Stop the world. I want to get off
Not the physical world of ships and shipping which although constantly evolving remains much as it always has but the related world of maritime exhibitions and conferences.
If we look back to a time before the 1960s, we can see that exhibitions such as SMM, Nor-Shipping and the numerous others that take place around the globe just did not exist. Conferences in the sense of debating fora where current topics are discussed and new ideas expounded were also a rarity. Shipping conferences then were very different being organisations of liner operators coming together to establish freight rates and rules in a way that is no longer permitted today under anti-trust laws.
In the 1960s Europe still had a thriving shipbuilding industry but by 1965 Japan had become No 1 and completed around half of the ship’s being built. It was against this backdrop that exhibitions such as SMM, Europort and Nor-Shipping first began. Until then, promotion by equipment makers was done almost entirely through adverts in the maritime press including daily papers, monthly magazines and annual yearbooks.
Reliance on the maritime press continued alongside exhibitions which mushroomed as organisers such as SMM and Europort began establishing foreign spin offs, In addition, to the European exhibitions rival shows were established in Japan, South Korea and China. CMA in the US is less a marine equipment exhibition and more a talking shop.
While equipment makers have always targeted shipowners as customers, it must also be recognised that the shipbuilders play a major role in determining the equipment installed on new ships. Exhibitions provide the perfect space for all the players to come together to discover, discuss and negotiate contracts.
Until quite recently, it was normal for exhibitions to feature a lot of large equipment items, full mission bridges, engines, ballast treatment equipment, steering gear, gearboxes, couplings, pistons in fact almost everything that could actually be used on a ship. However, some of the most recent editions have been notably lacking in heavy metal with exhibitors relying on abstract ideas presented on screens. In effect some of the most vibrant shows appear to have become little more than virtual exhibitions to go along with the growing interest in virtual reality and AI.
This year the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the exhibition and conference calendar with Sea Japan, Posidonia, CMA 2020 and Seatrade Cruise Global all cancelled or postponed along with numbers of smaller events. This is something new. The SARS outbreak of 2002/3 may have had a very limited effect on one or two exhibitions but wholesale cancellations are something new. SMM which is due to take place in September is currently still scheduled to take place but it would be a brave man who would lay money on it not succumbing to the curse of coronavirus.
As postponed events are rescheduled, it looks as though a year’s run of events will now be telescoped into a three-month period at the end of the year. For an industry that will by then be hoping to get back on its feet, it has to be wondered if there will be any appetite for such a concentrated feast following eight or nine months of famine.
If the gradual closedown of world economies continues beyond the next few weeks and the hit to shipping industry deepens, the big question is who might be able to even afford to attend any events whenever they are eventually held? In truth we need to start asking ourselves if all of these big events are really necessary at all.
When they started out; teleconferencing, webinars and all the other possibilities of the connected world just didn’t exist but today they do and we could perhaps be better off looking at better ways of networking.
It is all very pleasant to spend two or three evenings during a conference week chewing the fat with some old friends or new business colleagues but does that really justify the tens of thousands of air miles travelled to get there and the inflated price of hotels? For some it probably does but for many others the answer is probably no.
Maybe 2020 might be seen in hindsight as the year in which the exhibition gravy train finally ran out of steam.