Technology Forum: Pittcon

February 10, 2009

Joining us for this discussion are Howard Mark, Mark Electronics; Jim Fitzpatrick, A2 Technologies; Frank Gunsallus III, JASCO, Inc.; Steve Wilbur, Agilent Technologies; and Haydar Kustu, Bruker Corporation

With the U.S. in a much-publicized recession and the “virtual” conference making head-way in the digital age, many are worried about the future of Pittcon and the conference industry in general. According to many experts, however, as Mark Twain said about his premature obituary, reports of Pittcon’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.

Joining us for this discussion are Howard Mark, Mark Electronics; Jim Fitzpatrick, A2 Technologies; Frank Gunsallus III, JASCO, Inc.; Steve Wilbur, Agilent Technologies; and Haydar Kustu, Bruker Corporation.

Given the current state of the U.S. (and world) economy, how do you think Pittcon will do this year?

Mark: I’d like to say that I don’t think there would be any effect, but that would be wishful thinking; obviously there has to be SOME effect. On the other hand, plans and commitments for Pittcon are made so long beforehand by all parties, that by the time Pittcon actually arrives there’s not too much wiggle room. On the other hand, I know of one or two people who are usually regulars, who are not planning to come. I tend to suspect that any major effects are more likely to show up at next year’s Pittcon, unless the economy suddenly turns around in a timely fashion, so that most of the companies and people can go back to “Pittcon as usual”. We’ll have to keep a close eye on the attendance figures this year.

Fitzpatrick: The state of the world economy has two effects. The first and most immediate is the need to reduce costs and one of the first things to get cut is travel budgets. Pittcon will see a significant decrease in travelers from overseas and the east and west coast and may see an uptick in attendance from local attendees who view this as their only show in 2009. A secondary influence may be the need to investigate instrumentation that allows for cost reduction and productivity increase. Savings that at one time would have seemed inconsequential are now eagerly sought out.

Gunsallus: It is our expectation that today’s economic challenges will impact Pittcon negatively this year. Our chief concern is that the number of attendees will be far less than in recent years due to shrinking budgets and the costs associated with attending and displaying at Pittcon.

Wilbur: I think there is no doubt that the current economic crisis will influence attendance at Pittcon this year. Both vendors and customers are carefully weighing the benefits and making decisions designed to reduce the costs as much as possible.

Kustu: My company is looking forward, and hoping to be a part of a successful Pittcon this year. We believe Chicago is a good venue for this conference, as it may attract attendees from the midwest. 2009 will probably be a challenging year for Pittcon, as the economic turmoil has triggered many cut-backs and the attendance may be down.

We have recently recommended the Pittcon committee to consider turning this event into a smaller, ‘ever-other-year’ biennial event. We have also asked for improvements on the site-selections, as we believe the host-cities should be closer to major customer concentrations, rather than tourism destinations.

I’d love to travel to Florida in March and beat the northeast winter for a change. However, I believe that many laboratory managers and scientists will now think twice to allow their staff to attend a conference in Orlando. I hope the upcoming odd-year 2009 Chicago and 2011 Atlanta locations bring success to Pittcon; but we are more concerned for the Florida shows.

Do you think the concept of the “virtual conference” will grow, or will it fade away?

Mark: Interesting question, inasmuch as the NY section of SAS is experimenting with “virtual meetings” in order to increase the attendance at meetings. These virtual meetings are similar to the “virtual conference” concept, although, perhaps, somewhat in miniature. Our first trial of it used a commercial “virtualizing” service to host the meeting, whereby we had a live meeting, with the possibility for people who couldn’t attend in person, to attend virtually by having them view the speaker’s slides on their computer, and hear the talk by telephone, and also to be able to ask questions via telephone. This was basically a success, and we are planning to extend the concept, whereby our next meeting will be completely virtual – even the speaker won’t be there!

I think that the concept will work for us, but that doing it this way won’t be sustainable for regular use in the long term, for financial reasons. Basically, for a small organization like a single SAS section, it’s too expensive. This is due to the fact that, while we only need it for the 2-3 hours of the virtual meeting, we have to pay for a full month at a time for the service. My best guess as to how it will work out is that we will wind up having virtual meetings only once or twice a year, perhaps in the winter months when the weather can make travel to live meetings problematic. The rest of the time meetings will be live, except for situation where a virtual meeting can find a sponsor.

I don’t think that virtual conference will fade away, it is more likely that they will be found useful only in a somewhat restricted set of specialized circumstances, the nature of which will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Fitzpatrick: The virtual conference, from an exhibitor perspective, has limited value. Companies have websites that have all of the instrumentation, web demonstrations, flash animation, on-line demos, literature, etc. Potential customers have become accustomed to immediately getting all of the information necessary online to investigate a particular instrument and move forward in the decision-making process.

Gunsallus: We believe the “virtual conference” concept may take hold as it is a viable and less expensive alternative to the traditional conference.

Wilbur: I think that it is very unlikely that any virtual experience can ever achieve the same effects as attendance at a significant conference like Pittcon.

Kustu: Virtual conferences will definitely gain importance. This is definitely a more affordable and a convenient alternative. Virtual conferences won’t fadeaway, but also may not completely replace real conferences anytime soon.

How are conferences in general doing these days?

Mark: The last conference I attended was EAS; that was four months ago. At that time the full force of the current recession had not yet been felt, but my impression was that there was a lot of talk about the possible dual effects of the economic slowdown as well as the change in emphasis on web surfing as opposed to going to conferences to find out about the latest equipment, even if there was little evidence at that time for any effect due to either cause. When I was on the exhibit floor, the crowds seemed to ebb (when talks were being given) and surge (during breaks and lunch) as much as they did in previous years, so I didn’t detect much difference. I suppose the numbers could be compared with previous years, to get a precise comparison; but that is not my purpose here.

Fitzpatrick: In this exhibitor’s experience, conferences are less well attended. Fewer people are coming to the show to understand what technology is available. At many shows, the exhibitors outnumber the attendees on the show floor at any time.

Gunsallus: While conferences serve a useful purpose, the return on investment for vendors is declining. As such, we believe the economic effectiveness of conferences will continue to diminish.

Wilbur: Our experience is that the major conferences are still doing quite well considering the circumstances. This is especially true when the conference has solid scientific and/or educational content. However, attendees are finding themselves having to choose which conferences to attend, and as a result, minor conferences are seeing much more difficulty drawing non-local attendees and exhibitors.

Kustu: Early 2009 shows have already given us some signals of the weak economy, show floors and conferences are not as full as they used to be.

Do you find that you are seeking other ways to get the information you used to get by attending conferences, or will there always be a place for face-to-face meetings?

Mark: I think there will always be a place for face-to-face meetings. The main limitation of having the face-to-face meetings you get by attending conferences is that the conference doesn’t always come at the time you have a need for a particular piece of information, so you’re forced to use other sources. But conferences have unique advantages of their own, the main one is that you’re there live and can interact with other people, in both the formal and informal settings. For example, if you attend a paper and don’t understand some particular point, you can ask a question of the presenter about it, immediately and in real time, while the subject is fresh in both your minds, and can go several rounds of questions, if necessary, until the point is clear. When you attend the exhibition, you may find that something useful to you has become available, but that you would not even have thought to ask anyone about, if you weren’t there, or looked in a catalog or on the web.

Fitzpatrick: The answer is completely dependent on the price and complexity of the solution. We have a product that is customer installable and very easy to use. We demonstrate our products using a web-conferencing capability that answers all of the customers’ questions. In addition, we have a loaner program that allows customers to try the product before they buy it. However, there will always be a group of customers that will need an on-site visit to make a decision.

Gunsallus: We actively seek information via a variety of means, focusing primarily on the web. Face-to-face meetings, whether in person or via electronic means, clearly have a place in business and scientific discussions, for example. However, our main means of seeking information is via the web; and, as in most businesses today, the reliance on the web will continue to outpace the need for face-to-face information gathering.

Wilbur: We already rely heavily on web and phone-based meetings to reduce costs and minimize the stress and time required for travel. However, in many cases, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings when there is a need for free interaction among a large group of participants.

Kustu: Overall conferences are not as useful as they used to be. The internet has enabled customers to evaluate and collect information that in the old days was only available at a trade show.

How have your own plans for Pittcon changed this year compared to previous years?

Mark: There’s very little change in principle, although the details will have changed from what they might have been, due to my being an invited speaker. But I expect to spend about the same amount of time walking through the exhibit area, attending papers, and going to committee meetings, as in previous years.

Fitzpatrick: We have not changed our product introduction strategy or the size of our presence. We have, however, decided to send only those personnel that have to be there. In the past, Pittcon was seen as a learning experience for our engineers, software writers, chemists etc. Now, only those with a direct responsibility at Pittcon will be attending.

Gunsallus: We will maintain our size and presence at Pittcon this year; however, the contingent of personnel attending from outside the United States will be significantly less.

Wilbur: We are closely managing the total number of attendees and taking measures to control the costs as much as possible in ways that don’t adversely affect the impact of our presence.

Kustu: We will be cautious for our Pittcon 2009 plans in Chicago, and hope for the best. Just like many other exhibitors that spend a large percentage of their tradeshow marketing budget on Pittcon, we would like to reach the best return on investment as possible. We are sending fewer staff to the show and have postponed some product launches to focus on other industry shows throughout the year.

Is there anything further you would like to add?

Kustu: There is no doubt that Pittcon is the industry’s most respected and well-known name. As one of the biggest scientific instrument exhibitors at this conference, we expect to see some major changes made for the continuing success of the Pittcon Conference. I strongly believe that a smaller, biennial event, combined with better site selections would help bring back the large crowds we used to see at Pittcon.

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