Its death was inevitable, and had been predicted by many, for years. But in the end, the tech trade show monster CeBIT just had to die.
CeBIT peaked in the years 2000 and 2001. It pulled in some 830,000 visitors in 2001 – but then the dotcom bubble burst. 2002 was a depressing affair, with an air of desperation, despite a still-huge number of visitors: around 700,000. By comparison, this year’s CES pulled in 182,000.
Despite the bust, CeBIT struggled on. Its once-mighty US counterpart Comdex shut its doors in 2003, and CeBIT’s Alpine region usurper, Systems, closed in 2008. There was even a CeBIT New York in 2003 – a show notable for having more exhibitors than visitors.
But the last 15 years were not kind to CeBIT. After losing its mobile and network infrastructure exhibitors to Mobile World Congress, CeBIT relaunched several times and almost every year there were claims that it was back.
For me, the final straw was the decision by CeBIT organizer Deutsche Messe to shutter Hall One at the sprawling Hanover Messe showground – a hall which was only ever used for CeBIT. No doubt for many others too, Hall One was the heart and soul of CeBIT.
Despite a low ceiling giving it a claustrophobic feel, Hall One was enormous, and THE place to be for enterprises. It was possible to spend days inside without seeing sunlight or breathing fresh air (especially since smoking was still allowed on the show floor).
Not that there was usually much sunlight in Hanover in March – CeBIT’s typical weather was horizontal, driving rain or sleet. It helped to know your way round – one trick I learned from a former boss who was a veteran of the show was to park on the top level of the car park above Hall One – then take a special shortcut to a roof entrance to Hall One. Always park in the same spot – unless you want to spend hours searching for your car…
Some booths in Hall One were elaborate, multi-floor constructions. The Compaq booth, where I spent several days during CeBIT 1999, even had elevators – and the booth manager is said to have slept in a special hidden room. Rumor has it that the booths inside Hall One are still intact, 10 years on. There were also some – by comparison far more luxurious – private meeting rooms on the roof of Hall One.
As a multi-year CeBIT veteran, I’d get to know where all the main exhibitors were – so it was an amusing annoyance to rock up to a spot that was always occupied by one vendor to find it sporting new colors.
One favorite CeBIT memory relates to the afternoon when the sleet turned to snow – and all the exhibitors on a client’s booth (International Enterprise Singapore) rushed outside Hall Two for an impromptu snowball fight. It turned out that some of the exhibitors really had never ever experienced snow before.
In its heyday, CeBIT ran for a grueling eight days – including through the weekend, when it was overrun by consumers on the hunt for giveaways. Exhibitors who weren’t wise to this would find that visitors had gone through their supplies of pens, t-shirts and other tchotchkes like a plague of locusts. Other very B2B-focused exhibitors would shut up shop early at the weekend.
In its long decline, CeBIT was overtaken by more specialized shows – focused on specific topics, and therefore providing exhibitors with a more targeted set of visitors. The week-long event is too much of an opportunity cost for exhibitors. And although the news of its demise is hardly a surprise, it’s still going to be a relief to exhibitors who were committed for 2019 – some of them still exhibiting for fear that pulling out would be a sign that they’re turning their back on the German market.
Just as CeBIT grew out of the larger, more industrial Hanover Fair (“Hannover Messe”), so the circle of life continues. Over the last couple of years, the Hannover Messe has shed its grim, industrial image in favor of being the place to be for hot new technologies like the Internet of Things – attracting new exhibitors and visitors alike. Trade fair company Deutsche Messe plans to integrate CEBIT’s industry-related topics back into the show.