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BLOG 06.02.2020

Ghosts of CeBIT Past
by Peter O’Neill, Research Director Research In Action.

Last year, the Deutsche Messe AG announced the cancellation of CeBIT 2019 because of declining visitor and exhibitor numbers (CeBIT is a German language acronym for Centrum für Büroautomation, Informationstechnologie und Telekommunikation, which translates as „Center for Office Automation, Information Technology and Telecommunication“). For over 30 years, the CeBIT was one of the largest information technology trade fairs in the world: at its peak around 800,000 visitors. But IT has now been so consumerized and emocratized, it’s no longer interesting enough to go to Hannover once a year to see it. And,  ore importantly, IT itself is no longer the center of interest which is why there will still be trade fairs in Hannover, but they will be around industries or solution areas.

As someone who grew up in the IT industry over this time, and spent many years marketing in Germany specifically, I have distinct memories of the CeBIT. In 1996 and 1997, I was the overall project manager for HP’s exhibitions there – we had four different booths and we would book a total of over 3500 overnight stays for sales and demo staff, all in one nearby town. In those days, you actually transported dozens of washing-machine-sized computers and terminals (remember them?) to the trade show to strut your stuff. Please allow me to reminisce…………..It’s 1996: we’ve decided to demonstrate the “Largest Data Warehouse in the World”. HP had just partnered with the (then) disc-drive manufacturer EMC and so we rebuilt the data center of a large retailer in the main HP booth, processing 1.7 Terabytes of their data – lots of “sexy” HP and EMC hardware plus and our HP OpenView software as system-manager. Still, other than metal, there was not really anything to look at. So, I hired a couple of actors to play out a 10-minute dialogue describing the demo and naming products. This style of presentation was pretty new at that time and the performance always gathered a crowd of passers-by; we had staff ready to chat them up and get their details for later lead fulfillment. Wow! For me, this was show business and I had great fun briefing the actors, writing their script, and watching them perform every hour on the hour. I felt like a film director but was brought back down to earth though on the third night, when I got a call that the extremely hot disc drives had managed to melt the bitumen floor under our booth. For a few hours, it was a fire risk for the whole trade show and, of course, the demo system no longer ran as the drives were no longer level. But EMC were able to fix both problems within the next morning. Phew!!!!!!!

The next year I went even further away from the industry standard. ‘twas the first big year of THE INTERNET in central Europe. But what can HP showcase? – and somehow promote whatever we had to sell within those projects? I decided to invite our customers to demonstrate what THEY do on the internet with our products and services. So, CeBIT 1997, the main HP booth looked partly like a bank, like a bookshop, a doctor’s surgery and even a car factory floor. In total, we displayed ten existing customer projects running on the internet (the first German online bank was AdvanceBank; the online bookstore was not that one but; we showcased and offered a virtual tour (nowadays this is called virtual reality) of a Volkswagen production line. These four are the customers I can recall but there were six further cases. Again, I was pretty proud of having real customers onsite – they were actually very involved in the project and ran their own marketing programs to leverage the exposure. I also went back to my actor friends and had them man a news-studio on the booth where they interviewed each customer on a regular basis and we broadcasted to all the different HP booths. Again, great fun. But I do remember, however, having to explain to several HP colleagues why we were not showing off our latest hardware. I suppose that those were the first attempts at branding or image-marketing.

But the one thing I remember MOST about every CeBIT that I visited – in those peak years, I’d be away from the office for two full weeks. Each time I came back in the office, I would be asked by my home colleagues: “where were you all this time?”

I was having fun.

Always keeping you informed!

Peter O’Neill