Trade Show Wrestles With 'Image Crisis'

There will be something for everyone at this year's Cebit trade show. Unfortunately, that's not what everyone wants.

When the world's biggest IT fair opens its doors next Thursday in Hanover, Germany, there will be plenty on show for business customers, including CRM, VOIP and RFID products. There will also be much for consumers, with high-definition TVs, digital cameras and next-generation DVD players all on display.

Something for everyone is nice, but the growth in consumer products has made some exhibitors think twice about attending. The cell phones and flat-screen TVs draw more consumers to the show, critics say, and that's not good for companies that want to meet professional IT buyers.

"The ROI [return on investment] of a presence at Cebit is not really worthwhile," said Christine Nöstelbacher, a marketing manager for enterprise content-management company Open Text Corp., which decided not to attend Cebit this year. "The target group I want to meet is not corresponding to the target group at Cebit."

It's a problem that has affected other shows, notably Comdex in the U.S., which closed in 2004 after exhibitors turned their backs on what became a sprawling, unfocused event. Few predict the imminent demise of Cebit, which attracted some 450,000 visitors last year, more than any show of its kind. But anecdotal evidence suggests it is not the must-attend show of years past.

A quick check with Hanover's business hotels, such as the Radisson, Ramada and Park Inn, revealed that most are booked up only for Wednesday and Thursday next week, with openings from Friday onward.

"We noticed a few more last-minute cancellations this year and weren't able to fill them as quickly as we have in the past," a reservationist at Park Inn said. "And beginning Friday, we have a number of room openings."

Last-minute reservations for private rooms in Hanover are "a bit difficult" but possibilities exist, said a sales agent at Travel2Fairs GmbH, which books rooms for trade show visitors. "Finding a room directly outside of Hanover is no problem," the sales agent said. "We've noticed a drop in demand this year."

Cebit itself is also less busy. About 6,000 exhibitors will attend this year, down from nearly 6,200 last year and 8,000 in 2001, said Katharina Siebert, a spokeswoman for show organizer Deutsche Messe. The floor space sold has also slipped, to around 280,000 square meters, from slightly over 300,000 square meters in 2006, she said.

The decline reflects a slow but steady departure of companies using Cebit to promote products and meet customers. Along with Open Text, handset makers Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp. will also be absent this year, following in the footsteps of Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., which ended their participation years ago.

"It's getting a bit calmer at Cebit; you can't compare it with 8 to 10 years ago," said Regina Israel, European corporate communications manager for Seagate Technologies Inc., which will attend the show this year only in its partners' booths.

"Cebit tries to make something for everyone," she said, "but I'm not sure that really works."

Marcus Ehrenwirth, a public-relations worker with phronesis PR GmbH of Germany who attended his first Cebit in 1998, said the show has developed an "image crisis" by trying to compete with the IFA consumer show in Berlin.

But companies are too quick to judge the event, he said. Getting sales leads depends on direct marketing beforehand, which some companies don't do. And Cebit offers other advantages, like being able to meet several existing customers in one location, he said.

Open Text's Nöstelbacher said the industry is maturing. IT is of interest now to business managers, she said, not just IT people, and Open Text thinks it can find a better audience at focused events such as SAP AG's Sapphire and DMS Expo, a document-management conference in Cologne, Germany.

Deutsche Messe says its show has not lost its business focus. Cebit has always showed consumer goods, which attract professional buyers as well as consumers, Siebert noted. And organizers say around 85 percent of attendees are professional buyers. The show also remains important for some big vendors, such as IBM Corp., which retains a huge presence this year.

Still, Deutsche Messe has taken steps to address the concerns. In January it announced a "restructuring" effort for 2008 that includes shortening Cebit to six days from seven, and opening on Tuesday instead of its usual Thursday start.

The idea is to cut costs for exhibitors and give them four consecutive days of mostly enterprise buyers, with consumers and small businesses likely to come on the weekend. It's also promising joint marketing programs to help generate sales leads, and is adding new business-focussed events like this year's SOA World.

"The success of Cebit will rise again, " Ehrenwirth predicted, "but it will take some time."

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