Filling the halls

Tightened travel budgets affect show attendance

We are entering the conference/trade show Spring season. The number and diversity of these events seems to increase as the weather turns mild, peaking by July with a two month slowdown until it ramps up again for the Fall season.

These events are often seen as a bellwether of economic conditions. When the economy is strong manufacturers liberally approve employees' travel budgets; when weak, travel budgets are the first to be reduced. So event organizers track the reports from current events to get a clue as to what they might expect from theirs.

It's not a hard and fast rule because a recent defense hardware-related event drew standing-room-only attendance while a manufacturing operation-oriented event had a difficult time making break-even numbers. For industrial lasers, any event related to the medical/dental/surgical device market draws well as this remains one of the bright economic sectors; same for events that address solar power, particularly photovoltaic manufacturing.

So far this year using events as a barometer has produced mixed results. For the most part industrial laser-oriented events have struggled to meet the numbers of the previous year. Photonics West, a big show with a large technical conference, surpassed 2008 numbers by a small amount, but this show and conference are heavy on research and scientific subjects and products and those are two laser sectors that are doing quite well in a down economy. Same holds for the MD&M show in February, which focuses on the medical device sector. An important European lasers in automotive event, EALA, experienced a 25% drop in attendance, even though the number of companies represented was constant, suggesting that companies had reduced the number of employees allowed to travel.

One of the photovoltaic shows in Europe, relatively new to the schedule, drew modestly although the associated technical conference was a strong pull. This result may be due to the proliferation of shows and conferences on this subject. A first-time workshop on Laser Assisted Manufacturing made its planned numbers, even though it was a first event. SALA, which focuses on aerospace laser applications, was down a bit from last year's numbers; but, as with other shows, the number of companies represented remained equal with the decline coming from multiple registrations for some companies.

A first-time sheet metal show in Russia was fully booked by exhibitors and it drew a modest attendance chalked up to the economic conditions in that region, but promising for the future. A workshop on battery assembly, a hot subject today, produced a standing-room-only crowd. And reports from China by our man at the World of Photonics show in Shanghai indicate that crowds were as good as last year and the buying atmosphere was positive. And attendance at the important fiber event, OFC/NFOEC, was off by 25%, even though the technical sessions were first class.

These are only a smattering of the technical events happening worldwide, and only reported because ILS had observers at each. But it is indicative of the times. Travel budgets have been cut to the bone or eliminated by companies striving to keep expenses in line so they can hold on to key employees to position themselves for the anticipated end-of-year turnaround.

David A. Belforte

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