You really can’t tell much about an event like CeBIT when it opens. The opening press party was as crazed as ever; the buffet was as sumptuous as ever; and the drinks flowed as freely as ever.
Likewise, the opening ceremony was just like it always is with a downtown arena filled with people waiting to listen to politicians and business leaders hold forth on the wonders and promise of technology, or in the case of the local politicians, on why they should be re-elected.
It was only when the show really opened that one got a sense of the diminished scale of this largest of all technology shows. When I first began covering this show a decade ago, it filled all 26 buildings of what was once the site of Expo 2000, the Hannover World’s Fair. This is a big place with its own rail station, its own stop on the city’s transit line and its own set of roads to bring in visitors. The 26 pavilions were once the sites of national expositions and the buildings were then and now, as futuristic as you’d expect.
Now, a decade later, only 16 of those convention halls are occupied by CeBIT. Last year, 24 of the halls were in use. Likewise this year the international press corps attending the show was considerably diminished. While I don’t have official numbers of the members of the press, there were ways you could tell.
A year ago you had to arrive early if you wanted to get a work space at the Presse Centrum, as the building that houses the media is called. You had to reserve your locker for your equipment and your coat on the first day or you wouldn’t get one. And you could count on sharing a table with someone you didn’t know at lunch, if you could find a seat at all.
This year there were workspaces aplenty; the equipment lockers never sold out; and the press cafeteria was never full. Even more striking, there was always space in the dedicated press coffee bar. Not once was I forced to work without caffeine.
Many of my colleagues in the media took this to mean that big trade shows, and CeBIT specifically, were dead. They would point to the smaller numbers and say that the businesses and manufacturers that depend on these events have found other ways (mainly the Internet) to market their wares or find the products they wanted to buy. My esteemed colleagues are, of course, wrong. But then, they usually are. After all, this is why you read eWEEK, right?
In fact, CeBIT was smaller this year, but not because trade shows or big technology events are somehow passé, but because the European economy is in a serious swoon.
CeBIT Remains Relevant in IT Industry Even Amid Struggling EU Economy
Crisis after crisis has slammed the Euro Zone like the big chunks of Comet Schumaker-Levy that pounded Jupiter a few years ago. The economic crisis was far more serious in Europe than it was in the U.S., and the effects, while different, went much deeper.
The surprise isn’t that CeBIT took a hit from a weak economy. The surprise is that the show was strong enough to survive the past year of the EU economy and do as well as it has done. If you recall how things were in the U.S. when the economy tanked in 2008, things here were much diminished as well. But the things that were strong in nature came back.
The theory that somehow this one trade show indicates that all such large events are history ignores reality. When the economy was weak in the U.S., some events also became diminished. But if you look at the large events now, ranging from the Consumer Electronics Show to SXSW, you’ll see that they’re stronger than ever. So clearly technology events aren’t gone.
So if these events aren’t yesterday’s echoes, then what’s going on? I think that these technology events are a lot like the rest of the world of IT. When there’s confidence in the future, companies will spend money to bet on the future. When the future looks bleak, then they won’t.
Until very recently, the world looked bleak to many companies in the U.S., especially tech companies. To some, it’s still looks bleak as the White House and Congress play ping-pong with the U.S. economy in their game of passing the fiscal megabuck. The surprise is that tech companies and other industries in the U.S. are beginning to believe that they need to invest in the future again. Many have apparently decided that the wrangling by Congress and the White House over the budget and federal deficit is irrelevant as far as their business plans are concerned.
And to an extent, they are correct. It is companies, the employees and corporate owners that set the course of the economy, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Confidence is starting to return to the U.S. economy even as its leaders remain absorbed in ineffectual squabbling. The same will happen in Europe, and in fact may already be happening.
Ultimately, this means that the big events where companies learn what the future holds in terms of the technology they need to plan for will come back. CeBIT isn’t so much diminished as it is recovering from a stunning blow that no one saw coming. The economy in the U.S. is doing the same thing, after five long, stagnant years. This is good for everyone, with or without the CeBIT-scale press parties or political rallies.