CeBit gets a face-lift

Europe's biggest IT show is undergoing an overhaul forced by a drop in attendance and wider changes in the industry.
Written by Cath Everett, Contributor
Europe's biggest technology conference is changing to keep itself relevant in a new trade show era.

CeBit, which is scheduled to begin Thursday, is undergoing a "180-degree shift in focus" in line with changing market dynamics, according to Sven-Michael Prüser, the trade show's senior vice president. Next year, the conference floors will be divided into areas that mirror CeBit's three key types of attendees: professional users, public workers, and "digital lifestyle" retailers and distributors.

"The idea is to design the floor plan in such a way that buyers can find things easily," Prüser said last week. "Basically, the same companies will be exhibiting, but they'll not be showing products so much as solutions."

"If you look at the late 1980s, it was the boom time for shows. They were massive because technologists went, and they had budgets. IT directors would go from stand to stand, and would be prepared to spend a lot of money."
--Clive Longbottom, service director, Quocirca

Instead of displaying its newest processors, for example, Prüser said Intel would partner with game console makers to "showcase how its products are being used."

Emerging technologies such as telematics are also slated to get more visibility in the show's halls, with displays designed to help visitors understand how a technology can benefit them. User organizations will likewise be asked to provide best-practice advice to peers based on their own implementation experiences.

In addition, a wide range of buyer-to-vendor "matchmaking" services are in the works. Such services were first offered five years ago to facilitate partnership talks between midsize companies in Latin America and the European Union.

If shows such as CeBit, which first opened its doors 21 years ago, don't reinvent themselves, they'll die. So says Clive Longbottom, a service director at British research firm Quocirca.

"If you look at the late 1980s, it was the boom time for shows," Longbottom said. "They were massive because technologists went, and they had budgets. IT directors would go from stand to stand, and would be prepared to spend a lot of money."

By the late 1990s, attendees were largely "tire kickers" attending "to see what was sexy, but (they) had little influence--let alone buying capability," Longbottom said.

The demographic shift led to the demise of the large-scale generic IT event Comdex, which was held annually in Las Vegas, "because it was just geeks in the end," Longbottom said. "The vendors were saying, 'We've been charged X amount of money for a stand, and we've got no leads and no return on investment.'"

As a result, he said, most big technology shows in the United States are now oriented toward specific vertical markets such as retail or toward software categories such as customer relationship management; more focused generally means more cost-effective.

Although Longbottom acknowledged that CeBit is still probably the largest IT trade show in the world, he also pointed out that visitor numbers have dropped dramatically, from a peak of 850,000 in 2001 to about 424,000 in 2006. Moreover, big names such as Lenovo, Motorola and Nokia have all announced in recent months that they will not pay for exhibition stands this year.

Lenovo said of its decision not to attend the show that "the company focuses in Germany on marketing activities that show a direct return on investment like road shows or partner-recruiting events."

Despite the drop in exhibitors, Prüser maintains an optimistic stance on CeBit's future.

"If organizations have nothing to show, then it's probably better not to appear," he said. As for Motorola and Nokia, despite their decisions not to pay for their own conference stands, "they'll have a lot of people at the exhibition and will be co-exhibitors with Vodafone. So they'll occupy some of the space that Vodafone rents, which is a cost-saving and a very efficient thing to do."

While Prüser acknowledged that visitor numbers have fallen since 2001, when "the industry was dominated by the dot-com economy and was having a champagne party," he said they are now stable. He also said the quality of attendees has improved since those heady days.

Six years ago, "a lot of visitors came just to be informed about the market, which was good for us but bad for the exhibitors, as they were mainly just talking," but that has changed, he said.

"The (percentage) of people wanting to do business on the spot has now increased tremendously. About 85 percent of visitors are business or IT decision makers, and there are, of course, also retailers, dealers and distributors, which want to keep in touch with new technical developments and talk to suppliers to help them plan for the year ahead," Prüser said.

Moreover, he added, CeBit "is still the most international show in the world," with foreign visitors consistently comprising about a fourth of all attendees, according to an Ernst & Young-audited survey of 5,000 event attendees each year.

With the tech show's 2008 focus changes, which follow "intense discussions" with exhibitors and the show's professional visitor group, "everyone benefits," Prüser concludes. "Visitors have more useful appointments, exhibitors generate more profit, and journalists get more information. And if everyone is satisfied, we--the organizers--are too."

Cath Everett of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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