LuxLive 2019: what are exhibitions for?

I’ve been in several minds as to whether I should even attempt this piece. My recent history with Team Lux suggests an objective opinion on where LuxLive is headed may be difficult to find. But I don’t see any benefit in saying nothing, so here’s my contribution to the debate that has already begun; what was that all about?

The general opinion is that this year’s LuxLive was the poorest edition ever. If I have to find one word, I’d say it was diminished. It was smaller, big names were missing and, it appears, much of the audience voted to stay away. While it was the first LuxLive to be organised under the Clarion banner and we were hoping for fresh eyes and a new broom, it felt more like the end of an era; and something that’s been threatening for the past few years.

An exhibition needs a number of factors to come together for it to be a success:

Something worth seeing;

This calls for a subtle mix of (new) product from exhibitors and latest news and information from the conference platforms. But is it an exhibition with a conference, or a conference with an exhibition – because that’s a fundamental issue for the exhibitors who fund the event.

An exhibition floor:

Like any live performance, there is a pecking order, from the top billers down to the bottom of the undercard. If the top billers don’t turn up, there still has to be a top biller . . . it’s just that the one’s who end up at the top of the bill don’t really have the chops to manage their newly elevated position (much like some of our political leaders, don’t you think?). The entire event suffers as a consequence, and LuxLive suffered hugely for that.

An audience:

The people who come to an exhibition do so for any number of reasons; to catch-up with their friends and colleagues, learn new stuff, get their prejudices reinforced, see new things and – maybe – and only occasionally – come with projects in their heads, looking for solutions.

And there are external factors that have an impact

Frankfurt L+B, that financial black hole that comes over the horizon every other year, and there it is -just over there. Obscene amounts of money are committed to that event on the basis that ‘we have to be there’. As a consequence, everyone’s marketing budget is skewed; UK subsidiaries suffer from head office decisions and UK-based companies struggle to get/maintain their place at that crazy circus.

For the first time, we’re seeing signs of rebellion in the ranks. We know of global companies not attending Frankfurt and other companies have re-assessed their budget commitment. This is a good thing, but we’re still a long way from balancing marketing budgets across the industry as a whole.

And for LuxLive there is the added stumbling block that companies won’t be launching new products until next March. Those fixtures may be there already – I’ve seen some of them and it’s all really exciting – but the exhibition timetable says that none of those innovations will ever be launched at LuxLive in November, so companies choose to keep their powder dry for the big push (inappropriate military analogy there – sorry about that).

Brexit – there, I’ve said it – is an existential problem for the construction industry, and we have to acknowledge our client role in that. If buildings don’t get built, there’s no lighting specification to tender for and that means the audience for an exhibition has less reason for turning up, and exhibitors see projects put back – and put back again – with the inevitable strain on financial resources.

The internet has been with us so long that it’s now just a fact of life. But what is the point of displaying new fixtures at a physical event in one part of the country when the information can be in everyone’s inbox within an hour of the product being launched?

London, that city of which no one can ever be tired lest they be tired of life (strangulated paraphrasing of Samuel Johnson there – yikes!) is no longer the go-to place. It’s a pain in the bum to get there and other towns and cities are available, which may be news for those living inside the M25, but it’s true.

Any physical location brings convenience for some and utter aggravation to others. Personally, I find it easier to get to ExCel than it used to be getting to Earls Court; I suspect I’m in a minority. But there is a growing voice that is calling for smaller regional events, aimed at local audiences. The companies who are taking this line are pitching up at all kinds of events – certainly not lighting exhibitions but always those events that bring lighting influencers to them. It may just be a three-hour tabletop display in Bristol but it brings in the local specifiers who won’t travel to London.

The Climate Crisis is a real thing. Totting up our carbon footprint isn’t just a kid’s game; it really does reflect the damage that we’re doing to our future. So there’s another reason not to travel 100+ miles to attend a lighting exhibition ( or to fly to Frankfurt, come to that). Much as I enjoyed meeting my friends from Singapore and California at PLDC in Rotterdam, its simply not realistic to imagine that this can continue.

Eventually, and sooner rather than later, events like LuxLive will be costed not only in monetary terms but also in their environmental costs. If anyone at Clarion is wondering where to start in this debate on what exhibitions are for, they might like to get ahead of the curve and take a look at the damage they’re doing with the current model.

I’m not offering a solution to the exhibition conundrum, but there are plenty of questions that deserve being put on the table.

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