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Managing director Mike Blackman on why ‘ISE is more than a show’

Blackman tells Daniel Gumble what the pro audio market can expect from this year’s show

Mike Blackman

Since the turn of the century, there have been few success stories to rival that of the seemingly unstoppable growth of ISE. When the show launched in Geneva (before moving on to Amsterdam’s RAI) back in 2004, hosting a grand total of 120 exhibitors, few could have predicted the barnstorming behemoth it would quickly become. Last year the number of companies exhibiting hit a staggering 1,300, with the final tally of attendees topping 85,000. Anyone present at the 2019 event will not require those figures to understand ISE’s popularity with the AV and integrated systems community, with the task of navigating the show floor akin to that of negotiating the London underground during rush hour.

It’s easy to see then why organisers made the decision two years ago to relocate the show once again to accommodate such overwhelming demand for floorspace. From 2021, the event will be held in the expansive halls of Barcelona’s Gran Via, allowing more space for existing exhibitors to ramp up their presence, while also enabling newcomers to get in on the action.

So, with record-breaking exhibitor and attendee numbers expected at the show’s final edition in Amsterdam, PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble speaks with ISE managing director Mike Blackman to discuss the past, present and future of the show and find out what the pro audio contingent can expect from its 2020 instalment…

What can you tell us about this year’s pro audio offering?

We have 226 companies exhibiting in our Audio and Live Events Technology Zone. However, while that’s a good place to start, not all the companies that wanted to be in that zone could be accommodated there – so attendees should make use of our online and printed guides to ensure that they don’t miss other companies relevant to them. We have a good showing of new pro audio exhibitors, including Bluesound Professional, Cedar Audio, Eighteen Sound, Full Fat Audio, Funktion-One, Loud Professional, McIntosh Laboratory and Ultrasonic Audio Technologies. On Monday, February 10, Italian media brand Connessioni is once again hosting the AudioForum conference. The theme this year is ‘Sound Democracy’ – in other words, focusing on the listener and their wellbeing in the audio environment.

The show’s audio element has thrived over the past two years. Are you seeing an increase in demand for booth space from pro audio companies?

ISE 2020 is unusual in that, because we are outgrowing the RAI Amsterdam, we had to impose a ‘no-growth’ rule on our exhibitors – that is, you couldn’t take a stand any bigger than the one you had last year. So that’s made it harder to gauge the true level of demand. However, we’ve started to take bookings for ISE 2021 from our top customers, and they are asking for significantly larger stands, on average. We’re confident that this trend will be replicated as we move through the exhibitor list. In fact, at ISE 2021 in Barcelona we will have a dedicated Technology Zone for Audio, and another for Live Events and Lighting.

Has the number of visitors in the pro audio market grown in recent years?

‘Audio systems’ is always the category that the highest proportion of our channel attendees say they are responsible for specifying – and there are also other audio-related categories on that list, including paging and evacuation, and conferencing and collaboration. Our overall attendance has steadily risen over the years, and the proportion of audio specifiers has grown too.

It’s the final year for ISE at the RAI. What sort of impact do you anticipate this having on the number of pro audio exhibitors/ visitors attending the show?

Despite having very little extra space on the show floor – the extension to Hall 5 has been made larger and more permanent – we have attracted about three per cent more exhibitors to ISE 2020 than last year. Generally our attendee numbers have grown in proportion to our show floor space.

How do you continue to please exhibitors old and new?

I think the most important thing is to deliver the right audience. Our attendee base is constantly growing, and in recent years the proportion of technology end-users (that is, attendees from outside the AV channel) has been growing – and that’s an important target group for many of our exhibitors.

Then, of course, you have to give exhibitors a good experience. Each exhibitor has a customer service manager who they work with before and during the show, and we also offer them various free marketing tools to promote their message. After the show we carry out a detailed survey of our exhibitors to find out their overall levels of satisfaction with our dealings with them, and if there are any areas where we can improve.

Also, I think it’s important to be fair and transparent. The stand rebooking procedure for the next ISE uses a system of Priority Points, based on the amount of business each exhibitor has done with us in the past. Stand rebooking is carried out in strict Priority Points order, which we think is the fairest way of managing this very complicated process.

Why are trade shows in general still so vital to the industry?

ISE is more than a show – it’s a destination. We call ourselves ‘the European destination for the global AV industry’. People attend knowing that this is where the industry comes together – they can meet old colleagues and make new connections. They can see all the newest products and learn about the latest industry trends. No other environment can beat a trade show for that.

The amount of educational content has increased year after year. What do you have in store on that front for 2020?

Yes, we have a total of 13 conferences this year, three more than last year. In addition, there is a full set of CEDIA Education sessions and AVIXA FlashTracks, plus thought leadership sessions on the Main Stage from ISE, our two co-owning associations AVIXA and CEDIA, AV Magazine and sponsor Shure. As we continue to attract a greater proportion of end-user attendees, we want to cover a wider range of vertical market sectors in the ISE show’s professional development programme.

How big a factor is this type of content in the show’s overall appeal to visitors?

We’ve always seen professional development as an important part of the show, because we are owned by two industry associations for which this is a key element of their offering. Judging by what our attendees tell us about how they spend their time at the ISE show, the exhibition is the main reason most of them come; but for many of them, the show also provides a convenient opportunity to update their knowledge by including a visit to a conference or an educational seminar.

Leaving the 2010s behind, what have been some of the key moments for ISE over the past 10 years, and what are your predictions for the years ahead?

I think the biggest changes over the past decade have been around the growth of networking and IP – in audio and in other technologies as well. One consequence of this has been seeing the use of tablets and phones as additional control devices. Another important trend we’re seeing now, and which I think will continue to increase over the next decade, is how the value in products is shifting from hardware to software.

What are the biggest opportunities for ISE in the current market?

Moving to Barcelona in 2021 is the biggest opportunity for us. While Amsterdam has been a fantastic location for us, approaching capacity at the RAI has imposed limitations on us, not just in terms of the show floor, but in what we can offer elsewhere in the venue. When we move to the Fira – Gran Via, those limitations will disappear. We see a big opportunity in the live events and lighting markets, which is behind the decision to create a Technology Zone dedicated to these in 2021.

What are the biggest challenges?

In previous years, making each big show bigger and better than the last has been our main challenge. At the moment, though, we have a specific challenge in moving the show to Barcelona. Over the past 15 or more years we’ve gotten very used to how the RAI works – so when we’ve begun working on the next show, we were starting from an established baseline. The Fira has excellent facilities, but we have had to learn about them from scratch and get used to working with a whole new team. It’s all going very well, but it’s a lot more work compared with coming back to the same venue.

You can find out what the key pro audio exhibitors have to say about ISE’s 2020 edition here.