English Version: pma-Interview with Mike Blackman, Managing Director ISE
Mike Blackman: It's not easy - we said goodbye to Amsterdam last year with the show, that was at the beginning of the pandemic and we had thought, like most people, that this pandemic would be over in a few months. With our growth in reservations of more than 10% (reservations for ISE 2021), we were hoping for real growth, which meant that the RAI in Amsterdam could not guarantee the required space for our show as a location. However, we then naturally realized that the pandemic would not pass as quickly as we had hoped - so in September last year we then postponed the actual date for ISE 2021 to June. Then in February 2021, we took another look at the whole situation and talked to our exhibitor advisory board. The response was not so positive from the exhibitors as well as from the industry, as it was not clear whether we would be able to hold a safe trade show. The problem here was that companies need at least three months of start-up and preparation time before a show, and if we had waited until now, many of the exhibitor companies would still be in the middle of preparing. We couldn't wait that long either, because we also have to get things going ourselves, such as trade fair construction, planning, room layouts, and so on.
During the discussions with the Exhibitor Advisory Board and our team, we then decided that we would not hold the show as it was originally planned - moreover, during these discussions we discussed the new concept of why we would not bring ISE to the different places where the people are who attend this show but do not want to (or cannot) travel. For this, we planned the four regional events: Barcelona, Munich, Amsterdam, and London. Unfortunately, we then realized that in Germany the new regulation for events and functions kept changing and another lockdown was planned with more restrictions. In the meantime, the incidence value influences the making possible of events, which means that in Munich we can now go to restaurants again or meet with other people. The problem here was and is that if the incidence value increases again, the restrictions and regulations will be tightened again and we will then not be allowed to hold the fair. We agreed that we do not want to take this risk, that we and our partners prepare everything and then the case occurs that we are not allowed to hold the fair a few days or even a few hours before the deadline. Unfortunately, we then had to cancel the trade fairs in Amsterdam and Munich - but the Barcelona and London dates will take place.
Mike Blackman: It's mixed - for example, in audio you see companies like Shure on site. But the bigger speaker companies aren't there like you're used to seeing at ISE. There are a few more from the display, integrated and digital signage areas. Sure, we've seen that the live event industry, in particular, has suffered from the pandemic and its effects over the last 18 months. You can also see this "knock-on" effect, first of all, the rental companies suffer, because they don't do any business since no live events have taken place, and of course, also the manufacturers who supply these rental companies with their products. Many manufacturers have the problem due to the pandemic that they do not get the parts for their products from China and therefore the productions come to a standstill. You can see this not only in our industry but also in the automotive industry - deliveries of important parts do not take place and thus production is delayed.
Mike Blackman: First of all, I think every company from every industry always has to "put itself under the microscope" and look at how the business is doing, how the process flows are working, and do they fit with our company concept. We do with the ISE every year: for this, we look at what was good, what was bad? Can we improve what didn't go so well with new ideas, or do we do without these things completely? Were the positive things as good as they seem at first glance? We pay a lot of attention to detail here and try to improve every year - and we do that internally as well, not only during the show but also in terms of our processes. For example, our rebooking process for our customers will be completely online this year. In this regard, we have been thinking for ages whether we should do it this way and now we are forced to do it by the current circumstances. Thank God we have upgraded our systems in the last few years, which makes this process online possible for us. Regarding your question: Yes, I think the industry has to think about new things and develop new ideas - we are dependent on Asia for certain technical parts or even transport routes. If there is another pandemic or another transport ship gets stuck in a canal and becomes blocked, we all have to be prepared. These things happen, and we have to think: Okay, what other options and alternatives do we have? You see it in the car industry, production for different models has been outsourced, many parts are produced in China. Mercedes Benz and BMW produce their off-road models in America, the small cars in Mexico - they have outsourced this to where there is the greatest demand for these models and then export to the other countries. This circumstance also shifts the risk for different parts that are produced, and maybe that's something that should be looked at more closely in our industry and considered as well. There is potential for new ways, we have seen that one part of our industry has boomed - collaboration. Companies like Zoom, Microsoft, and others have been seeing a rise since the pandemic started in 2020.
I mean, we knew what Zoom was before that and we used that. But now every kid also knows what Zoom is, in schools, they're doing online classes with Microsoft Teams. These companies have found new ways to do it and they've done it successfully. I was at one of our Rise events, which we do online, and we had someone from Microsoft there who said that the company has changed the whole "road map" for the future through their products and offerings. Because of the pandemic, they brought forward other products that were more suited to the situation - like Microsoft Teams. So if you look at students who have worked with Teams, Word, or other Microsoft programs in elementary school, those students in the future, when they start working, they know how those programs work. Things like that are important because if, for example, 200 companies say "We're going to start working with Microsoft or Zoom NOW" so that the coming employees - and they're going to be the decision-makers in those companies at some point - can work with it. So, there are different ways and I think a lot of companies in our industry have also learned how to develop something with the digital world. How they can do business through these channels when face-to-face events are not allowed. Some have used this opportunity very well as you can see. Our production company that has been producing the videos for ISE for many years came to me because they knew we were also making an online event out of ISE 2021 and offered to build a super digital studio. I didn't know what they meant at first, then it was explained to me: the studio will be built like a real big TV studio, all with a green screen and really "real" looking. The company presented it to us and we were very impressed. You'll see it at ISE Digital, our digital studio has become super.
Other companies are starting to come up with ideas like this now, but our production company was the first in Germany to come up with this idea. The people at the company are very creative, they did it for not only us and ISE - they work with SIXX and with their filmographers. It's a concept where they use gaming software for these studios - for 3D effects, for example. This opportunity opens up a new avenue for us and the industry because even though we're not allowed to host live events, our customers and their end-users still need input from the industry and want to know what new products are out there. I am very proud that our industry is so inventive in this regard.
Mike Blackman: I don't have any numbers, unfortunately. However, I do know of companies that have had financial problems as a result of the situation, and it's hard, of course, because when you have little to no business for over a year. A lot of companies have suffered, especially in the live event industry, but the numbers from the companies that are still providing service also show that there's probably going to be a big comeback in the last quarter of the year in the AV space worldwide. Of course, many companies had to downsize and lay people off, or they wouldn't have survived. You have to look at it as a chain: Live events companies have problems because there are no events, they don't rent anything from the rental companies either, and the rental companies don't buy anything from the manufacturers due to this circumstance. You can see from this chain that it affects everyone.
Mike Blackman: First of all, I work in an industry where we try to bring people together - in REAL! (laughs) For 40 years, I've heard people say that digital trade shows are going to change the world and take over the trade show landscape. Maybe there are industries where that will work - it won't work in our industry. It's called "audio-visual," which means "seeing and hearing" - people want to see the products for real. But I also have to say that we have always ignored digital concepts - now we are forced to develop and apply them. We can see that the future will be hybrid and I also explain why: every year there are people who register for ISE intending to visit this show and then these people don't come. We research in that regard, so not only with the people who were at the show but also with the attendees who didn't show up. We want to know "Why weren't you there? After all, you went through the not-so-easy registration process" - now and then, of course, you have the case that someone got sick or something happened privately; maybe they just changed their mind. Mainly, the reason given was something we consider extremely important: Something else business/scheduled came up. And that's when we thought we'd come up with something for the people who couldn't attend the trade show due to this reason. Because the interest of these people is still there, even if they cancel at short notice. And if we can then offer a digital part of the trade fair, which of course can never replace a real visit, the interested parties will still find out what happened at this trade fair, what products were presented, and what's new. That was the first - let's move on to the second aspect.
When we look at our move from Amsterdam to Barcelona, we see that the majority of our visitors come from the Netherlands - 18%. 16% come from the UK, the same percentage from Germany. This 18% from the Netherlands shows us that many people from companies also spontaneously went to ISE - there the boss said: "go there, spend a few hours at the show and see what's new in the industry". The same person wants to go to Barcelona this year for the same reason as last year. However, that then involves airfare and hotel costs - that's an aspect we have to consider because maybe the boss won't say "go to the trade show." Exactly these people, to whom this would apply, can still experience the trade show - namely digitally. We see this more often, that people from companies don't get permission to travel to a trade fair, because that involves high costs - by the way, not only in our industry but in any industry with larger trade fair events. So we can reach those individuals digitally, even though they won't be there in person. For education, I feel the digital way is very good because that's something you can do presentations and exchange in that direction. Of course, this way does not replace the experience you have when you can touch a product.
So I can also say: yes, in the future there will be ISE as a hybrid event. I don't think we will offer virtual booths, because that involves a lot of effort and cost, and our experience shows that people who participate online are not "present" for more than a few hours. That would not be worthwhile then.
Mike Blackman: You can't compare this year's small event in Barcelona with ISE proper, of course. This year it's "just" an industry gathering in that sense because we only get a few thousand people together. But we are preparing ISE for 2022, right now we are starting to make reservations for next year's companies. The top 50 of our attendees and exhibitors are kind of in the process now for next year. What we can see is that most exhibitors want the same or even more space capacity at the show. Amsterdam was very good for us, it helped make ISE successful. The problem was that with ISE we just got too big for RAI Amsterdam and the city itself. We tried to create more space with the tents in the outdoor areas - that works in the summer, but it is not ideal for the winter. These tents were also always full of people. Of course, it was clear to us that RAI would not build new halls especially for us; this is a business and RAI also has to think economically. There are of course plans for more halls and they have continued to create and expand space for us, but we saw that the potential growth of ISE over the next five years would mean that the exhibition center in Amsterdam would not be sufficient, even with tents outside or newly built halls. So two years ago we started looking for a new location where we wouldn't have to move again in five years. Barcelona was a good fit for us, we looked at it and of course, also considered what we would lose in terms of exhibitors and visitors if we moved ISE and how high this risk would be for us. We informed ourselves, made inquiries to our exhibitors and also our visitors and the result was that a move to the new location in Barcelona was positively received.
With Barcelona, we have a fairground that with its 10 years is considered very new in the exhibition industry. It gives us the possibility to create a better layout, for the exhibitors and their products, and also the possibility to find your way around this fair through site plans. The RAI was a bit more complicated in that respect - I mean, I can walk blindfolded through the exhibition center in Amsterdam and I would always know exactly where I am. But that only happens when you spend years in the same buildings and halls (laughs). We've had a lot of complaints from ISE visitors at RAI in Amsterdam that it's difficult to navigate yourself and find the locations or how to get from point A to point B. It's not easy. It's understandable, of course, because the exhibition halls were built in different years and as a result, the site plan has changed - if you've been with it for years, you understand that and get along with it.
The new exhibition center is set up a bit more practically, with one entrance where the exhibitor halls are off to the left and right of the main hall. Also, the halls are bigger, instead of 15 halls we only have 8 here - much bigger with much much more space. And that makes it easier to work with a layout and plan the different areas - for example, one hall just for pro audio, one hall for a drive, one for digital signage, and so on. ISE is too big to look at in just one day it's too big to look at in four days - so we try to compress the different areas for the visitors that, for example, if you are interested in digital signage at the show, you have a specific location where the main part of the companies from that area is. Then the visitor knows where to find the products and companies they are interested in, and then they can look at the rest of the exhibitors at the show afterward. This gives us much better opportunities to plan and structure the show to make ISE more visitor-friendly.
Mike Blackman: I see us from the trade show industry as a part of live events, we were very affected by the pandemic worldwide. You can see that for example in the case of Messe München, which was very successful in the last few years, that they also slipped into a big minus here. Many people have been laid off in recent months - but they will be back. The auto show is coming up, a trade show that will be a great asset for Messe München. But you also have to include the rental companies in the AV industry, because if you look at all the big trade shows worldwide - ISE aside - it's the Auto shows that are profitable and business-boosting for the rental companies. I, therefore, think that the auto show will be a great success for Munich. The trade show industry will come back, trade shows will never die. There are perhaps trade fairs that are smaller and have suffered more, and as a result, will not take place again - but these are usually the trade fairs that were already having problems anyway, even before Corona. The pandemic was only the last nail in the coffin for these trade fair events. Here it is called "Survival of the Fittest".
In the AV industry - I'm currently reading a lot on the subject of "digital transformation", how to present companies to the market in a more effective and future-oriented way. What we're getting from the AV industry is a lot of what these same companies need to launch into the future. After the first lockdown and the first loosening, we had social distancing and limited visitors in stores. For example, I was at Media Markt and they had a system there with digital signage at the front door that shows how many people are in the store in real-time and when the next customer is allowed to enter the store. It was all automated, so obviously you can see that we're providing capabilities and solutions, with AI and temperature management and so on. It's not like there's a human in front of every store with a counter manually counting people in the store. At Media Markt, it was readers that measured and processed everything - that comes from our industry, from the AV industry.
For example, I was also at a meeting that Tobias Lang (LANG AG) held in Lindlar - products and solutions were presented there, the idea for which was developed during the pandemic. They developed a system that uses a filter to help clean the air or solutions that use facial recognition to check whether someone is wearing a mask or not. This system gives a warning that you need to put on a mask before you enter the building - there is no human standing there telling you that. So yes, there is more development coming and there are also new products coming from our industry that will help us in this time of digitalization.
Mike Blackman: What's interesting is that the effect of BREXIT for me has been as follows: I've become German (laughs). I'm English and I told myself that it would be difficult - because I'm in Germany very often, but until now I always said I didn't need German citizenship. But the BREXIT made me realize that I do need it, so I applied for it. That makes a lot of things easier for me.
When we held the first ISE, we did it in Geneva - Geneva was geographically central. But Geneva had the problem that it is in Europe - but at the same time not in Europe again. Every exhibitor has to import and re-export their products, so a lot of paperwork has to be done there. And that's exactly what's going to happen now with BREXIT, for all the people in the business where they have to bring products from the UK into Europe. An example of this: I recently ordered something through Amazon that came from the UK. Then when the letter carrier arrived at my door, I had to pay for delivery. The sender added the foreign shipping costs to the bill. If one gets such things already as a private person, whereby one gets also still the temporal delays and delays of orders and packages. This won't be so bad once everything has started to run its course, but it will also require a lot more administration between countries. For example, our customers who are based in England have that extra work. That happens with other companies as well, I don't see how a rental company from England would supply a customer for an event in Europe now. Because it's a lot of work to have to register and declare to customs every single part that is shipped. This circumstance makes it difficult the other way around, too: If a European company ships something to England, it goes the same way and involves the same effort.
Mike Blackman: We have heard about it, yes. Funnily enough, the ones from Ebner have sought out contact with us. I mean, a publisher is always in a good position to do a trade show because they have the contacts and they're connected to the industry and they have that opportunity. I guess Ebner is doing some research and talking to customers and they see the potential to do something in that direction. What they have to keep in mind is, being a trade show partner is not that easy. Do they have the know-how and do they have the resources to implement that properly - but I can't answer that. What is certainly negative about doing a trade show as a publisher is that they have competition, so other publishers and publishing houses in the same industry. Normally you see that the other publishing houses don't like such a venture and usually don't support it - however, Ebner will have the advantage that their magazines and publications will have the biggest benefit from such an event. What could happen is that other publishers will say they won't participate in this or offer support. It's hard because if you're going to plan and run an industry event, you need the help and support of all the other publishers, for promotion and so on. So I think it's going to be interesting. I mean, we know Ebner Media Group and we work with them as well. Publishers for print magazines, like you guys from PPVMEDIEN also (pma and das musikinstrument), have always supported us with the ISE - and of course, I hope that will continue. But it will be interesting, because as far as I know they haven't done any major trade shows, so they don't have any experience with that.
pma: Ebner did do a trade show in the guitar area, the Guitar Summit in Mannheim, and there was also an edition of "Studio Szene", for recording, studio equipment, etc., before the pandemic, although relatively small. There were only an estimated 20-30 exhibitors there though, so definitely smaller.
Mike Blackman: So, if they want to do something bigger, it's still difficult, because you can't do it with the same people then. However, I can't comment much on that, after all, I don't know where they are with the planning and preparations. I'm sure that a company like Ebner has already gathered information in advance before they dared to take the step towards the trade fair event. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this.
The London show will take place on 23 and 24 June 2021.