Too Many Trade Shows, Too Few Attendees

09 November 2009

Susan Mucha

In September and October, I attended IPC Midwest, MDM Midwest/Assembly Expo in Chicago and SMTA International (SMTAI) in San Diego. Plus, in the middle of those visits I spent about about 10 days in Taiwan and Japan.

One thing I’ve learned is that bookending Asia travel with trade show walking does eliminate jet lag. I’ve done it twice this year and may make it a habit.

Attendance was down everywhere. To be fair, I didn’t attend the full IPC event. I was teaching an IPC EMS Program Management certification course that aligned with the conference but finished a day before the trade show started. As I’ve said in earlier columns, IPC’s EMS Program Management certification program is an excellent tool for giving program managers a common educational foundation (plus teaching them that every EMS company has the same customer challenges). For information, contact susanfilz@ipc.org.

Last year, the MDM Midwest/Assembly Expo had been the best of three in terms of pure traffic. This year, it looked very slow. At the SMTAI, I talked with several EMS exhibitors and all said that they got better traffic at the regional SMTA tabletop shows for less money. These exhibitors also mentioned they exhibited at SMTAI simply to show support for SMTA. At least one had also exhibited at IPC Midwest for the same reason and didn’t feel traffic was any better there.

The shows and conferences are excellent, but company travel budgets and personnel time are just too limited to support three events at nearly the same time. There were actually at least two more electronics focused shows going on in that timeframe that I didn’t attend that also pull from this audience. Even if the economy improves, I don’t see the budget cutting trend changing any time soon. The end result is that both conference presenters and exhibitors are getting a very diluted attendance. It is definitely time to rethink the US fall shows associated with electronics.

British Airways is running a series of commercials in the US that touts the value of face-to-face contact in business. I don’t disagree with that point. Normally, in uncertain times, trade shows benefit because people feel a need to network at shows to better understand whatever trends are driving market change. That isn’t happening this year. Part of it is because of the depth of the recession. Part of it is because people are working harder and have less time for discretionary travel. Part of it is because technology has made it easier to stay in touch without face-to-face contact. But, another part of it is that in the face of all these reasons not to attend shows, show organisers have opted to create separate events which split the audience that does see the value in face-to-face meetings into segments that don’t give any one show the critical attendee mass it needs to deliver best value to exhibitors and presenters. We can watch these shows die a slow death as companies who provide strong technical content and support via exhibit space rental start measuring their declining ROI, or we can hope that show organisers will see the merit of consolidating into a more powerful “must see” event before that happens. The electronics industry needs strong technical associations like IPC and SMTA, and events which bring the volunteers who help shape standards and technology focus together. The conferences put on by those two organisations will always be stronger than those found at the “for profit” shows. Yet, the “for profit” shows are better at developing “must see” show clusters that reach the range of decision makers that niche suppliers, such as EMS companies, need to see. We need consolidation and a focus that creates equal value for attendees, presenters and exhibitors. I’m going to keep saying this every year, until either the shows go bankrupt or finally see the light and create something special that brings back critical attendee mass to the US show circuit.

On a more positive note, throughout my trip I saw a fair amount of optimism related to fourth quarter book-to-bill trends. While I'm not ready to pop the cork out of the bottle and declare a full recovery, the EMS market appears to be improving and I'm cautiously optimistic about 2010. I'm also seeing hiring among my customer base, so it isn't entirely a jobless recovery.


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