TRADE SHOW EXHIBITING is all about visibility. A company decides even once not to exhibit, and the perception is that they're cutting back or in trouble. But what about the company that exhibits at a machinery show and chooses to leave most of its machinery at home?

That's what plastics manufacturer Milacron Inc. chose to do at the recent National Plastics Exposition, known as NPE 2003, held in Chicago in June. Rather than haul most of its large production machines to the show, it used multimedia kiosks, live feeds to customer plants, and large video plasma screens to bring its products to attendees.

This was a radical departure from past show practices, when the company would transport behemoth production machines to the show floor so that attendees could see and hear them running. “The machines were starting to get in the way of taking our total services message to the customer,” explains Thomas Jarrold, manager of marketing services at Milacron. “When the customer came into our stand, they would immediately go to the machines, and the sales force would immediately focus on the machines. It distracted from the experience that we are a one-stop, full-service company.”

In the end, the company saved an estimated $2 million by not having to haul the heavy machinery from its plant in Batavia, Ohio. And Milacron will reduce its space needs going forward. “The footprint will definitely decrease,” Jarrold says of Milacron's space for the 2006 show. “We weren't sure what to expect. But the customers seemed happy. The sales staff was satisfied. We sold $24.7 million in products at the show. The results exceeded our expectations.”

All About Money?

Reaction to Milacron's move has run the gamut from high praise to let's-wait-and-see to outright condemnation, depending on whom you talk to.

Critics have argued that cost-cutting, not improved communication, was probably the driving reason behind the change. They point to the slump in the industry and a drop in Milacron profits over the past few years. For them, Milacron's move was an act of trade show desperation.

That also seems to be the view held by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which sponsors the show. “We're a heavy-equipment show,” says Jordan Morgenstern, vice president of trade shows with SPI. “Obviously it could be a cost-savings factor. But will people buy your equipment?”

Morgenstern says that Milacron was not the only company using multimedia presentations to showcase products. But the other companies were using video demonstrations to augment the machines they brought. “Some of the manufacturers brought more machines than they ever have,” Morgenstern says. “Some brought the largest machines they've ever exhibited.”

Fans, however, see Milacron's move as pioneering. They argue that the new approach saves money in transporting products, machines, and displays to the show, but more importantly, in the amount of space you need to exhibit them. That reduces your cost to participate as an exhibitor.

“I thought it was an unqualified success,” says Bill Wood, a plastics market analyst based in Greenfield, Mass., who attended the show and has been to past ones. He notes that show attendance overall was down from 2000 (the record high), but still strong, and that the Milacron booth seemed busy throughout the show. “I thought Milacron made their point, and made it strong,” he says. “What a show is really about is the flow of information between the seller and the buyer. In past shows, the center has been around the machines. This was an attempt to get more information to the customer on how to improve their processes. It was a conscious effort to expand on the customer relationship and with customer service.”

Could the Milacron approach be the beginning of a new trend? “This year's show was the first time that multimedia was big,” Wood says. He expects Milacron to make some improvements to the technology showcase for the 2006 show. And that other companies will follow suit.

What About the Attendees?

Not all the attendees viewed the Milacron exhibit as a success, however. William Arendt, a senior staff scientist with Velsicol Chemical Corp. in Northbrook, Ill., recalls visiting the Milacron booth and speaking with the staff. But he can't remember anything they demonstrated or spoke about.

“I can remember the things I saw at the Engel booth, such as their high-pressure, water-injection molding machine,” he says. “I can't really remember what Milacron talked to me about that they thought was innovative.” What made all the difference for him was the ability to see machines in action, and to see the features first-hand, without being limited to the view of a video camera or video feed.

Like Morgenstern, Arendt would prefer to be able to “kick the tires” — to see the machines up close and personal. “Seeing things on a screen is useful, but it's not the same. It's not what you really pay your money for.”

Arendt says he spoke to other attendees, many of whom had similar reactions. “It's not that Milacron didn't get their message across.” But if this is the wave of the future, and video feeds begin replacing the actual machines, he says, “I'm just not sure people would pay that kind of money to attend.”