With it being the testbed for a new, focused format, the organisers of last month’s IMB Select trade show hoped to win over exhibitors and delegates alike. Now that the dust has settled, Ben Hanson looks at how far they succeeded in creating a viable offshoot of the IMB Forum in such a difficult climate.
It was in the face of increasing virtualisation and ever-tightening budgets, and with an ongoing global recession wreaking havoc on consumer buying habits, that the organisers at Koelnmesse mounted the first IMB Select event – a new offshoot of the tri-yearly IMB Forum – from 9th to 10th November.
The main event (last run in 2009 and due to return in 2012) has over its near-forty-year history established itself as one the leading platforms for the exhibition and discussion of products and research and development breakthroughs particular to the retail, footwear and apparel industries. Attracting a who’s who of delegates from around the world, the IMB Forum sees exhibitors from every sector demonstrating everything from cutting machines and production technologies through to hardware and software systems for every conceivable fashion-related purpose. Occupying a far larger share of Cologne’s cavernous exhibition halls than its smaller brother, the large-scale IMB Forum can be a bewildering thing to navigate – especially so for delegates who attend with one specific technology in mind, be it plant machinery or PLM, and find themselves lost.
The growing diversity of the marketplace and the increasing proliferation of new developments and technologies are both strong indicators that the industry is continuing to grow – unquestionably good news for vendors, but less so for attendees who walk the winding paths of the show floor being inundated with sales pitches that are not applicable to their job or, worse, even their sector of the market. With such a sprawling array of technology on display and such a range of international visitors thronging through the doors of the 2009 Forum, the organisers hit upon the idea of filling one of the furlough years between then and 2012 with a more streamlined show dedicated exclusively to software for the fashion industry, and the IMB Select format was born.
Intended to take a more focused look at how software and solutions integrate into and facilitate the various stages of the supply chains of businesses around the world, the 2010 Select show is best summed up by its strapline of “Fashion & Textiles: IT Systems, Services and Strategies”. This subtitle defines the scope of the reorientation and refinement effort, and was reflected in the tailored selection of exhibitors who were invited to set up shop over the two-day period. Large international PLM suppliers rubbed shoulders with smaller, single-territory vendors of visual merchandising, and everywhere the focus remained fixed on one thing: how software and services can help to deliver efficiency savings in an increasingly competitive market.
It would be easy to assume that the Select event was put together simply as a placeholder – a kind of halfway house between Forums – but this would be doing a disservice to just how seriously the organisational team appear to have taken this opportunity to create something new. They went so far as to organise the exhibitors’ stands into a facsimile of a typical textile industry supply chain; delegates following the arrows adorning the showfloor were shown software and solutions for everything from initial sourcing systems through to shop floor virtualisation in order, something that the organisers believe to have added to the distinct feel of the show:
“Our concept has proved convincing – the idea of organising the layout to reflect the textile supply chain has worked out particularly well. We’re extremely optimistic about the future,” said Udo Traeger, Vice President Furniture, Interior Design & Textiles at Koelnmesse, whose decorative touches included a small army of well-dressed mannequins, a shipping crate and patterns, materials and workwear examples suspended from the lofty ceiling. There was no mistaking the fact that the visual identity of the show had been closely and cleverly informed by the fusion of high fashion and higher technology.
As well as creating a unique way of experiencing the offerings of each of the different exhibitors, the organisation of the stands was designed to reflect the emerging trend for diversification in PLM and the growing popularity of complete, end-to-end solutions, and how together they are supplanting the long-standing separation of industry and trade. With many of the solutions being demonstrated offering customisation options and modules that are able to handle the entirety of the product lifecycle process from design to point of sale, the logic behind the creation of the more software-focused IMB Select seems well founded. In short, software is at work behind the scenes at every stage of the industry’s product development processes, and entire supply chains are routinely managed by either a complete end-to-end solution or an aggregate of one core PLM or PDM solution and a selection of integrated third party software. It follows, then, that a show dedicated to the growing symbiosis of fashion and technology could be reasonably expected to draw a large and passionate audience. And with Select 2010 representing such an experimental new direction for the IMB series, and breaking from almost forty years of tradition, the question on everybody’s mind was whether or not it succeeded in that aim.
Alongside conducting detailed supplier interviews (which will premiere here at WhichPLM over the coming days), I sat down with many of the exhibitors and delegates over the two days to gauge their reactions to the new format, and received mixed opinions.
The official figures cite 568 visitors from more than twenty different countries entering the show, with demonstrations and exhibition stands provided by 53 vendors (this includes everything from smaller, one-man stands right up to those multi-part booths occupied by the biggest names in PLM and PDM) from eight different countries. Contrasted with the 20,000 delegates who attended the 2009 IMB Forum, it becomes clear just how different an event the first Select show was.
In the after-show press release, CEO of Koelnmesse Gerald Böse is quoted as saying that: “All things considered, the event’s new approach proved convincing. The results and experiences from the IMB Select 2010 give us every reason to be optimistic about 2012.”
Presentations on a variety of subjects were given by industry experts including Elizabeth King of Gerber Technology. Despite requiring a separate and considerably more expensive ticket to attend, the official statistics list these as being well-attended and of a uniformly high standard. These lectures and Speaker’s Corners were nothing if not comprehensive, covering everything from how the right software can help to streamline the creation of specific lines of garments to detailed advice on shortlisting and selecting the right PLM solution, and each seemed perfectly pitched for the audience.
Outside of the congress area, though, it is clear that Gerald Böse and his team consider there to be considerable overlap between the purposes of the Select events and the recurring, tri-yearly Forums, with Böse going on to say that: “The combination of the IMB Select with its high degree of specialisation in information and communications technology and the IMB – World of Textile Processing here in Cologne represents an international platform for the global garment industry and textile supply chain that is unique the world over.”
This suggests a revealing if perhaps unsurprising thing: that exhibitors and delegates who visit the Select events are also expected to return for the Forum in 2012. This means that the success of the new events can only truly be calculated relative to that of the regular Forums – what sets the Select series apart being its ability to reach a separate audience (or more effectively touch and broaden an existing audience), or to provide a platform for vendors to demonstrate their products on a cycle that more accurately mirrors their own internal developments. In our upcoming series of “Spotlight On…” features we look in more depth at the latest developments and future prospects for all of the main PLM suppliers (compiled from interviews with senior executives conducted at the show), and examine how effectively a more regular and more focused event will allow them to communicate these things to their customers.
While the entire Select show had an international flavour, German and European companies featured heavily on the rosters for both exhibitors and delegates. According to official figures the audience included visitors from such renowned international brands as Esprit, Puma and Hugo Boss, with almost every major multinational and European vendor being represented among the exhibitors.
The organisers suggest that exhibitors in general were pleased with the quality and decision-making authority of the delegates present (with renowned national retailers Galeria Kauthof and Sinn Leffers receiving particular attention in the press release), while some of the exhibitors I talked to were less than satisfied with the representatives who attended their stands. The range of opinions is represented by the quotes below:
“Not really exciting. It is very quiet. There’s not much traffic.”
“I understand that it’s kind of a premiere in terms of the name-change and it being a different platform, but it’s been a little slower than I thought. To be fair, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen trade shows in general have been a little slow lately.”
“The number of visitors is not as expected, but what I think is that there are many key people here. Many very interesting companies and many decision makers here, so, we’re really happy, actually. All our competitors are here as well. It looks like the place to be. Maybe not too many visitors, but good visitors!”
“We are pretty satisfied. We had several new potential customers. [The second day] is a bit quiet and with not so many people visiting the stands, but we don’t have people just viewing, they’re all genuinely interested.”
The relatively low volume of foot traffic spread over both days (especially in contrast to the numbers seen at the larger Forum) would not necessarily have been an issue in and of itself, but it seems probable from observation and from discussions with many of the exhibitors that the official delegate figures quoted by Koelnmesse were conflated with student visitors, who appeared to make up a sizeable portion of the overall numbers. This is not to diminish the importance of education (indeed many of the suppliers present host student workshops and provide well-regarded internships), but rather to reinforce the idea that, even with a dedicated audience and a specifically tailored exhibitor list, a good portion of suppliers found the sheer quantity (if not necessarily quality) of delegates to have been lacking. That said, one has to bear in mind that, it being a new and unproven (despite its clear associations with the main Forum) event, many exhibitors treated attendance at the show as purely speculative, considering any sales leads to be a bonus. “This isn’t a trade show where people sign deals, it’s more of an exhibition”, as one exhibitor put it.
However, this is a mindset that can only really be applied to the larger vendors, some of whom have called the financial year 2009 / 2010 their most successful to date. There can be no doubt that, for smaller companies or those companies very much focused on a single market, attendance at the show represented a considerable investment in such a shaky economic climate. And the prospect of a substantial audience of potential clients and sales leads will have been a deciding factor in their attending. Even this, though, is not anywhere near as cut-and-dried as one might think, and the return on investment for any company, regardless of size of budget, who chose to exhibit at the 2010 Select event will only be truly realised farther into the future. For example, such a reductionist approach fails to take into account those companies who attended for networking purposes (by which I mean vendors of third-party modules and systems that integrate with larger PLM or PDM solutions). These companies will not measure the success of their attendance in terms of raw sales leads generated, instead benefitting more from simply being in the same hall as their own customers – the suppliers of those large solutions – whose stands were staffed by the kind of senior figures it would have otherwise proved difficult to meet. As one such exhibitor put it:
“For us the show really is a little bit speculative, to see whether we can promote any interest not only from the visitors who are coming through, but also to see whether we can do any strategic marketing.”
The ongoing financial crisis is something of a dual-edged sword for the industry. The same need for savings on the bottom-line that drives more and more customers towards PLM, expecting the right solution to deliver increases in efficiency and allow them to remain competitive in an increasingly cutthroat market, makes those customers harder than ever to reach – why spend anything on attending a trade show in Europe when money is so tight? However, the fact that more than 500 people came through the doors despite the associated expenditure does add weight to the impression that a good portion of those delegates came ready to make a decision, with one exhibitor I spoke to saying: “Some of the presentations were really like the presentations you would usually do in-house. People seem to have some very real, very concrete investment project plans in mind.”
Similarly, though, the narrowed focus of the IMB Select events must have been a mixed blessing for exhibitors and delegates alike. True, there can be no doubt that a substantial and ever-growing customer base exists, but the trouble with demonstrating software is inherent in the word itself – software is ephemeral, comprised of bytes or modules, web browsers or databases. Whatever scale we choose to approach it from, none of the constituent parts of any of the software or services on display required the space given over to them in the exhibition hall, and certainly not compared to their hardware counterparts. This is not to say that any of the demonstrations given over the two days of the show were anything but worthwhile (and indeed many attracted large and consistent crowds), but rather that perhaps the show floor is not their ideal environment.
To put it another way, whereas manufacturers can and should travel from all over the world to see the latest cutting machines or production technologies in action, all one really needs to demonstrate a PLM solution is a display, a network connection, a set of dummy data and a ready-made audience. IMB Select may well have delivered the latter, but the question remains as to whether it (or any other show for that matter) can deliver the optimum setting for the former.
There is an increasing trend for vendors who have appeared on a prospective customer’s shortlist to travel to that customer’s premises in order to demonstrate their solution. However, the initial sales pitches that occur prior to this (and which are the functional equivalent of exhibiting at a show like IMB Select) can be handled just as well virtually, using online portals such as WhichPLM’s upcoming supplier demonstration area to negate the requirement for either party to set aside the time and the money to see a product demonstrated far away from its native environment.
The risk that the organisers have taken in putting on such a large-scale event so focused on intimate demonstrations was summarised by one notable exhibitor who said: “It’s a new design and we’re very eager to hear after the fair how visitors have been convinced by it.”
For clarity’s sake, the question is not whether sufficient interest exists to warrant demonstrations and presentations dedicated to software and solutions for the retail, apparel and footwear industries (unquestionably such a massive and ever-growing market deserves as many avenues of communication between suppliers and customers as is possible), but rather whether the traditional trade show is the right format for it. And this is a quandary that, despite its dedication to creating new and better ways for suppliers and customers to meet, IMB Select may find difficult to answer.
I hope that Koelnmesse’s is an experiment that will continue since, with the right incentives for exhibitors and strengthened by better online communications between customers and suppliers before the show, it has the potential to become a major fixture on the conference circuit. Competition will remain fierce, though, with the balance of power in a growing industry shifting slowly but steadily to create a true buyer’s market.
The one thing we can be certain of is that, for the time being, IMB Select 2010 can be commended for its verve and inspiration even while the jury remains in deliberation on its future. In conversation a renowned vendor said to me that, “you never really know the true value of a trade show until afterwards”, and I suspect this value is something that will be measured in months and years rather than weeks and sales prospects.
While it remains to be seen on what basis the IMB Select event will be repeated, the next IMB Forum is already scheduled to take place in Cologne from 8th to 11th May 2012. Further details are available from www.imb-cologne.com.
Upcoming IMB Select 2010 features from WhichPLM
GSD Design Development
And don’t forget to keep a watch for a range of topical articles by our top writers, covering every aspect of sustainability from a business and ethical standpoint, including a round-table discussion and in-depth look at some of the difficulties inherent in obtaining accurate data, and how the right PLM software is only part of the solution.