Selective Focus: photokina—The Evolution of the Trade Show

Selective Focus: photokina—The Evolution of the Trade Show

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This year’s photokina proved you can have a successful industry show that draws both trade and photo enthusiasts. The organizers recognized that companies want to have more direct contact with consumers—witness the rise of blogs and company “educational” websites and sponsored public events—while still being able to sit down face to face with dealers and buyers at a show.

Thus, photokina was a fascinating mix of public, pro photographer and trade. And the halls and the city of Cologne often seemed more like a photo festival than a stodgy old trade show.

On the trade side, all of the major players were there, though in truth the total number of exhibitors declined. Each approached their exhibit in different ways. Canon and Fujifilm, among others, did more than have their wares behind glass counters or attached to wire tethers so folks could feel and look through the finders and fiddle with the zoom. Their booths were highly interactive with a generally clubby atmosphere, and the public was fully engaged with demos, hands-on.

Canon had a number of staged sets, including footballers (OK, soccer players) kicking a ball around so folks could shoot with the new EOS 7D Mark II. Fujifilm had a dress-up booth where a steady stream of costumed kids posed for giveaway shots made with the company’s Instax instant camera.

Yes, these booths had their inner sanctums for the international trade visitors and press, but the main show, and what the public got involved with, was the show outside.

To be fair, this took up lots of floor space, and not everyone could afford to have these playgrounds. The more workmanlike environments were certainly thronged by the public as well, but I feel that the impression left by the interactive exhibits was much deeper. (And hats off to those who staffed the booths. Think of Macy’s at Christmastime for five straight days!)

One reason this all worked was that, unlike in the past, the public was let in from day one. And if you let in the crowds on day one, you better have something for them to do—and the show organizers did just that. The photokina team, the city of Cologne and an independent group collectively called “Photoszene” (photo scene) all pitched in. The approach seemed an enlightened one and made photokina an event not just for buying and selling but also for motivating consumers to get excited about photography.

There were dozens of photo exhibits and happenings all around town, taking place in hotels, churches, even in hallways and at various “pop-up” sites. This included the Olympus “playground” where photo ops and setups drew crowds. A Leica panorama walk-in right in front of the main cathedral and even a giant camera obscura by Martin Streit, part of the Photoszene, drew long lines throughout the day.

The on-site events included a “photo community,” an umbrella under which sat numerous lectures, demos and discussions that took place in one of the large exhibit halls. These “classes” were always jam-packed. Then there were photo shows: the huge and spectacular Leica Gallery; the UN and UNICEF photo exhibits; spaces given to galleries; and even spaces for magazines to show off the work their readers submitted through various photo contests.

It was clear there was a strong outreach to schools, clubs and interested groups. Crowds often moved together in clusters through the halls, led by teachers and leaders of the groups.

The New Direction
Let’s face it, the industry is at a crossroads, what with the enormous pressure from the cameraphone. And this can be a bit depressing. On the bright side, the cameraphone has created literally billions of picture takers whose awareness of the image as a prime form of communication is ingrained in their thinking. The job of the industry is to “skim the cream,” if you will, and give those caught up in imaging a reason to switch to the higher quality of the “real live camera” and lens. It must also show them how these imaging devices can enhance the expression and enjoyment of their newfound art.

This is what will sustain and indeed invigorate our industry. In the old days, we’d try to step up those from a point and shoot to an SLR or now mirrorless camera. Now we have billions of potential customers to attract.

The point is, shows like photokina—and there are few like it—certainly encourage the “step up” in sometimes obvious and often more subtle ways. Showing high-quality images makes the image the star and the photographer the artist. Many companies have realized, through their internal and agency studies, that engaging their customer is key. That’s why nowadays you see so many outreach events and Internet engagements.

But the Internet can only go so far, and that’s where shows like photokina bring it all together with the energy, cooperation and infrastructure they offer.

Did photokina bat 1,000 in their efforts? No, there were certainly some odd choices, like an Urban Cowboy-like bucking bull ride in the midst of one hallway that most folks judiciously avoided. But all in all, the concept and execution was right on the money.

I am certainly not proposing that PMA/CES go this route, as that show is a nightmare to navigate already. But making sure that any show the industry holds includes a mostly interactive environment, and makes the quality image the star and the equipment the supporting cast, is a lesson that should be learned.

The enthusiasm for making images has never been greater. Seizing the moment and bringing even a small percentage of the camera snapshooters into the fold may not be an easy task. But if undertaken with energy and enthusiasm, it will ensure the industry’s growth in the years ahead.

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