The tech world was shocked when organizers of CeBIT revealed Wednesday that they were canceling what was once the world’s biggest tech trade show.
But was anyone really surprised? CeBIT attendance had peaked in the millennium’s dot-com boom, with 850,000 visitors swarming Hanover’s fairgrounds. This year’s CeBIT attracted only 120,000 visitors, down 40 percent from 2017.
And honestly, having been on site at the trade fair this past June, I was surprised the number was even that high. CeBIT’s organizers tried to revive the flagging fair this year with South By Southwest-style stages and food trucks and even a Ferris wheel, but it didn’t draw the young tech tastemakers and mostly confused the middle-aged IT managers. It further muddied the answer to the question: Who exactly is the target audience here?
In addition to flagging attendance, the official cause of death for CeBIT was slow stand bookings. It had lost three anchor sponsors — IBM, Salesforce and Huawei — for the coming year, and three other anchor sponsors — Volkswagen, SAP and Vodafone — were drastically scaling back their engagement. Only a fraction of past exhibitors had booked space for 2019, and CeBIT operator Deutsche Messe was facing a loss of at least €5 million.
The end of trade fairs?
It could be that the fair, and its host country, couldn’t keep up with the rapid evolution of digital technology. And the appeal of an all-encompassing tech trade fair shrank as once-niche areas went mainstream and tech companies created their own events to promote. “CeBIT is a victim of its own success,” Lower Saxony Minister President Stephan Weil said.
The giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and Berlin’s IFA consumer electronics show all overlap with CeBIT’s target audience and exhibitors. But even the tastemaker conference South by Southwest (SXSW) hasn’t recently seen the double-digit growth or the major product releases it had from 2006 to 2013.
Shelling out major cash to exhibit at an event alongside their competitors understandably isn’t a draw for big tech companies, especially ones that have their own branded events, which Apple, Salesforce, Microsoft, Cisco and Amazon all do.
Digital innovation has spread so widely that it was difficult to maintain interest in a fair focused specifically on technology, said Bernd Althusmann, economics minister for Lower Saxony and board chair for Deutsche Messe. Themes like innovation and artificial intelligence will be addressed in smaller fairs, he said, and the industrial parts of CeBIT will be reintegrated into the larger Hanover fair. The CeBIT brand will still be used for smaller events in Australia, Thailand and Russia.
Germany has traditionally been a leader in trade fairs, and the Hannover Messe show remains a major event for industrial machinery. But the trade show format is becoming obsolete in some industries where Germany is less of a leader.
Only two of the country’s major trade fair venues, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, are able to survive without subsidies from local governments, which want the hotel guests and tax revenue the fairs bring. But fewer visitors are coming to the fairs for fewer days, and European Union authorities are investigating these subsidies to see if they violate EU restrictions.
Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Today in Berlin. Christof Kerkmann, Jens Koenen and Martin Murphy of Handelsblatt and Darrell Delamaide of Handelsblatt Today also contributed to this report. To contact the author: [email protected]