Trade fair mantra: "People want to educate themselves, not be educated."

May 25, 2006
Trade shows are a bigger draw in Europe than in the U.S. Germany's recently completed Hannover Fair, for example, has had two consecutive banner years for attendance and exhibits.

In contrast, broadly based industrial expositions in the U.S. have had a hard time attracting exhibitors, and attendance has generally been on the wane.

Slumping interest in the U.S. has not discouraged European show organizers who think there is a market for versions of their own events in the States. They also feel that more people here would find it worthwhile to attend shows in Europe.

The reason for optimism about industrial shows, claim Hannover organizers, is that engineers and other industrial decision makers are getting tired of being tied into alternative events such as user fairs organized by single companies for their own customers.

"We are hearing that companies are encountering tremendous difficulties getting people to attend their own trade fairs," says Peter Rippen, vice president of Hannover Messe. Rippen also says he has run into companies that no longer let their engineers attend such events. There is a spreading perception, he says, that such fairs are "brainwashing events" in disguise.

Traditional trade fairs have an advantage over these single-company events in that they "live on the competition of solutions," says Rippen, and let attendees touch and feel competing products from different vendors. And besides, he maintains, the force-feeding of information that takes place at single-company events isn't effective because "People want to educate themselves. They don't want to be educated."

No question that some small companies do have trouble getting their homegrown events to have legs. "I have seen a lot of companies start their own conferences," says Wendy Sanders, manager of National Instrument Corp.'s NI Week event last year. "Many of them are exciting for a while and then wane in popularity. The mistake I feel they make is that they focus too much on their products and not enough on training and on having users present to each other."

National Instrument says it has had no trouble getting people to NI Week. "We have seen a 40% growth in attendance over the past two or three years," explains current NI Week conference manager Rod Siebels. "Last year we had 2,500 people at NI Week and our goal this year is 2,700."

NI credits the growth to its practice of "having our R&D function take the lead on structuring the event. Product marketing managers may work with the R&D people but they are not creating presentations. We stay away from marketing fluff and stay technical. We think that's a key to our success over the years," says NI's Sanders.

The event that many consider to be the 800-lb gorilla of single-company trade fairs is Rockwell Automation's Automation Fair. "Automation Fair continues to be the best example of how well single-company shows can work, and it is probably the event that everyone strives to emulate," says Rockwell Commercial Marketing Vice President John Nesi. "We always exceed our attendance expectations. We haven't seen a drop-off other than from geographical factors that depend on the population of the Fair's host city because we move it around every year."

Nesi says Rockwell is sensitive to the idea that such fairs only attract existing customers. "We go out of our way to attract prospects as well as existing Rockwell customers to the Fair. We benchmark our results so we know new people attend our event," he says.

Nevertheless, general trade fairs like the Hannover event enjoy widespread popularity in Europe as well as a lot of attention in the European press. The top seven trade fair locations, in terms of square footage, all reside in Europe, with Hannover at the top of the heap. Last year, Hannover attracted 208,234 visitors and 6,133 visitors. Some 29% of those visitors were from outside Germany but only 5,000 of them were from the U.S. Attendance from the States dropped drastically after 9/11/01, say Hannover organizers.

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