The Decline of Big Automation Exhibitions

My first introduction to the automation industry was through the big automation exhibitions. I remember vividly my first ISA shows, produced by what was then known as the Instrument Society of America, but now named the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society.

Everyone who was anyone was there, and the show attracted about 80,000 to 90,000 attendees for the week. Those were the glory days of the mid-‘70s.

Others tried to replicate the ISA show’s success in the United States. To complement ISA’s fall schedule, the Control Expo was held in the spring in Chicago. When it didn’t really do too well, it was consolidated as Manufacturing Week with several allied interests beyond just automation.

The European shows were bigger. The annual Hanover Fair in Germany was easily the largest of all industrial exhibitions, including all types of industrial equipment, with automation exhibited primarily in three large buildings. At its peak, the event attracted some 100,000 visitors per day.

Interkama, in Düsseldorf, Germany, was the world’s biggest automation fair, attracting literally hundreds of thousands every three years. And there were other big European exhibitions—Mesucora in Paris, the HET exhibition in Holland, BIAS in Italy and more. The great strength of the European fairs was that they seemed to attract people from all around the world.

Clearly those were the halcyon days for automation. But alas, those days have gone. Attendance at annual ISA shows has declined to a mere fraction of former times. The customer-to-supplier ratio, which used to be as much as 10-to-1, is more like 1-to-1 today, and sometimes less (by my estimates). Traffic is sparse, with forlorn exhibitors spending their time reviewing each other’s products and bemoaning hard times.

The European exhibitions are also fading away, with organizers scrambling to consolidate. Interkama has gradually declined from 15 to nine halls, and then just five. Show organizers played around with frequency and focus, but failed to stem the decline. Two years ago, they gave up, and Interkama became a sub-section of the Hanover Fair; in 2004, attendance was reported to be down to 60,000.

The decline in all the major automation exhibitions cannot be seen as a criticism of any specific organization. Rather, it is a strategic shift, a recognition that the days of large, central exhibitions are over. Many explanations have been given for the decline: cost of participation, constrained marketing and development expenditures caused by business decline, very little new to see.

Today, customers can review a significant amount of information via the Internet, and it is usually more up to date than any printed material. The cost of sending an employee to a central exhibition includes travel, local transportation, meals and hotel, plus lost time from regular activities. This inhibits most companies from sending employees to attend large, central exhibitions. A day’s visit to a local show is usually the most that is acceptable.

From the exhibitors’ standpoint, it’s more effective to invite key customers to attend a private showing of all the latest products, with focused presentations by key personnel. More and more automation suppliers are taking this route—not attending the major exhibitions, but instead having their own shows. This tactic is now being used very effectively by most of automation majors.

Seeing the future?

In recent times, third-party organized personal-networking conferences are becoming successful. ARC Advisory Group, for example, hosts conferences where senior people, typically presidents and chief executive officers from both customer and supplier organizations, address the gathering. The cost is higher than the usual exhibition/conference, but attendance is targeted at the select few who find it worthwhile. Apparently the higher ticket is more than justified by the focused program, valuable content and opportunities for personal networking with senior executives. Perhaps this points the way to the future.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site:

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