We’re excited to introduce a monthly blog series by digital signage industry expert, Dave Haynes. Spectrio acquired Sixteen:Nine, of which Dave is the founding editor. Dave remains an unbiased industry expert and we’re honored to be able to dedicate our blog once a month to his unique and impartial opinions. This blog covers his impression of the InfoComm 2021 show.

Last month’s InfoComm trade show in Orlando was – for many buyers, sellers, and resellers – the first sizeable trade show for pro-AV and digital signage technologies in almost two years. 

The show was, in some respects, a shadow of its normal self, but it did mark the first step back to normalcy for the industry. There was enough going on to compel people from the U.S. and beyond to make the journey to central Florida and deal with all the new necessities and procedures of both getting there, and being there.

InfoComm is part of my annual rotation of trade shows I make the effort to attend, but I did not get to Orlando. this time. Flying out of where I live is still hard and over-priced, but more to the point, a deeply-scaled back exhibit hall floor meant that instead of needing all of the 2.5 days available to see everything and touch base with contacts, my needs could have been met in a morning … maybe.  

The numbers confirmed expectations that are not out yet, but it appears the exhibitor count was down by 2/3s to 3/4s. While the exhibit aisles and corridors looked busy, it was nothing like normal – with some key booths jammed all day with people.

One of the major dissuaders to going was the absence and limits on products. In normal times, a show like InfoComm would see major manufacturers like Samsung, LG, NEC/Sharp, and the mount systems guys like Legrand having big footprint booths filled with products. Samsung, for example, instead used its big central floorspace as segregated meeting rooms. I sense the company, like some others, had product out of view – but only available to see based on arranged meetings.

Normally, there would be many, many LED manufacturers – both big and familiar and small and puzzling – taking up a lot of space on the floor.  The AVIXA people might correct me, but I am guessing (totally guessing) there was maybe a quarter of those around this time.

So without product to see and touch, the argument for making the trip may have been a tough one for many. 

However, show boosters and neutral observers speculated before the show that sellers and buyers would make the investment and effort to get to Orlando for a few key reasons:

  1. Those buyers who did go would be on missions, looking for specific products and partners, and not just walking around seeing what was new.
  2. Industry people were desperate for one-to-one customer touches, through simple booth meetings or more structured things like meals and events.
  3. People who were vaxxed just wanted to finally get away from their home office and see industry friends for the first time in 20+ months.

Based on what people told me, the speculation was correct, as all three reasons were in play last week. 

You were supposed to be fully vaccinated to get into the show, and do all the safety things – like masks and six-foot distancing – but social media photos and videos show how that kind of went by the wayside for a percentage of the attendees. While the great majority were indeed masked up, it was easy to see many were not. And there was a disconcerting number of group selfies with maskless heads jammed together.

It was inevitable someone – possibly several someones – would pick up COVID on the trip, and within days, there was a tweet from one person who said she’s got it and was letting her AV friends know so that they could take their own precautions. It could be argued trade show colds and other bugs are just part of the deal – pandemic or not – but the common cold or regular won’t normally put healthy people in ICUs.  

Talk to enough vendors about trade shows and they will almost uniformly stress they will take quality over quantity every time when it comes to attendee traffic. They’ll take one buyer with a well-defined need and a budget over 100 tire-kickers who may or may not ever generate business, but chew up precious one-to-one time on the floor.

Attendees also related the simple pleasures of seeing customers, business partners, and industry friends. That intangible ROI may be hard for the people in Finance to understand, but the HR and sales leaders know relationships and culture are important to both develop and maintain. Being on Zoom or Teams all day is convenient and effective, but no replacement for hugs, knuckle-bumps, and backslaps with people who make buying decisions based as much on affinity and trust as price.

There were some interesting advances in the red-hot area of distance-learning, workplace, and collaboration, such as new video meeting cameras and see-through note-taking glass screens, but no major, you-have-to-go-see display hardware or management software advances being launched at the show.  The technology used for digital signage and related purposes tends to advance incrementally – with new product versions being brighter, faster, slimmer, tighter, and easier. Big leaps forward – like the arrival of fine-pitch LED and OLED – don’t happen every year. 

But the technical people who make up a healthy percentage of the crowd are nonetheless interested in things like revisions to mounting systems for displays that make installations happen more quickly and with absolute precision.

This InfoComm looked and worked like previous versions – just at a reduced size. But it may have quietly shown how future versions of InfoComm and other shows that have ties to digital signage and pro-AV might work going forward. The shows may be less about having the biggest, splashiest booths and no end of sizzle, and be more about structured booth meetings and hands-on product education. 

What these kinds of shows can offer is efficiency. Planes, trains, and automobiles can move sales and business development people all over a country or continent, chewing up a lot of time and costs in the process. When you know many to most of your current and prospective customers are coming to a city and specific event, they can all be met, updated, and motivated in a matter of two or three days, at probably far less cost. The same goes for training and product demos. The audio and unified communications people do training and demos at big shows, but it is a rarity still in the digital signage ecosystem, other than right in booths.

The next big event on the digital signage and pro AV calendar is Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) in Barcelona, at the start of February. The name alone suggests it’s a show for that market, and not relevant to North Americans. But ISE has historically been a very big show for launches of products that then find their way to North America. Some of what gets launched to the consumer market at CES in Las Vegas in January then finds its way – in commercial variants – to ISE.

I’ve been going for several years, and find it worthwhile – even more so than InfoComm, because much of what I see in June (the normal time window for InfoComm) was on display four-five months earlier at ISE.  

The other show on the near horizon is the re-booted DSE, now called Digital Signage Experience (instead of Expo).  There are arguments that can effectively be made that digital signage technologies are now so converged with other AV and IT technologies that a narrowly defined event that is JUST about digital signage is an outdated notion. But the digital signage ecosystem has a distinct community and interests that differ from other aspects of AV and IT. I have heard from people who say they’re relishing the notion of going to an event that is ONLY about what they do, whereas shows like InfoComm and ISE service interests as varied as stage lighting, pro audio, and building automation.

That event is set for the end of March in Las Vegas. I’m in that camp that is looking forward to seeing people and companies in person for the first time in forever.

This blog was written by Dave Haynes. Dave is the Founding Editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication and podcast that has covered the digital signage industry since 2006. Spectrio acquired the title in Sept. 2021, and now both Sixteen:Nine and Haynes are part of the Spectrio family. Along with writing Sixteen:Nine, Haynes has worked as a digital signage consultant for many of the world’s most familiar companies, including Samsung, Sony, LG, Google, Adobe, Toyota, Nike, Intel and Bank of America.