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Lighting Commentary

LightFair 2021

Untitled – Robert Gober 1991
How many lighting pros who attended LightFair in New York, visited The Whitney Museum and commented on their brilliant name for this unsettling, untitled sculpture? “Foot-candle” anyone?

For those of you unfamiliar, LightFair is an annual tradeshow dedicated to lighting. Twenty years ago, when America started to seriously consider energy efficiency, the aging show received a needed jolt of purpose. Booth after booth featured creative ways to use fluorescent light. HID lighting gained more respect. Even Cold Cathode lighting briefly reappeared. Then, LED arrived.

The introduction of white LED again energized the lighting business. LightFair took on even more value. For the first time in 130 years, we were going to reconsider general lighting with new technology. The show was abuzz with thousands of people talking about light. For a guy who spend a career engulfed in lighting, nirvana had arrived. Change was coming to a dinosaur industry. LightFair provided a platform for displaying, marketing and learning about all the things necessary to create great light with LED. For the next five to eight years, it became THE place to go. LightFair was indispensable.

While the technology continued to improve, growth spurts were soon replaced with marginal, more predictable, year-over-year improvements. LightFair turned in a “connectivity” and “Smart” conference. That lasted until our understanding of the needs of plants grew and horticultural lighting had become the prom queen and king of the show for a year or two.

That brings us to the 2021 edition, just wrapped in New York. Radically smaller and in some ways less self-assured, it was a general disappointment. Sure, much can be blamed on travel reluctance on the part of companies and attendees. The few people there repeated the hopeful mantra, “Wait until Vegas.” (Las Vegas will host the 2022 edition, June 19-23.) While it might be better, almost anything will be, I’m not so sure we will see the vigorous enthusiasm witnessed in the near past. Here are a few reasons.

The End of Seismic Change

This year we again saw growth in efficacy, better understanding of “smart” communication protocols that span products and brands, better color, tighter binning and exciting implementations, the changes were smaller steps than we have enjoyed for almost twenty years. With fewer “ah-ha” moments and stunning discoveries, will attendance return? A 3% growth doesn’t warrant a trip to a trade show. Incandescent-like changes are the reason the show was melting just prior to the demand for better efficacy.

Deteriorating Trade Show Value

I remember the excitement and value that was brought from trade show attendance twenty years ago. This was pre-internet. Catalogs were carted back home via an empty piece of luggage, brought for that specific reason. Companies showed “brand new” products for the first time. Attendance meant you were getting a sneak preview of the next big thing. After returning back to your office, it took a few days to decompress and fully embrace the things just learned.

That is not the case today. Very little “new” is displayed. Booths are filled with flat screens (just like the internet!) to detail the products offered. Catalogs are not displayed, because they are not wanted, or needed. The information is available online. Booth workers appear bored, their heads buried in their mobile phones. With little sizzle to sell and see, what is the point?

Human interaction was however, very much on display. After our long world nightmare, that is surely understood. I must admit, it was nice to catch up with the few people I did know. Does a casual fist-bump, an update on family/golf handicaps or an exchange on work and company justify attending a trade show? The positive evidence is shrinking.

A New Generation of Workers

Trade Shows are a byproduct of the Boomer Generation and the tail end of the Silent Generation. When the economy tanked in 2008. Boomers did not bring the next generation along to shows. They were left in the office to work without information gleaned from shows. This forced them to double-down on unearthing information from online sources. As the economy righted itself, boomers retired and Gen Xers never took their place at shows. They simply did not need information presented in this fashion. They didn’t need the social connection either, having gathered their own circle of influence, also online. An alternate informational and social path is now in play. Millennial and Gen Z workers are even further entrenched in this new medium. It’s too late to change now.

What Happens Now?

Trade shows will likely limp along. As more and more Boomers disappear, smart companies will understand the diminishing returns provided by participation. Shows might consolidate to remain viable for a few additional years, but ultimately, they will die like traveling circuses, Howard Johnson restaurants and incandescent light bulbs.

That said, the next few blog post will reiterate some of the exciting things I picked up during the educational programs presented at LightFair. I’d like to think the educational aspect might keep trade shows alive, but alas, attendance there has always been slimmer than floor attendance. It was even more exaggerated this year. I know from personal experience that online education is more and more in demand. The attendance of my monthly training sessions is ten-fold of what I could attract in-person at any of the scores of trade shows I appeared over the years. The disappearance of LightFair does not mean technology and research will stop. We will simply learn of it in a different way. Sound familiar?

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