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The last PMA show took place in the winter of 2010 in Anaheim, California, and everybody I spoke with agreed with me that it felt like its vital signs were fading.
Several key camera companies—Canon, Leica, and Pentax among them—were no-shows. The aisles were not empty, but the crowds were noticeably thinner than in previous years. Even the press room was fairly quiet—I didn't have to fight to get a spot to work. In fact, I was able to spread out with my laptop, CDs and press releases.
The last PMA, February 2010: Not very crowded.
Anemic in Anaheim
Long-time industry veterans were worried at the anemic showing. This was a far cry from PMA's glory days, when the latest photographic gear was on display and the aisles and booths were jammed with camera dealers, writers, and reps. Many wondered out loud if there would be another PMA show, and the possibility of PMA merging with CES was discussed and debated.
On a personal level, I was saddened at how far PMA had fallen and was concerned over the possible loss of this trade show. As a fellow writer said to me last night, the show was a rare chance to “get together with our people”—our people being fellow photo enthusiasts who happened to be lucky enough to write about it for a living. Indeed, beyond the new products and the rush to get information out to our readers, PMA offered an opportunity to network and bond, forging many close relationships.
As a journalist covering the show, I get that PMA has lost some of its relevance. Back when print magazines were the only way for photo enthusiasts and pro shooters to get their information, the PMA show issues of Pop Photo, Modern Photography and other magazines were eagerly anticipated and big sellers, but they came out three months after the show. Now, press releases announcing the hottest new products are posted online weeks before PMA. By the time the manufacturers bring their latest offerings to the show, it's already old news.
Looking for excitement: Modest crowds at last year's show and lack of several key exhibitors were not good omens for PMA.
Change in the Air and the 800-Pound Gorilla
Clearly, big changes would be needed for the health of the photo industry's biggest US-based trade show. Ironically, this comes at a time when digital camera and gear sales continue to grow at a very healthy pace.
At first, the Photo Marketing Association responded by launching CliQ, a consumer-focused web site and show that would be open to the trade at first, then the general public would be invited in. The show would be held in Las Vegas in September, rather than during its traditional late-Winter time slot.
It was an interesting idea, but clearly wasn't a radical enough departure. And it didn't take into account the effect of the 800-pound gorilla, also known as the massively popular Consumer Electronics Show, on the photo industry. After all, the three major camera companies that skipped last year's PMA had a major presence at CES because, as one executive bluntly told me, CES gave them bang for the buck with much wider exposure and attention. PMA was too small, and had become irrelevant for their use.
CES announcements have been garnering wall-to-wall coverage in popular web sites from CNN to Engadget. When Lady Gaga introduced a handful of relatively unimpressive (from a photo quality point of view) products, the press conference was packed, and full of glitter and glamor, a sense of excitement something that has been sorely missing from PMA shows for many years.
(As an aside, I remember attending a Polaroid event in 1988 at PMA that took place in Liberace's villa in Las Vegas. Talk about glitter and glamor!)
OK, so this shot of a nearly deserted private meeting area wasn't a typical scene, but it reflected my perception that last year's PMA show lacked the energy of previous years.
The Big Players Force The Issue
Then, last night, CES and PMA jointly announced that they would join forces with PMA@CES. While it's not technically a merger, it feels very much that way. Details about how it will work logistically have yet to be shared.
There has been much debate among photo industry watchers, but I think PMA's new partnership with CES (whatever official form it takes) is a good thing. In fact, as it turns out, it was the only way PMA's show would survive. Just this morning, I learned that basically every major camera manufacturer had pulled out of the September show. The show would have consisted of accessory manufacturers, and while accessories are important, they do not make a convincing case for the photo industry to get on a plane and make a reservation at a Las Vegas hotel in early September.
The collective exit of the major camera companies directly led to the cancellation of CliQ and the partnership with CES. All of the companies that had pulled out of PMA are exhibiting at CES. With PMA now “Colocated” within CES, it remains to be seen if these companies will have a presence specifically in the PMA section or if those who only have photography on their brains will have to mingle with the Xboxers and the 3D gamers to seek out Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony and other companies that have full lines of cameras.
A lot of questions remain unanswered: Will there be a separate press room for PMA? Will the PMA@CES show space be distinct and separate from the rest of CES, or integrated? Will photo industry registration be handled by PMA as it has in the past, or by CES? I'm sure details and clarifications will follow. But I do think that this was a good move by PMA—and by CES. And yes, I'll be there.