other majors. You won’t see many of them at the next ISA show.

Technical Conferences

Perhaps a brief mention should be made about the conferences that are usually held concurrently with many major exhibitions. During the boom times, I have myself presented technical papers with several hundred people in attendance. But these days, the technical conference is typically a bust. One is never sure whether the exhibition or the conference is the main event – though sometimes the conference involves the cost of a ticket, while the exhibition is free. But in any case that is reflected by poor attendance at both. And most people know that all the technical papers will be available via the Internet, so why bother?

In recent times, there are more appropriate conferences that are evidently more successful. Automation Research (ARC), for example, hosts conferences where they invite a large base of important and influential end-users, with senior people from both end-user and supplier organizations – typically Presidents and CEOs – addressing the gathering. Contrast this with the boring content of the papers being presented at most other technical conferences. The cost is of the ARC conferences is high, but apparently more than justified by the focused program and valuable content; recent events have attracted excellent attendance. Perhaps this points the way to the future.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA