Ferry of the Damned: Pittcon 2009 Review
For now, the fear factor and perhaps the odd lead will keep the informatics software vendors at Pittcon
In the spirit of “going green” I decided to break with tradition and ride the Pittcon bus to the McCormick Convention Center (MCC) in blustery Chicago. My driver, a cheerful fellow named Terry, greeted me as I stepped on the bus with “this is going to be a real adventure.”
“I’ve been practicing the route they gave me, but they suddenly informed me this morning that I have a new route, and I’ve never done this one.”
“Are you from Chicago?”
Oh, oh. Normally, the trek from Randolph Street to the MCC should take maybe 30 minutes in traffic, including a couple of stops. This trek was a bit longer. The odyssey began with several false starts, wrong turns and frequent cross-referencing to a GPS unit rendered useless by the signal-blocking skyscrapers of ChiTown. At one point, Terry started asking us to “keep an eye out for the Westin, I know it’s around here somewhere.” Well, Terry found the Westin, to be sure, except the Westin pickup point was on the other side of the building a block away. Flustered, Terry slammed on the brakes, and ran around to the proper entrance and enticed the waiting conferees back to his bus like a Windy City Pied Piper.
I checked my watch. I had started just before 8:00 AM and the conference didn’t start until 9:00 AM. I’d planned on enough of a time buffer to grab a fully-leaded Starbuck’s and get to the booth. We were now 50 minutes into the orbit, and the MCC was nowhere in sight, so I started to grow silent with concentration. Should I bail at the next opportunity and flag a cab? Nope, Sully didn’t abandon ship when he dropped his plane into the Hudson, the worst that could happen is Terry lands us in Lake Michigan. “I’m going down with the ship.”
Terry looked at me in his rearview mirror, puzzled. I hadn’t realized that I’d actually blurted that out, and now consternation was crossing Sully’s, er, Terry’s face. As well it should have. After 1:15 of circumnavigating downtown Chicago, we were unexpectedly right back in front of my hotel where Terry picked us up. Was this Groundhog Day? Where is Bill Murray? Where is Andie McDowell? Where are Sonny and Cher?
I saw our Asia-Pacific manager out in front of the hotel, considering the bus, and I frantically tried to wave him away. Then it dawned on me; this wasn’t Terry, this was Charon, and the river we’d been crossing wasn’t the Chicago River, it was the River Styx. We were not Pittcon conferees; we were the damned.
After numerous frantic calls, Charon, er, Terry, finally escaped the vortex of Hades, and we were deposited on the steps of the McCormick Center a brisk 90 minutes after our journey began. So much for going green. That diesel-belching behemoth burned enough fuel to heat Chicago, and maybe Gary, IN, to boot.
Attendance seemed scant at Pittcon, possibly the lowest I can remember in history. Given the economic climate, the drop-off couldn’t be unexpected, but the metrics of Pittcon success are in the eyes of the beholder. Throwing up booths at Pittcon is not a cheap proposition. There were plenty of vendors at the show, so I’m guessing the revenues from the Pittcon organizer’s perspective were far from paltry.
But the vendor’s measurement of Pittcon success has a certain latency. Most vendors scan badges of those who visit their booths, and a hard count can be obtained at any moment in time from the scanner. But booth traffic is an elusive and somewhat ephemeral gauge of Pittcon value. For an informatics software vendor, factoring in a very long sales cycle, and the preponderance of multivariate marketing factors, sales are very difficult to track back to the show.
We did, in fact, have a customer close an order basically right at the show, but that is a very rare occurrence. More likely, the cycle starts a week or so after the show when the leads are followed up, e-mails and calls go out, and a miniscule number of those leads shift onto a positive track. Of the leads that seem to move along the arc of the sales cycle, invariably other vendors are considered, and then the products are evaluated by the prospective customers.
So, did that kick-tail demo in the booth set the stage in the mind of the customer who then went through the machinations of reviewing other vendor’s products, while harboring a preordained decision to by your product? Who can tell?
So, if it is hard to trace fiscal results back to Pittcon, then why do it?
Is there a fear factor?
Let’s take the top three or four informatics software vendors. Let’s say that one of the leaders drops out of Pittcon in Orlando in 2010. Using a somewhat tangential argument, if a customer considering a large scale informatics project starts to compose a long list of vendor candidates, what are the chances that top vendor would be excluded because they weren’t at Pittcon?
According to the February 23, 2009, issue of Chemical and Engineering News, Pittcon began in 1950. Here’s a quiz for you. Pittcon is slang for the real conference name. Do you know what it is? The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy.
Again, C&E News states that the heyday of Pittcon was in 1990 and 1996 when the attendance exceeded 34,000. I can promise you that I was at those shows, and have been faithfully attending since the 1980s.
C&E News stated that the 2008 show had 19,583 attendees, and, quoting C&E News, “Organizers expect that 2009’s stats will be comparable to the 2009 numbers.” Not a chance.
Now, I love Chicago, truly I do. The cold doesn’t bother me; I live in Colorado, and grew up across Lake Michigan in Kalamazoo, so blistering wind doesn’t bother me. I love the rhythm of the city too. Chicago has great food, great music and fabulous museums, theater, and all the rest. But New Orleans and Orlando are compelling venues for northerners wanting to escape the cold, and southerners who want to avoid it. Factor in Bourbon Street and Disney World in those locations, and assuming the economy isn’t still tanking next year at this time (far from certain), maybe the numbers will come up in the next year.
But we return to the fear factor… I personally enjoy the Lab Automation show in Palm Springs. It’s a lot cheaper, easy to get around town, and Palm Springs has its own charm. Compared to the thousands of exhibitors at Pittcon, Lab Automation’s 425 exhibits seems diminutive, but the 4237 registrants1 make it a very favorable conferee to vendor ratio. Let’s call it 10:1. Pittcon’s ratio is far closer to 1:1 when it all shakes out.
The complexion of the Lab Automation conference is far different. Lab Automation has a hell of a lot of robots and the “automation” means just that…instrumental automation of testing and analysis processes. Pittcon really has relegated informatics vendors to a small corner of real estate, and remember the conference title refers to analytical chemistry and spectroscopy, and embedded in those titles are all the gear manufacturers; pumps, fume hoods, glassware, syringes, seals, instruments, balances…you get the picture?
Lab Automation has an audience much more focused on, well, automation, (D’oh!), but my feeling is the conference is still gaining traction with the informatics crowd. Right now, Lab Automation is a target-rich environment for the pure R&D types, and anyone with a hankering to see robots spin, swirl, poke and move things. I gave a talk at Lab Automation that centered around the elements of informatics such as LIMS, SDMS, stability, resource planning and such, but when two speakers before me enraptured the audience with tales of electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN) as being research and discovery tools, I was the heavy that came along and referenced the opposite end of the ELN spectrum by speaking about method execution in ELNs. I may as well have pulled out a rifle and picked Santa Claus out of the sky. I looked at one conferee, and I imagined the look I was getting would be the same one plastered on Brittany Spears’ face should she ever attend a class in ordinary differential equations.
But, all things being equal, it’s, for the moment, a tough call on Pittcon. Remember, we’re seeing a lot of tools for remote demos such as WebEx and Net Meeting, and travel budgets aren’t growing in many places… quite the opposite.
So, where were we? Ah, the Fear Factor. If a vendor pulls out of Pittcon and sees no appreciable drop in business, they’ll be gone for good. It’s also not reasonable to expect that any midsized or large company performing due diligence on informatics software would not consider an industry leader that stiffed Pittcon. This may not hold true for the small reference labs, wastewater labs and environmental monitoring shops of the world, but it is likely true for the bigger customers.
Speaking engagements at Pittcon, in the past a means of conveying not only general information, but also expertise, are fit for neither these days. Speaking slots are 20 minutes, with five more for questions. Accidentally drop your laser pointer on the stage and you lose 20 percent of your time. I’m sorry, speaking slots need to be 40 minutes to be of any value. The long-departed International LIMS Conference held to those time lines, and it worked great.
Reviewing the awards winners each year in the program, how many of them come from the world of informatics software? Zero, that’s how many. Where are the plenary speakers from the informatics software community? They ain’t on the grand ballroom stage.
I don’t wish Pittcon ill will. It’s an institution, to be sure. But laboratory informatics software vendors comprise a miniscule percentage of Pittcon, and have been cautiously segregated from the stopper-and-bottle crowd for some time. Years ago, the International LIMS Conference attempted to hold an annexed conference within Pittcon and it was a disaster in many respects. It carried extra cost, and was physically isolated from the main body of Pittcon and, thus, there were a lot of people who were not inclined to ante up extra cash to check it out, and it was a hassle to find and get to.
Of course, I’d written for years that the venerable International LIMS Conference, once the bellwether for LIMS and laboratory informatics software vendors, was set to implode due to their own self-absorbed glad-handing, otherwise known as a smallish group passing awards back and forth to each other. The European stops of the International LIMS Conference were headed up by the Royal Society of Chemistry, but the pricing for vendors and attendees eventually caught up with the organizers and it no longer was viable. Is this the fate of Pittcon?
So, after the failed annexation within Pittcon, the informatics software vendors once again were turned out among the mass specs, HazMat suits and HPLC columns. Clustering the informatics vendors into one area can be argued as both an advantage and disadvantage. For the attendees who are sent to the booths to tire kick, it greatly limits the walking. For vendors, it’s like living in a neighborhood of track homes whereby you’re so close to the folks next door that when you flush your commode, it is they who are scalded in the shower. The loss of privacy can work against vendors and attendees alike. I’m not sure where the middle ground is, but spreading the informatics software vendors over maybe 50 square yards might be better.
So, where does that leave us? For now, the fear factor, and perhaps the odd lead, will keep the informatics software vendors at Pittcon with thousands of their brethren. The vendors will one day outnumber the attendees, and the few decision makers will be pounced on like a weak-kneed zebra at a watering hole frequently by starving lions.
I don’t see the economic climate being better by February 28, 2010, and conferees who place trip requests with their management while sporting a tube of number 50 sun block, clearly visible in their shirt pocket, will be met with some cold stares.
Meanwhile, somewhere out there Charon is ferrying damned souls to another conference, or is it Hades? Wait, what’s the difference?
1. Association for Laboratory Automation, February 3, 2009 online blog
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.