The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?

Far from the madding crowd

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Article

19

The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?

The news that the high end show in Munich is shelving its efforts to run an exhibition in September 2021 and has now pushed back to May 2022 was not a hugely surprising one.

The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?
No wurst for you

Right now, the idea that anyone has much of an clue what the world will look like in September is fairly optimistic. Depending on where you sit on the fatalism scale, it is perfectly possible to believe that May next year might not be free and clear (to say nothing of the CES announcement that an in person show will take place in Las Vegas in Jan 2022). In fact, for a subset of people I know, any desire to be in a crowded space for the foreseeable future is absolutely off the cards whether they happen or not.

There is an irony here though that, right at the point where shows are still looking vulnerable, the potential for them to be of more value than usual for the functioning of the audio market is greater than ever before. The means by which we test and buy equipment has likely been forever changed by the last year and this offers a role for shows to fill that could be tremendously important… if we can hold them.

The problems are of course fairly easy to spot. A major international show like CES or the Munich High End reads like part of the script of Contagion (although, let’s be honest with ourselves, quite a bit of recent history has done that). A mass, indoor gathering of people who have flown to be there from all over the world - a sentence to chill most of us to the bone. Even with the space and scale of the MOC in Munich or the Vegas exhibition centres, there are choke points in the venues that are busy from before the shows open to the moment they close - and this is before we consider that, realistically, attendees are not going to troop back to their hotel rooms in monastic solitude when the doors close either.

The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?
Not pictured; DEATH

For these shows, simply ensuring that their immediate geographical location is doing creditably well against COVID is not enough. They are test cases for the health of the planet and the nature of the measures in place to try and safeguard it. For example, even if I could travel to Munich in September (and while I’m less risk averse than many of my industry colleagues, I’m still not sure I would have done), if a four day show visit (and that’s longer than I usually spend) meant ten days kicking back in hotel quarantine when I returned, I simply couldn’t justify the time lost - and that’s before the intoxicating notion of quarantine both ways where a four day visit could actually lose me the best part of a month.

For smaller shows and events though, some of these issues are reduced, or at least alleviated. Shows like Bristol and the HiFi News show at Ascot are UK events. They normally have a degree of international travel but you could remove that entirely and still hold a meaningful show without it. Anyone who has attended the… architecturally unique… Bristol Marriot will be well aware that it still has some limitations with regard to social distancing that might be a challenge but the Ascot building is spacious and well ventilated so could potentially safely handle a Hi-Fi show. Interestingly, perhaps because of this, at the time of writing (April 2021) the HiFi News Show is still tentatively pencilled in for October.  

The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?
This was, perhaps ironically, the safest part of Bristol 2020 

Why do I think it matters though? Surely I’m not that desperate to prop up a random hotel bar somewhere? (to which I’m inclined to reply ‘try me’). The reason why I feel that shows are arguably more relevant to the AV world than they were pre pandemic is because of the changes in the retail space that have happened at the same time.

The process by which distance sales have been a part of Hi-Fi and multichannel audio has not been a linear one. It isn’t hard to argue that, before 2020, there had actually been a movement away from online retail for many brands. The last year has of course changed that beyond recognition. Faced with the prospect of not selling anything at all (to a market that confronted the possibilities of sitting on a sofa for a year with a truly notable thirst for improving that experience) companies have bitten the bullet and relaxed the restrictions. Some companies have argued that this is temporary but… we’ll see.

This is because - for the most part - everything has worked rather well. Much like working from home, nothing tends to solve perceived issues than there being no other choice but to make it work. There are issues and some specialist devices will almost certainly return to face to face sales almost entirely, but many will not. With this though comes a reduction in the means to try before you buy.

The show can’t go on. What’s the future for public exhibitions?
The power outage at CES 2018 resulted in huge crowds with all that entails for social distancing

With smaller devices, home demonstration and sale or return will take up a fair bit of the slack - provided that manufacturers have the nous to make such systems work of course - but this will only work up to a point. For higher price points (to say nothing of higher sizes and weights) though, there will be significant issues. The easiest way of increasing access to larger products in a controlled demonstration setting is a show. This potentially dovetails with the idea that regional shows would hopefully be less subject to disruption than international ones are. Potentially, the foreseeable future of shows is more, smaller format events that can hopefully avoid becoming gigantic vectors for infection while giving people a little real world experience of the devices they are interested in.

And my choice of words there is not accidental. The topic of the sound quality of shows has been done to death on this forum and elsewhere. This is less about that as it is checking the dimensions of things, how it looks in the flesh and whether you are willing to give it houseroom. It’s the interface between something looking good on paper and it arriving at your house on a pallet that weighs more than a small car. In a world where direct sale predominates, it could be vital firebreak.

But ultimately, that depends on both our hopeful progress out of restrictions and - more relevantly to the site - how you might feel about attending such things. Do you feel that shows could be a useful part of your future distance purchase plans or do you never want to be in a setting like that ever again?

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