Are Camera Shows Dead?

Here we are with one of the larger camera shows in the US just ahead—PhotoPlus Expo in New York City in October—yet Photokina 2020 this past week sent a press release that indicated that they've lost appearances by three key camera companies (Leica, Nikon, and Olympus). Sony doesn't appear to be exhibiting at PhotoPlus. Also, Fujifilm has indicated that they'll now regard Photokina as a "local show", meaning that any decision to exhibit will be made and paid for by the local distribution company in the future.

I've been attending big tech trade and consumer shows since the late 70's, including ones that are still around (NAB) and ones that aren't (West Coast Computer Faire, COMDEX, etc.). 

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Let's start with the difference between a trade show and a consumer show. 

Originally, a trade show was solely for the trade: distributors, dealers, partners, and so on. A trade show was a way to show upcoming product to those that were going to sell it in the future and to secure purchase orders from that distribution network. A trade show was totally business-to-business. 

Consumer shows, meanwhile, were solely for meeting with and trying to promote and sell product to potential customers. Often, these events sold product from the show floor, though for awhile in some venues that was difficult or impossible to do (originally because of sales tax collection by out-of-state entities, but for other reasons, as well). 

To keep the big event and expo companies making money, we eventually started seeing the two types of shows mixed in order to keep overall attendance rates up. For instance, today both trade and consumers can attend NAB, so it still mostly fills the huge Las Vegas convention center.

Thing is, in a growing market—and rapidly growing markets in particular—big expos, conferences, and shows serve a purpose: they concentrate a huge volume of useful information and product into one place, which makes it easy (easier) to learn and get a sense of where the market is. They also make it easier to build a network. When personal computers first took off in the late 70's, the computer store I managed in the Midwest used to make yearly treks to the West Coast to the big shows in Silicon Valley and later Vegas because it was the only place you could see what was happening in the market all at once. It gave us intros to people who didn't know we existed. When we came home from these shows, we served as "pollinators" to our customers.

When Apple decided to stop participating in the consumer show MacWorld Expo, it wasn't so much that there weren't a lot of customers attending—though attendance was down towards the end—it was that Apple didn't want an externally-controlled show dictating their product release schedules. (Ironically, Apple now uses predictable "events" to launch products, such as the Apple Developer's Conference in June or the now annual iPhone kickoff typically in September.)

In a declining market, unless a big show can actually make the vendors clear dollars in some way, things don't work so well. That's because it can easily be a million dollar proposition to exhibit at those big shows if you want to have any reasonable sized booth and staff presence. More and more, you find the companies fighting contraction wondering what they get for all that money they're spending and deciding it isn't worth the expense.

That's not to say that camera companies shouldn't be doing trade or consumer shows. It's that they really need to be thinking completely different and clearly. It's probably a bigger bang for their buck to just have a dealer-only event here in the US than a trade show presence (and probably in Europe and Asia, too). And it's also probably a bigger bang for the camera maker's buck to sponsor local dealer events for consumers, or perhaps mimic what Sony is doing with Kando. A million dollars goes a long way in both those cases.

When Photokina first proposed having two shows in less than a year (in order to re-arrange their event scheduling from fall to spring) and then further doubling the number of events (every year instead of every other year), that was suicide on their part. Basically they were telling a camera company that might be spending a million dollars every two years to spend two million dollars this year and a million every subsequent year. This came at a time when the camera companies were all asking themselves: "with continued declining sales, what's the best way to spend the marketing/promotion money we still have budgeted?" And remember, that budgeted amount would likely be less each year as sales volumes and profits declined, not the more that Photokina was suddenly demanding.

One thing that I've noted in previous tech markets is this: when the big trade or consumer show goes "boom" and implodes, a lot of the other big shows in that market die, too. That's because once you start a group of companies closely evaluating what they're getting for their marketing costs, they often find lots of other places where they should be cutting. 

So there's an interesting question that comes up as we see less trade/consumer show participation by the camera vendors: how the heck do you inspire/inform current customers (to upgrade/extend) and how do you attract new customers? 

Most of the camera companies have now given in to influencer-driven YouTubing and Instagramming. That introduces another party, and one who isn't necessarily loyal. We've already seen some "switch ships" because they saw more money promoting something different (including software or accessories instead of cameras). 

I get queries about what is essentially selling-out-influence-for-money all the time. Some are subtle, some are blatant. In several cases it takes the form "we'll give you a free product and kickback money if you promote it as we launch it," particularly with Kickstarter campaigns. One reason why you hear so much about pending betas and discounts for future software launches has to do with hidden money to the sites promoting it.

We're going to see more of that in the future as the camera companies move their budgets from big, not-effective trade shows and conventions, to more nimble, influencer-driven promotions. But I'm not convinced that's the way to do it. 

I keep coming back to Kando. Sony does quite a few things right with that annual event. But the real thing that I like about Kando is that it feels like Sony is reaching out to its user base and trying to get closer. Embrace your customer, don't market to them. If anything, I think Sony needs to add mini-Kandos scattered across the country (and world) throughout the year. The more customers you reach out to and develop close bonds with, the more likely you can weather the continued camera market contraction. 


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