Exhibition and Conference Replaces Conference and...

As had been widely predicted, the International Society of Automation (ISA) duly announced during last month's ISA Expo in Houston that the current show would be the last. According to ISA's own figures, the event attracted a total of 8,500 attendees, barely sufficient to raise its status above that of a local event and certainly not enough, according to most reports, to make the 61,500 square foot exhibition with 364 exhibitor companies look anything other than thinly attended.

Although the announcement has triggered a further round of criticism of the organization, by no means all of it constructive, it's only fair to say that the ISA Show, as most still call it, has simply gone the same way as most other process automation industry exhibitions across the world, succumbing to a fatal pincer movement between, on the one hand, the Internet and, on the other, the growing success of the major vendors' own user conferences, including, for example, the recent Emerson Exchange in Florida and Honeywell's European HUG in Lisbon.

ISA has in fact held on longer than most. The UK's once hugely successful―and for a long time vastly profitable―Control & Instrumentation (C&I) Show succumbed in 2000, while the once mighty Interkama abandoned its traditional venue in Düsseldorf and threw in its lot with the Hanover Fair in 2003.

New Format

Where ISA may come in for more justifiable criticism is in its choice of what to do now. The precedents for reviving this type of event in a new format are hardly encouraging. C&I organizer, Centaur, it may be remembered, announced with something of a flourish at the time of the demise of the C&I Show that it would be reborn in a new event to be known as Integrated Automation Solutions, only to strangle the new show at birth just a few months later. Even Interkama, on life-support at Hanover, has little impact outside Germany, with most of the major vendors feeling they can safely ignore it.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that in markets which no longer have a major process automation event, nobody seems to miss them or even contemplates trying to start one. One group which does seem to miss such events is the smaller instrument vendors who valued the opportunity to the gain exposure to the larger audience which the major vendors were thought to attract. With those major vendors long gone, however, that's largely wishful thinking, particularly at a time when technology has provided smaller companies with an almost infinite variety of other ways of reaching that audience directly, at lower cost and on equal terms with their very largest competitors. Those still lamenting the passing of the major shows have either failed to get to grips with the opportunities presented by the new media or are simply lamenting the loss of those three days off the leash and away from home and family.

Set against that background, what is the ISA now proposing? In its own words, a new, intensive technical conference to be held from October 4 to 7, 2010, at the Westin Galleria in Houston. To be known as ISA Automation Week, it is to be accompanied by "an exhibition featuring leading suppliers of automation and control products and services" and will coincide with and provide a venue for the annual face-to-face meetings of ISA's standards committees and working groups in its Industry Standards Forum.

If that sounds pretty much like the same mixture as before, ISA executive director and CEO Patrick Gouhin begs to differ. "ISA Automation Week is organized around a different model than ISA has used in the past. The new model focuses on the conference as the center of the event, because we believe that automation and control professionals at every level seek knowledge above all else. By centering the event on the conference, we can help exhibitors create more successful interactions with serious and focused attendees at all levels."

$950 Conference Fee

Whether conference delegates will pay a higher conference fee―said to be of the order of $950―and attend in sufficient numbers to justify the participation of exhibitors must be the key question. While the ISA top brass, including Automation Week Program Committee co-chair and 2009 ISA president Jerry Cockrell of Indiana State University―"It's all about knowledge"―and 2010 ISA president Nelson Ninin, president of Yokogawa America Do Sul―"We believe that an educated prospect is a qualified prospect"―are enthusiastic, long-term critics of the organization are less than hopeful. Jim Pinto, for example, writes in his Connections for Growth & Success newsletter that "I predict it will be a flop (less than 100 paying attendees)."

As well as announcing Automation Week, ISA also confirmed that it had outsourced all of its electronic newsletter activity to Automation.com. The most significant deliverable from the agreement is a co-branded weekly e-newsletter to be known as Automation Weekly, production and distribution of which has already commenced. There will also be quarterly topic specific e-newsletters devoted to a wide range of topics from building automation to control panels and motion control to SCADA, though whether these, or Automation Weekly itself, will consist of anything more than compilations of vendors' press releases remains to be seen. The chief attraction of the deal from Automation.com’s point of view is, of course, access to the 75,000 strong ISA mailing list which will enable it to boost the combined total distribution of its e-newsletters to some 90,000 "worldwide automation professionals."

Infrequent InTech

Since the original announcement, ISA has also revealed that its flagship InTech magazine is to become a bimonthly with effect from next February, with six print issues scheduled for 2010. At the same time Automation.com is also taking over responsibility for advertising sales for the print, digital and online editions and Richard Simpson, InTech’s publisher for the past 15 years, is joining Automation.com. Quite what the future holds for InTech editorial staff, including editor, Greg Hale, is at this stage unclear, but Pinto reports 30% staff cuts at ISA's headquarters which sounds ominous.

As critics such as Pinto and Control's Walt Boyes have pointed out many times in the past, ISA is grappling with the challenge of being a volunteer-led organization faced with problems which even the most professional of commercial organizations are finding near insuperable. Against that background the outsourcing route, which has been followed by a number of other similar organizations, is almost certainly the only viable long-term solution, not just for ISA's electronic publishing activities, but for InTech magazine and, indeed, for any related exhibition and conference ventures. It's hard to believe that incoming ISA Publications Department VP-elect Eoin Ó Riain, with his own long print and electronic publishing experience with Readout magazine and web site, won't draw the same conclusion.

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