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‘Each year we raise the bar a little higher’: ISE MD Mike Blackman on the show’s increasing appeal for pro audio brands

Traditionally an installation show, Integrated Systems Europe is now a huge event for pro audio brands. Mike Blackman explains the rise of its popularity

What ISE has achieved in 15 years is nothing short of staggering. When the AV tech event embarked upon its maiden voyage in the Swiss city of Geneva back in 2004, not even the most optimistic of trade show organisers could have predicted that by the year 2018 it would be cramming the aisles of the Amsterdam RAI’s 15 halls with in excess of 70,000 punters and over 1,400 exhibitors from across the globe, year in, year out.
Let’s put that into perspective. ISE’s debut outing attracted a comparatively paltry 3,500 attendees and 120 exhibitors, while its floor space has rocketed from 2,800 square metres 15 years ago to 55,000 square metres in 2018. Sure, there are a clutch of other shows operating on a similar scale, but those audiences were nurtured and grown over the course of several decades. Compared to the likes of NAMM and Prolight + Sound, ISE is very much a show in its infancy.

One of key factors behind the seemingly inexorable rise of ISE over the past few years, particularly among the pro audio crowd, has been its ability to cater for all comers. It’s a bit like NAMM, in that respect, as it extends its reach into new areas of business and appeal to the masses without losing site of its trade obligations and neglecting its responsibilities to its regulars.

The steady evolution of the show over the past decade and a half can be attributed largely to the foresight of its founder, managing director and self professed “tech enthusiast” Mike Blackman. From day one, it has been his ambition to create an event that not only excites audiences around the world from the AV, home tech and pro audio sectors year after year, but also one that succeeds in capturing his own imagination time and again.

“I’m a huge technology fan, and walking around the RAI during ISE, for me, is like being a kid in a giant toy shop,” he explains. “When people come to ISE they know they will see leading international companies, new product launches and senior technical and marketing personnel from a range of complementary technology sectors all under one roof. For four days, ISE is the de facto AV systems integration business.

“An enduring factor in the show’s long-term appeal is the fact that we are always keen to innovate and embrace new market sectors that we feel are relevant to the broader AV market. Recently this includes areas such as education technology, smart building and virtual/augmented reality. With AVIXA, CEDIA and our media partners we have also worked hard to create a vibrant professional development and show day programme designed to attract leading industry executives and experts. Thought leadership becomes a greater priority when you are at venue capacity.

“Our fundamental belief is that you must want to be at ISE because it will make a positive difference to you and your business.”

The pro audio community has been quick to latch on to the burgeoning profile of the Amsterdam show since the turn of the decade. While several audio manufacturers exhibited at the RAI from its earliest outing, ISE has seen a sharp uptick in the number of pro audio companies either showcasing product at the show or upping their existing presence. In several cases, it has turned the heads of some who had previously committed their trade show budget for the year elsewhere. In Blackman’s view, the reason for this lies in the advancement of audio technology in the AV market.

“Audio is playing an increasingly vital role in numerous areas of technology on display at ISE, from its use alongside digital displays in the retail marketplace to the latest boardroom unified communications system. Its role in ‘smart’ communications cannot be underestimated,” he states. “What we seek to demonstrate is how audio is being used in the context of the wider AV business sector, not just its role in entertainment applications. ISE provides the opportunity for attendees to get a holistic snapshot of audio technology and solutions developed for use in the whole market rather than a single, niche area.

“In Hall 7 we have consolidated lighting, audio and staging exhibitors in a dedicated area called Audio and Live Events Technology. Hall 7 had previously been called the Audio Hall and primarily focused on pro audio manufacturers. There will be other companies operating in these sectors exhibiting in other parts of the RAI Amsterdam, but Hall 7 is our focus.”

With that in mind, what exactly can pro audio visitors expect from their trip to Amsterdam this month? According to Blackman, there’ll be something for all.

“Primarily, attendees can expect to see the latest audio systems, acoustics, interpretation and processing technologies being showcased by the world’s leading manufacturers and service providers,” Blackman elaborates. “Exhibitors will have the opportunity to connect with a mix of AV ‘channel’ professionals (over 60% cite audio as being part of their business) and end users from a wide range of markets which includes education, corporate, healthcare and finance.”

Looking to the future

As technology across the board continues to advance, Blackman sees audio becoming an ever more intrinsic part of the ISE offering over the coming years.

“I believe we will see more widespread integration of audio networks with IT network infrastructures,” he claims. “There will be increased adoption of immersive and object-based audio systems, sometimes as an accompaniment to 4K/UHD displays and/or video conferencing systems and the continuing consolidation among installed audio vendors as customers increasingly seek total solutions and therefore want ‘one-stop shops’. The competition to establish a networked audio standard will become clearer as the two main players vie for industry acceptance. Plus, I think that the focus for audio manufacturers will increasingly focus on new applications, aesthetics and the ease of installation and use.”

And as to what the future holds for ISE as an organisation, Blackman believes that the opportunities are endless.

“As ISE is co-owned by trade associations AVIXA and CEDIA the collective leverage we have is enormous,” he tells us. “At a macro level this allows us to develop global strategies to serve the AV market. On a micro level it allows us to introduce new areas and features into the ISE exhibition safe in the knowledge that the strength of the brand will ensure that people will come to it with a positive mindset. At ISE 2018 we are exploring the opportunities being created by companies specialising in virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology and solutions. Plus, we can work with partners such as RAI Amsterdam and Amsterdam Light Festival to produce The World Masters of Projection Mapping competition, which is taking place for the first time this year during ISE.”

On the subject of challenges facing the annual event, Blackman is a little less specific, instead pointing towards the organisation’s collective efforts to simply up its game year after year.

“Each year we raise the bar a little higher,” he tells us. “Our collective objective is to maintain the high standards we have set ourselves and to exceed them. As ISE grows, so do the aspirations and expectations of our exhibitors and attendees. We need to ensure at all times that we are working in sync with all our stakeholders to deliver common goals.

“It is our opinion that ISE fulfils a unique place in the audio tradeshow calendar, complementing rather than directly competing with other established events. I believe that ISE is perfectly positioned to mirror the evolution of the audio industry. You can guarantee that we’ll be listening to what the market has to say.”

Trade versus end user?

While unquestionably a trade show at heart, those who have been attending or exhibiting at ISE since its formative years will be aware of a significant shift in shape of those passing through its doors these days.

As visitor figures have soared, so too has the number of end users making the trip to the RAI. A deliberate play on the part of Blackman and his team, the increasing end user element at the show is all part of the plan to appeal to as many groups as possible without alienating the traditionalists.

“We have really pushed hard to get end users to our events and it’s an area which has continued to grow,” he offers. “Before, it used to be something like 90/10, trade versus end users. Now we are probably 65/35. It’s a huge growth area for us and we work tireless to ensure that we cater for everyone who attends, whatever industry they’re from. People take time out from work to attend our events, so it’s essential we ensure they return having learned something.”

One of the key contributors behind ISE’s popularity with end users is the promise of access to new and existing technologies, which are relevant to them – but maybe didn’t know existed. While the reasons why this might be are manifold, Blackman suggests that many end users are often heavily influenced, or in some cases dictated to, by the integrator they work with. That integrator, he notes, may have an ulterior motive in selecting the technology they recommend.

“We became very aware about 10 years ago that the manufacturers wanted to influence the end users directly,” he explains. “The danger is that an integrator may have a better relationship with one manufacturer over another, or perhaps they receive a better margin with one over another. Manufacturers fear that and that’s why they want to be able to speak directly to the end users themselves. ISE provides that.”

He continues: “End users can see what each manufacturer has to offer and not just rely on the person directly selling to them. It’s incredibly valuable from a knowledge and awareness perspective, but also ultimately for the benefit of the company they represent. On the flipside this can also benefit the integrator who can then discuss ideas that their customer has seen and may even get more business as a result.

“If you want the broadest view of everything to do with AV for your organisation, we have it at ISE.”

To predict yet another record breaking year for ISE is hardly a bold move. All indicators point to another outing of record high visitors and exhibitors from a record high number of nations. What is perhaps harder to predict is what its success means for the rest of the industry. At present, it seems Blackman and co can do no wrong, and one can’t help but feel that as its popularity rises, so too will the eyebrows of many a fellow expo organiser. Indeed, a competitive trade show landscape is the mark of an industry in rude health, and those helming shows with farther reaching roots in pro audio territory will no doubt be considering how they keep up with this relatively new kid on the block. For organisers and exhibitors, it may provide something of a headache. But for a sector to have such a wealth of options at its feet is something to be celebrated. ν