Every NPE is important, but this year's version is probably taking on more importance than most. For many, the industry entered its recession shortly after the last NPE, in 2000. Will NPE 2003 be the bookend that marks the end of the economic slump?
Plastics News sat down with Don Duncan, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., in his Washington office recently to talk about the industry's economic and political climate, and his expectations for this year's show.
SPI sponsors NPE. This article covers Duncan's expectations for the show, and his sense that NPE may have stopped growing, unless it can broaden. In a show daily later this week (and in a regular weekly issue later this summer), a second installment will cover broader economic and political issues facing the industry.
Q: What are your expectations for this year's show?
A: Let's start off by recognizing that NPE is probably the biggest, most important single program or project that SPI undertakes. That takes nothing away from the other things we do. Let's just start off with an overview. It's going to be a success. It's going to be a success because we've already got over a million square feet of floor space that's going to be consumed by exhibitors.
Q: Is that more than last time?
A: I think we were at 1.1 million last time, and we're at 1 million this time. We've known that since February of last year. From the standpoint of facet No. 1, exhibitor participation, we know what that's going to be. We have a few wrinkles that you guys like to shuffle around on: Dow [Chemical Co.] elected not to participate, and Eastman [Chemical Co.] didn't participate.
But on the other hand, [GE Plastics] got a bigger display. DuPont [Co.] is going to be there with guns blazing. They're sending all their top people. To me that part of it is already a success.
The real question is we had 90,000 registrants last time, of which 17,000 or 18,000 were international registrants. I think in light of the world conditions, whether that's SARS or the economy or the Sept. 11 syndrome or people's ability to get visas, I think it's a safe assumption we're not going to have 90,000 people or 18,000 international people.
Another thing that's going to complicate the numbers aspect is [that] in previous NPEs we had significant numbers of people who registered and never paid a fee and never showed up. ... Well this year we've done something different. There are essentially no free passes. A significant percentage of the international people who came in last time came in for nothing. We think we've got a better product than having to give it away. The NPE governing board decided they were going to charge for that product.
I think it's fair to say that despite our efforts to attract as many people as possible and continue what has been a long-term trend of ever increasing attendees at the show, that this show will probably not have as many attendees. Our expectation though is that it's still going be a fantastically successful show. A significantly high percentage of people who attend the show are within driving distance of Chicago. So things like international visas, [and] SARS scares in Toronto and Beijing, probably are not going to have a big impact on those people.
The people who are going to conduct business are going to be there. The real test of the success of the show is going to be when people look at their order books at the end of the week and say, ``How much business did we do and how much did we do last time?''
Q: Some major exhibitors from past shows are not attending or scaling back this year, in part saying that other market channels let them reach customers. When you look at all these alternative marketing channels like the Internet, what impact do you see those having on future trade shows?
A: The answer's yes. I think the impact is going to be that people will prioritize what trade shows they are going to go to. The impact will ultimately result in fewer trade shows but higher quality trade shows. I certainly think that NPE is going to be the survivor in that area.
There's something very exciting about catching up with the latest technology. Maybe there'll come a day when engineers will go to the Web site and see everything they want to see. When I was growing up in the business, whether it was at NPE or going to your suppliers, or walking through their plants or their development labs, I just found that invaluable.
Q: A lot of people may not realize the importance that NPE and Plastics USA have for SPI's finances. How will a smaller NPE affect SPI?
A: This is why I split the success of the thing into two parts. A very, very high percentage of the revenue comes from the exhibitors. That's pretty much in hand. I don't think there's a lot of room for surprises from a revenue standpoint. I don't want to emphasize that because the success of the show depends on people coming to it and the ultimate success depends on people coming to it and buying things. Most of SPI's financial perspective comes from having a successful collection of exhibitors. That's a fait accompli. We've got a relatively small window of uncertainty associated with NPE 2003.
The concern I have about NPE is the future. You started to touch on that. I gave you this answer that there are going to be survivors in the trade show business and I think NPE is going to the survivor.
Some of your people back in Akron [Ohio] may be a little concerned about that comment. [Plastics News owns the Plastics Encounter trade shows]. They probably aren't losing sleep about it. Here's the area that I'm putting a lot of energy in and our senior business leaders for NPE are also thinking about. ... I believe we have enough signals to say that if all we do is maintain the status quo at NPE, then perhaps NPE 2006 will not show the same level of growth or maybe even the same level of absolute activity that NPE 2003 did.
Q: You're saying that NPE 2006 may be a little bit smaller yet than NPE 2003?
A: Could be. Whether it's the Milacron [Inc.] effect, the virtual reality thing, whether it's the Dow effect, we've got other places to put our money to do things, or whatever, I think there are reasons to believe that if we're not concerned that there are going to be forces that take away from the momentum that has been built up over the last  years [since the first NPE in 1946], then I don't think we're doing our job. I don't know what those forces are. I don't believe the ones I just cited necessarily are the ones we really have to deal with. ... It becomes incumbent upon us who are involved with NPE, to say what should we be doing differently, if we want to maintain the growth rate that we've had. That's a question that we're working very hard on.
One of the things we're doing at NPE 2003 that will be a very modest effort in 2003 but could have significantly more impact in 2006, is the inclusion of the elastomers/rubber business into the NPE. The K show has done this forever, because they deal with total polymers. We've culled out the plastics piece of polymers as opposed to the elastomers piece of polymers and said this is only plastics. When rubber and plastics meant thermoset rubber that goes into tires and plastics that we all know and love, it made sense to keep them separate.
Now you have thermoplastic elastomers whose biggest markets are traditional thermoplastic plastic applications, [and that] run on the same kind of equipment, injection molders and extruders, etc. We're reaching out now to the thermoplastic end of the elastomer industry. Whether you want to call it a symbolic toe in the water or whatever, we're going to have representatives from the RMA [Rubber Manufacturers Association], IISRP [International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers], the ACS, [American Chemical Society's Rubber Division]. They're going to be there, kind of assessing this. They don't have big trade show activities besides K.
Why shouldn't they be adopting NPE as the method for getting their segment of the polymer industry in front of the market? It's going to be their call. You could also take a company like Davis-Standard [Corp.]. Davis-Standard doesn't bring the complete range of equipment to NPE that they bring to the K show. At K they bring their rubber processing equipment and their plastics processing equipment.
Here is one of what will be many examples, I hope, of trying to grow NPE into logical areas of activities, that at the very least will offset some of the attrition we might see for reasons that we can't identify right now. That's why I say I don't want to sit just thinking that this thing will grow by itself. It may do that. But the business people who are running it feel very strongly that we need to be reaching out looking for other affiliated affinity type activities that are truly a part of our industry and get them involved at NPE.