Attending last week’s ISA Expo in Houston was like attending a funeral for a friend.

The aisles were filled with old friends, people I work with every day, and people I haven’t seen in 20 years. While it was great to see everyone, there was a sadness in the air, as we all realized this was, in all likelihood, the final ISA Expo.

ISA leadership, in the form of past president Kim Miller-Dunn, announced rather unceremoniously that next year ISA would hold a completely different sort of event. The large trade-show style event would be gone. While she said the purpose was “to better serve our members “, it seems clear that ISA was primarily trying to stop the financial bleeding.

The ISA Expo is horribly expensive to run. At the cavernous Reliant Center, this year’s show was almost tucked into a corner. It feels like annual attendance has dropped every year since the 2001 ISA Expo was struck by the 9/11 tragedy. By some estimates, attendance this year was down 40%.

Next year’s ISA event (it’s hard for me to call it an Expo) will be held at a hotel in Houston, limited to 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. Attendees will pay $900 to $1000 to attend a two-and-a-half day technical conference. No free admissions to the exhibit.

This format, which is targeted at higher-level decision-makers, will admittedly isolate the majority of ISA members – plant-level technicians and engineers. Vendors from smaller companies also appear very disappointed.

I’ve been attending the ISA Expo for over 20 years. It really is like losing an old friend. In the end, I found myself going through the classic stages of grief:
* Denial – Are they really going to kill the show?
* Anger – Don’t they realize this will hurt us, the members?
* Bargaining – Maybe we can get them to expand the new format…
* Depression – What’s the point of finishing the show today?
* Acceptance – Well, in many ways it was inevitable…

The trade show format seems a bit of an anachronism. Most people simply do a Google search to get more info. Nobody wants to travel. So, indeed, the time has come to say goodbye to the old ISA Expo. So long, old friend…we had many great years together.

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Last week, I attended 2 events in Houston, and was shocked by the low turnout of automation and process control practitioners.

The first was the ARC Event, “Optimizing Asset Lifecycle Performance”.  The list of registered attendees showed that only about 20% of the attendees came from user companies.  The other 80% were various suppliers and consultants.  This was confirmed by a show of hands in some of the breakout sessions.

The second event, of course, was the ISA Expo.  In “the old days”, this event was the place for automation and process control professionals.  Attendance appears to be way, way, down in general.  In its heyday, this event had well over 20,000 people.  Now, it seems doubtful that it could reach 5,000.  And most of these are the vendors.

There was some great information available at these events.  The technical sessions, in fact, were well-attended.

So what is happening?  We’re not sure exactly, and would be interested in your comments.  Here are some thoughts:

1. Houston is still recovering from Hurricane Ike, so local engineers could not attend.  This seems plausible.  My hotel was awash with refugees from Galveston, FEMA workers, and plywood.

2. Younger people don’t come to trade shows.  This also seems plausible.  There were very young people at these events.  ARC is targeted at the over-40 crowd anyways.  And ISA has made a few attempts to bring in more students and young engineers.  This year, ISA even brought in high school students. (And I am sure these will be counted toward the official attendance numbers!)

3. The shows are simply not an effective way to do business anymore.  Google holds the keys to the universe.  I don’t really believe this…but I have been wrong before!

4. Travel budgets are down to nothing.

If it keeps up like this, then next year, we could be singing “Where Have all the Trade Shows Gone?”  (My sincerest apologies to Pete Seeger for the lyrics! )

Please speak up…Why do you think these events have limited user participation?

I’ll be heading to the ISA Expo next week.  In the U.S., this is one of the largest Automation Industry trade shows, although it is not nearly as large as it used to be.

Why should you attend the ISA Expo?

As a practitioner in the field of process control, you should definitely attend the ISA Expo, at least once.   Why? There are several good reasons:

  • You get to see what is new & exciting in the industry.  Some is rather ho-hum.  But some is pretty exciting!
  • You get to meet some of the leaders in the field, face-to-face.  For example, at this year’s ISA Expo, you can meet Dick Morley, the “inventor of the PLC”, and Greg Shinskey,  the grandfather of modern process control.  If you want to meet more geek gods (that’s not a typo!), stop by ISA’s book store.  Many authors will be milling about.  Here’s an insider tip: Most of the authors will be hanging around the book store on Wednesday evening, as ISA hosts a reception for authors right after the show floor closes.
  • The technical sessions are usually pretty good.  You can see case studies and technical examples from your peers.

The Dark Side

It’s not all peaches & cream…Here are some things to watch out for:

  • The food at the expo. It’s terrible, concessionized, overprocessed, yuck, yuck, yuck. After the expo, head off to some better Houston restaurants, like my favorite, Pappadeaux cajun seafood.
  • Vendors looking for a warm body to talk with.  Do yourself a favor, and plot out which booths you want to visit.  Because the show is smaller each year, vendors are a bit hungry, and they may “pounce” on you as you walk by.