ISE Barcelona Mike Blackman

‘We’re working on plan A, B and C’: ISE boss Mike Blackman opens up on this year’s show

ISE managing director Mike Blackman has spoken to Audio Media International about his commitment to the upcoming Barcelona show taking place as an in-person event and the contingencies in place should it be forced to close.

Last week, fellow AVIXA-owned trade show InfoComm announced that it would be pushing its scheduled outing in Orlando, Florida in June back to October due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Almost immediately afterwards, a statement was issued by Blackman reaffirming ISE’s determination to go ahead as an in-person event in Barcelona from June 1-4.

The statement inevitably prompted questions from some quarters of the pro AV community. How could ISE 2021 go ahead if InfoComm had been forced to reschedule? What measures are being taken to ensure a safe and secure event?

To find out more, Audio Media International jumped on to a Zoom call for a frank and insightful discussion with the ISE chief to find out how preparations are going and what assurances it can offer exhibitors and attendees…

Firstly, what a 12 months it’s been. What has the past year looked like for you and the ISE team?
Well I have a couple more grey hairs and my beard has turned from grey to white, so it’s been challenging in many ways. Like many, we did not anticipate that COVID would still be an issue 12 months later. The key factors are delivering safety and satisfaction. We need to ensure everyone is safe, so we put together a concept with the Fira to work out what was the best way to host a safe event. Then there is satisfaction for exhibitors and attendees – we want to make sure they are seeing the right people. Those are the two big challenges.

How can you plan for an in-person event with so many uncertainties?
We have to look at the extremes. One is that we run as we would like, the other is that we are told we can’t do it. And there are lots of things in between. One thing we recognised early on is that digital has to be part of future events. We avoided it for a long time because our goal was to bring people together in situ to network. What we’ve missed, even in a safe environment, is that there are still people who can’t get to a show, and COVID has made us recognise and rethink this. We have to do it this year, but also in the future this is the best way to reach people who can’t attend in person.

But we still have to satisfy the in-person networking element of the show. We’ve found with most digital events the dissatisfaction has been on the exhibitor side. People have created virtual stand but we need to work out how we facilitate interaction in that setting. So we’re working on plan A, plan B and plan C, but we are still working to deliver plan A, which is an in-person hybrid event. Yes, we have challenges. There are questions over travel – currently UK citizens are not allowed to travel to Spain. But there are four months to go and a lot can happen. As long as we think it’s still possible to run the show, that’s what we’ll do.

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We’re also aware that our customers have commitments to make. We had discussion with them in October and everyone said they were still behind it. What they didn’t want to happen is that they start to incur costs that are irreversible and then we say we can’t run the show. So, we asked how much time they need before making that decision. They said three months. So, we gave them a commitment that we would make a decision and come to them three months before the show and say it’s a go or a no go. That date is March 1. Between now and then we have time to assess what the rules are. If there is a decision that says people can’t travel and that’s likely to be fixed until the show, we understand we can’t run the show. If the government says we can’t run the show, then that’s the decision made. But if we look at last June, the cases were really going down. Today we can see the number of cases in the UK and Spain are half of what they were 30 days ago, in Germany even less so. Also, the UK is steaming ahead in vaccinations. These are positive signals that give us confidence.

How are you going to make that call?
We’re in constant contact with the authorities. Last week I met with leaders of the city and Catalonia and they were categorical about us being able to go ahead. The Fira is constantly in touch with the health authorities and looking at advice from the CDC and Spanish authorities. We have to listen to those with the best knowledge when making a decision.

Assuming you can go ahead with plan A, will that be full capacity or a reduced attendance?
I’d be lying if I said we could bring the same attendance as in years gone by, or even last year. I wish I could tell you what it’s going to be, but I really don’t know. I can tell you we have just under 700 exhibitors confirmed. Last year we had just under 1,200, so we’ve lost some but any other organiser would dream of having a show of that size today. The net square meterage is just over 37,000. That’s about 20 per cent smaller than we were this time last year. That’s because we’ve lost some companies, and a lot of companies who have had huge stands we’ve spoken to and said it makes sense for them to reduce. We’d rather our customers get better ROI from reducing their costs. That reduces our square meterage.

Also, out of our top 100 customers we’ve only lost 24, and most of the major names are still there. They still want this show.

If you can’t go ahead, will you go completely digital, or postpone again to run in-person?
It’s impractical and too disruptive for our industry to postpone ISE to the Fall. And it would be so close to ISE 2022 that it wouldn’t serve any purpose for our customers. That means we would run the majority of our platform as digital, but we have some ideas to develop some networking opportunities around that as a fallback plan. We are still working on that, but certainly a digital part will exist because we are doing that anyway.

What’s your message to the pro audio market?
We’re doing something very exciting this year. We have created a facility for pro audio customers to demo products this year. There is a cinema complex across the street which we are taking over. It’s a multiplex with 12 theatres of varying size and we are providing those for pro audio companies to do their demos. Our audio customers have suffered because live events have suffered tremendously. And they are challenged when presenting digitally. That’s why we want to go ahead.

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