While the dust has not settled from the plastics industry's triennial, week-long business bash known as NPE, it's not too early to judge it a solid success. That may seem surprising considering that registration for the June 23-27 event at Chicago's McCormick Place plunged 30 percent to 63,238 vs. the record 90,142 reported at the 2000 show.
Such a decline, in most cases, would lead to disappointment and complaints from paying exhibitors. An interesting set of factors, however, combined to ensure that did not occur at NPE 2003.
For starters, no one in their right business mind who compares the pre-recession boom with today's climate would expect a similar turnout this year. The world has endured much since June 2000, including the dot-com implosion, corporate accounting scandals, Sept. 11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and SARS. Greatly lowered expectations among participants tend to positively impact post-show impressions.
Secondly, this year's registration numbers reflect a more accurate accounting of true attendance. At previous shows, SPI allowed non-U.S. and early-bird registrants to sign up for free, and counted those people as registrants, even though many never actually showed up. McCormick Place does not have turnstile entrances, so there is no way to capture a more precise head count.
This year, virtually all attendees worldwide had to pay to pre-register, which served to deter the pretenders. So, in reality, the decline in actual participants may have been closer to 20-25 percent.
Finally, and most importantly, is the issue of quality vs. quantity. There is no objective way to measure attendee quality, but many exhibitors noted the absence of so-called tire-kickers. Nobody missed the browsers lining up to collect their freebies at booths pumping out pails and Frisbees. And nobody lost any sales because fellow exhibitors brought fewer staff to their own booths.
A great number of exhibitors commented favorably on the serious business nature and buying power of those who trafficked their booths, and some seemed genuinely surprised that they actually did deals and sold product at the show. Whether those deals pan out will be a great barometer to measure whether the 3-year-old industry slowdown is really over.
NPE's conference-organizing partner, the Society of Plastics Engineers, also was pleased with the event. Tom Conklin, SPE's senior manager of training and e-learning, said SPE drew about 350 to its paid NPE seminars, which was down about 30 percent from NPE 2000 but still more than the 300 for which Conklin says SPE budgeted. SPE canceled a half-dozen or so of its 33 scheduled paid events, but that is not unusual at an event of this scale, he said.
SPE's lineup of free conferences drew just under 2,000, he noted, way down from the 4,300 reported attendees in 2000. Conklin said that those who did come to NPE had less time for conferences.
Donald Duncan, president of NPE organizer the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., has declared that NPE needs to broaden into more of a polymers show that also encompasses elastomers. Also, the show continues to aggressively recruit a more international mix of participants. Such approaches are wise and necessary.
NPE — next held June 26-30, 2006 — may never again surpass the 90,000-registrant plateau, but by continually reshaping itself to meet market needs, it can remain the Western Hemisphere's premier polymers showcase.