The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon) – the largest trade show for analytical instrumentation and laboratory equipment in North America – was this year again hosted by the City of Chicago – normally a safe hand when it comes to attendance – and still had to report some disappointments.
While the total number of attendees the conference and exhibition was with roughly 14,200 above that for Atlanta last year (below 13,000), it was, however, unable to beat New Orleans (2015; 14,300) and was 2,000 short of the event’s last visit to Chicago (2014; 16,300). The percentage of foreign visitors – a feature stressed by organisers as indication of the international status of the event – also diminished to 22% of the total, probably not helped by the uncertainties about the newly-installed US administration’s travel ban nor by the unpredictable March weather on the shore of Lake Michigan. Those who came, arrived from 89 different countries. The ratio had been 28% in New Orleans and 24% last year in Atlanta.
The total of exhibiting companies reached with 787 (2016, 847; 2014, 935) a nadir for the last 30 years of the show’s history, while occupied booths shrank to an equal record low of 1,404. In addition, and as if admitting seeing some sense, the organising committee decided to move exhibition to a smaller hall. Evidently, the organisers realised that an ever-diminishing numbers of booths on a floor space that stays the same shows up the decline even more clearly.
What is startling is the reduced numbers of new instrument and product launches over the years. This is not based on stringent polling, but it feels that launches of bigger instruments, such as for high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry (MS), may have been postponed for specialised shows later in the year. The Pittcon exhibition was never the ideal arena for some instrument categories, famously nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometry, and shows such as ASMS and HPLC can be seen as the more natural launch pads for the technologies that lend their names. However, it would be a troubling sign if this perceived trend would take hold.
Talking to exhibitors, no coherent picture emerges regarding the exhibitions success or failure. There were those who had seen good traffic and interest, even a few serious sales leads, but also those who were not really at Pittcon for selling products, but for nurturing and increasing their professional network of possible business partners or R&D collaborators. For the distributors, the specialist technology suppliers and the first-time companies the format of the show works and has done so for many years. However, there were also those, who complained about low attendance even on day one or two, and who are considering their future bookings.
This is not new, of course. And considering that this discussion about Pittcon and what needs changing has been raging for over a decade, the surprise is, how many companies still pay the booth fees and keep the conference going. Some companies have stopped including some of the top 50 companies, such as Agilent, Mettler-Toledo and PerkinElmer. While PerkinElmer has returned after a five-year Pittcon vacation for reasons of visibility – a small success – and Bruker continues to have a token booth, the size of stands is getting smaller even for the biggest manufacturers, so it is a matter of time until the economics of the show is seriously endangered.
While the holy cow of the annual recurrence of the show is not open for discussion (and hasn’t been for over 60 years), it seems, the organisers have accepted some of the exhibitors’ complaints and will as a first in 2018 in Orlando, FL reduce the numbers of exhibition days to three. In addition, the exhibition will start on a Tuesday, so that no Sunday overtime payments for technicians’ and workers’ would be due. Furthermore, the president-elect for Orlando, Dr Adrian Michael, openly discussed the possibility to move to venues on the West Coast, so far a thought that has been repeatedly dismissed since no venues of adequate size for exhibition and conference was available outside the five veteran host cities.
While the problem of size seems to have solved itself, the move has to be welcomed. As venues are booked for years ahead, we might have to wait for California as host state a little longer. It can only be hoped that these concessions are not too little, too late.