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ISE founder Mike Blackman on how the show ‘keeps getting better and better’

As the industry gears up for what promises to be yet another record-breaking ISE, the show’s managing director and founder Mike Blackman tells Daniel Gumble what’s in store for 2019 and why there is still plenty of growth to be achieved in its pro audio offering

For several years now, the headlines emanating from ISE (Integrated Systems Europe) have all followed a somewhat predictable pattern: proclamations of record attendances, record exhibitor numbers and calls for a bigger venue in which to accommodate all this record-breaking action. For more than a decade now, the Amsterdam (soon to be Barcelona) show has been blazing a trail through the integrated systems/AV sector and its associated markets, whipping up a whirlwind of interest that continues to pull in multitudes of new visitors and exhibitors year after year, while prompting existing customers to consistently up their investment in venue floor space.

And it’s a trend that shows scant sign of slowing, with over 85,000 AV professionals (up from 81,000 in 2018) set to descend upon the Amsterdam RAI from February 5-8 for ISE’s 16th outing – it’s penultimate edition in the Netherlands before relocating to Barcelona’s Gran Via in 2021 to house even more exhibitors and visitors. Furthermore, this year’s exhibitor numbers are up once again, from 1,296 in 2018 to over 1,300. To put the show’s growth in the clearest of perspectives, it’s worth looking back to its 2004 debut outing in Geneva, where the total number of exhibitors clocked in at a relatively paltry 120.

“The show is just growing and growing; we always think it’s going to stop, but it keeps getting better and better all the time,” the ISE founder and managing director Mike Blackman tells PSNEurope. “Our goal was always to be the biggest and best and I think we’ve achieved that. Importantly, the support of the industry has made it grow and helped take us to where we are. This year we’ve added more space, so Hall 15 is going to be larger. We have an additional pavilion on the right side of the venue, which will be Hall 5a. So we have added more space and more exhibitors as a result.” This industry support, Blackman says, has been pivotal in enabling the show to expand and develop at such a rapid pace.

“We created an event that is doing what the industry wants,” he explains. “When we started we brought a lot of industry people into our advisory board and the board of directors. The industry was looking for a home and we created that for them and did what they were asking for. Every year we sit together and ask them what’s changing and what we should be doing. And we invest in that. That’s what helps direct the event and deliver the audience. The key is listening to the industry. We can’t satisfy everybody but we are satisfying the majority.”

One of the most notable areas of growth at ISE in recent years has been its pro audio offering. When the show launched in 2004, pro audio companies were a little hard to locate, such was its focus on the second part of the audio-visual acronym. More recently, however, it seems the AV/integrated systems sector has woken up to the fact that wonderful visuals count for nought when placed alongside sub-par sound, resulting in some truly breathtaking developments on the audio front, a realisation mirrored by the show’s organisers.

“We have definitely made a concerted effort to pick up the audio companies,” Blackman affirms. “Back in 2004 we didn’t have that many audio companies and we realised that for installed audio we needed to have the major brands there, otherwise we were missing a major part of our offering. And we’ve proved to them that they weren’t getting the attendees we could offer anywhere else. The result has been that those companies have been very satisfied and have grown and attracted even more companies from the pro audio sector because they are reaching the right people.”

And, he adds, there is still plenty of room for growth. “We have demand from the audio sector that we can’t satisfy at the moment,” Blackman continues. “But when we move to Barcelona we’re going to provide more space to accommodate them. In addition, a lot of these companies have requested demo rooms where they can demo their systems and solutions – we’ll be able to offer many more of those.”

According to Blackman, ISE has also learned a lot by observing the movements of other major pro audio trade shows, including the likes of NAMM, Prolight+Sound and IBC to name but a few.

“We have to look at what’s going on elsewhere and listen to people to find out what they’re not getting from other shows,” he offers. “We learn from other events in what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong and we work out how we can do things better. This has been part of our success. We talk to manufacturers and listen to what their requirements are. We listen to what their dissatisfaction is with other shows to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes and we listen to their satisfaction to see what we should be doing.”

GETTING AROUND

Blackman also revealed that the show is once again exploring opportunities to help improve the experience (and safety) of visitors when navigating the venue – which for many can be confusing.

This year, a number of improvements have been made to its official ISE app, helping people find where they need to go, whilst some areas in the venue have been made into one-way zones to avoid bottlenecking and subsequent overcrowding.

“We hope the app really helps people get around much more efficiently,” he says. “However, I do recommend to everybody to take a floor map around with them; we have show guides, a floor plan and the app – it can be difficult to navigate ISE without those, and they will help make that journey more efficient. For the next two years, we’re trying to do as much as we can to ease the issues and make the experience more enjoyable.

“Amsterdam has been a wonderful home for us. But we’ve run out of space for visitors and attendees, so we have to look at the comfort and safety factors.”

THE FUTURE

So, how to keep growing a show year after year without losing sight of its central principles? For Blackman, the ability to maintain a deft balance between growth and a commitment to core values is crucial.

“Our biggest worry is that we don’t want to dilute the content. Obviously we want to see growth, but more important than growth is that we get the right customers. My marketing director came to me last year and asked what sort of growth I wanted to see for 2019. I said I’d rather see zero growth and see us concentrate more on quality. We need to make sure we have the right customers coming to the show and we have to offer more than just a walk around the exhibition floor. We have to offer whole programmes that include seminars, presentations and other elements that enhance their visit.

“There are things we could do that I’m sure would increase our attendance by 20-30 per cent quite easily, but the danger is that you dilute the audience, and that’s one of our biggest fears. We try to avoid taking the low hanging fruit that might not be the right quality. We have to make sure we are bringing the right people and identify who those people will be in the future as well. Our exhibitors tell us who they want to see and it’s our job to bring them to the show.”

With demand for space at the show accelerating at a rate of knots, Blackman believes there are no limits to where the show can go.

“If we didn’t believe there would be any more growth we wouldn’t be moving [to Barcelona],” he states. “There is demand for more space from our existing customers that we cannot meet, as well as a waiting list of new customers who can’t get on to the exhibition floor. We’re also seeing more and more sectors being brought into the AV industry.

“A lot of manufacturers tell us they want to speak to end customers and we need to find ways to bring them to the exhibition, so we work with integrators to bring their customers with them. That’s one way we can guarantee we keep the quality. And we look at other regional markets that we haven’t had a huge attendance from, because we see growth in those areas too. We’re very strong in central and northern Europe, and we’re looking to increase our growth in eastern and southern Europe. Those are the areas where we see potential.”

With the relocation to Barcelona approaching fast on the horizon, work is well underway to ensure a smooth transition. But Blackman is keen to note the sterling work being carried out by the Amsterdam RAI to deliver two blockbusting farewell shows.

“The next two shows in Amsterdam will be phenomenal,” he beams. “The RAI is working with us in the best way possible. There has been no change in their attitude, they are really trying to make sure that ISE has the best shows possible.

“Next year, we’ll be taking the top 200 exhibitors to Barcelona to show them the venue. and we’ve already started planning the exhibition floor; we’ve got much more space and we want to make sure we can plan for future growth, such as in pro audio. We’re looking at how we can make the facilities work for pro audio exhibitors by creating large demo rooms, areas where they can demo their products and solutions as best as possible. We’ve already started locking down hotels and prices in Barcelona so they don’t go out of proportion. Everyone’s getting excited and we’re running parallel preparation whilst still hosting two shows.”

With time up on our conversation, Blackman parts with some words of advice for those yet to experience ISE first-hand. “I’d say come and see the show,” he concludes. “Come and walk the floor. You might even do business, you never know who you’ll run into. And just get a feel for ISE and talk to us about how we can work with you to make your placement at the show really work. We try to really make sure exhibitors are in the right place to get the right type of attendees.” 

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