Conferences and shows cause mayhem every six years: why – when the world is now such as small place – does this still happen and what is the way forward?
What happens every six years, and makes those of us who need to keep abreast of the latest developments in laboratory technology go slightly doolally? Well, slightly more doolally?
Within Europe, our industry has two major trade shows. Analytica takes place every two years in Munich, while Achema is on a three-year cycle and is held in Frankfurt. The mathematically-gifted among you will quickly calculate that, rather like some phase-synchronised orbit of the celestial spheres, this brings about a sextennial alignment that causes earthquakes, tidal waves, and general mayhem here on Earth.
That may be a slight exaggeration. But 2012 is one of those years, and therefore a reminder of the, um, lunacy of the situation. While the UK no longer has a big exhibition for the laboratory sector – despite a number of abortive attempts in recent years to create one – Germany has two of them, and the USA has its own annual shindig in Pittcon.
That means that in the space of four months this year, the dedicated collector of company-branded ballpoints could travel back and forth across the globe, exchanging pleasantries and business cards with the same people on the same stands in three different cities.
In these days of economic hardship and environmental sensitivity, how crazy is that?
Now, the reasons for this daftness go back decades, to a very different time when travel between cities was still a minor adventure, and travel between countries – let alone continents – was a rarity. It was a time when the various trade bodies that organise conferences and exhibitions began to recognise that a good proportion of their earnings came from these events, and set about staking their claims to the great trade show goldrush.
Quite why the UK lost out in all this is not entirely clear. My suspicions are that it comes down to the same reason the great manufacturing industries of the country were lost: a complete lack of vision by those in management. I think it’s no coincidence that the German motor industry thrived, and the German trade fair business blossomed, while the British equivalents both shrivelled. But that’s a different rant.
If we accept that the present situation is ridiculous, what is the way forward? There are I think two possibilities – the pocket show, and this new invention I’ve heard of recently called the internet.
An example of the first of these is Fisher Science World, an annual roadshow event that brings together a few dozen exhibitors with tablet-top displays. The costs for the exhibitors are much lower than the multi-hall international shows, and because the venue is not fixed it means that visitors should have one within reasonable distance every few years. Similar but different is the Scientific Laboratory Show, another table-top event held every couple of years in geographically-central Nottingham.
In a weird through-the-looking-glass way, these two events almost mimic their bigger brethren by competing not just with each other, but also with the German giants. Fisher Science World cocks a snook at Analytica by being staged the same week, while SLS is just a month before Achema. Is there no end to the madness?
One possibility is the virtual trade fair, held at a location near you in cyberspace. Back in the early days of the web, I was involved in the organisation of one of the very first attempts at a virtual show. Virtual stands in a virtual hall were sold to actual customers, and actual visitors from the professional institution’s tens of thousands of members were invited to virtually attend. The key word here is ‘invited’.
Despite our misgivings, and the relatively low connection speeds available to most people, the technology worked fairly well. Yes it was clunky by today’s standards, but it worked. Dozens of company booths were staffed by reps, who were in reality scattered across the globe. The virtual doors were virtually opened and the virtual visitors positively trickled in. After half an hour, all the institution’s staff were commanded to drop what they were doing and either get into the virtual space, to make up numbers, or get on the wires to cajole members into doing the same.
With today’s whizzier web interfaces, fat-pipe connections, and better acceptance of the online world as a place to do business, would the result be any different? I asked a few people in the show business about their views on the virtual trade fair, and the response was universally lukewarm.
The advantages are all for the exhibitors, and none for the visitors. Exhibitors are able to capture excellent data about visitors, but visitors cannot pocket that all-important ballpoint. The only real advantage for the visitor is that they can save much time, with no travel, no slumming it in a hotel, no experimentation with unusual varieties of beer. Instead, they can stay at the office – obviously much more appealing.
One description of attending a virtual trade fair is that it is like playing Second Life, but with fewer pixies.
So I guess it’s time to pack another overnight bag and add another tonne of carbon to the atmosphere. See you in the bar, OK?
By Russ Swan