Over the years that I’ve been covering computer technology, a lot of trade shows have come and gone. The greatest of the bunch eventually collapsed under their own weight and then vanished.
The biggest of these, Comdex, was the flagship computer industry trade show of the ’80s and early ’90s that was held every fall in Las Vegas. PC Expo was nearly as big. Those were the days when the PC reigned supreme. Smartphones and cloud computing were just distant dreams.
But now they’re gone, existing only as memories, with copies of old exhibitor catalogs and name tags in the back of drawers. The memories themselves are fading as those of us who regularly attended those long-extinct big shows steadily fade away into retirement and beyond. But there’s the obvious question: If they were so big and important in those days, why are they gone?
The answer to why CeBIT survives and the other big shows are gone is simple on the surface. The other big shows were afraid to change course from what they were originally founded for. They got big by showing what was once very hot technology. Then they kept adding more of the same. But when that technology stopped being hot, they lost their reason for existence and they didn’t make a determined effort to change.
The difference is that CeBIT changed. A decade ago, CeBIT was Western Europe’s big technology show. It didn’t matter much what technology it might be. Video games, washing machines and laptop computers could all be found jumbled together on massive CeBIT show floors. And it paid off, as hundreds of thousands of people eager to see what was new lined up, paid admission and flooded the fairgrounds.
The show management obligingly stayed open over weekends to accommodate the crowd and kept the show open for 10 straight days. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable. According to Marius Felzmann, senior vice president for CeBIT at Deutsche Messe, which is the fairgrounds operation that runs CeBIT, management noticed that some of their biggest exhibitors weren’t totally happy. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t get the numbers they expected, but they weren’t the right type of numbers.
The problem with big broadly based trade shows is that they have broadly based attendees. Not only were people interested in business computing coming to the show, but so were moms with their kids. Those people weren’t going to buy a lot of stuff—certainly not enough to justify the cost of a trade show stand. Nor did they come to look for big-ticket items.
CeBIT management decided that they had to radically change the course of the show to remain a relevant and viable operation. “This is why we were focusing on business,” Felzmann said. “We changed timing and duration of the show.”
The duration and timing of the show were a major part of it, of course. Information technology vendors didn’t like having to staff their displays for the benefit of families who would never buy their products.
But there was more. CeBIT management took a huge gamble and dumped all of the consumer products, focusing strictly on business and IT. In addition, Felzmann pointed out that they added an intense focus on startups and innovators, turning over a convention hall to something called Code_n that sought to find and bring together some of the top IT innovators around the world.
CeBIT Strives to Break the IT Industry Trade Show Curse
Then the CeBIT management took another gamble and started courting developers, even adding a new competition in which CeBIT gave new, sometimes unreleased devices to developers, giving them 48 hours to develop an app, with prizes for the best apps.
At CeBIT 2014, 10 percent of the exhibitors at the show were startups. Over 100 venture capital groups showed up looking for new places to invest. In addition, Felzmann said the show added a new set of conferences that focused on knowledge transfer rather than sales.
This is in stark contrast to the fate of Comdex. The show name was a contraction of the show’s full title “Computer Dealer Expo.” The owners built up Comdex and then sold it when it was still one of the top IT shows in North America. But then a number of things conspired to kill Comdex, mainly the Internet, the dot-com recession of the early 2000s and the contraction of the computer dealer network.
IT vendors didn’t need to go to big, expensive trade shows or even to the independent dealer network, since they could sell computers directly to enterprise customers or to consumers via the Internet. A computer maker’s Website became the trade show booth that was open 365 days a year.
Along with Comdex, PC Expo closed around the same time, mostly due to a lack of interest. Neither of those huge events tried the kind of transformation that CeBIT is attempting. Instead of changing with changing times, they tried to do more of the same, but the industry had moved on. Nobody was interested in the same old stuff.
There are still trade shows, of course. With a few exceptions, they are highly focused and limited in scope. They little resemble the sprawling computer festivals they once were.
These days when I hear about the really big trade shows that still exist, what I mostly hear are complaints. They are too big, it’s too hard to get work done, and they’re too disorganized. While I won’t mention names, they know who they are. These big shows will go on for a little while because of inertia, but it seems that if they don’t find a way to focus themselves, they’ll follow the likes of Comdex or PC Expo and simply become memories of what was.
Does this mean CeBIT has somehow risen above fate? Not really, but the show’s transformation seems to be working. Exhibitors that I talked to seem happier, as attendees crowd the aisles, not because they’re leading their families, but because they’ve found what they want to see and are taking it in. This year’s attendance of 210,000 isn’t as large as it was in the past, but this time all those attendees were in a position to buy something or to influence a purchase. After all, it’s not simply people you want, but the right people.
CeBIT has a ways to go to show it has a business model that’s sustainable for the long term. But the number of exhibitors is up substantially, the square footage is up, and there were crowds everywhere. It seems hard to argue with that.