The Big Kahuna of supply chain conferences is going virtual.
ProMat, a biennial event that showcases almost everything that’s new in the ever-expanding universe of material handling, will hold its 2021 event virtually for the first time in its 35-year history, MHI, the trade association that sponsors ProMat, said earlier this week.
The virtual show, called ProMatDx, will be held April 12-16, MHI said. The group had hoped to hold a hybrid ProMat with some events face to face and others conducted virtually. However, it officially abandoned the idea this week when announcing the all-virtual event.
ProMat has always been held at Chicago’s massive McCormick Place convention center because of Chicago’s central location and because McCormick may be the only U.S.-based venue capable of accommodating the tens of thousands of attendees and the systems, equipment and associated products on display. The 2019 attendance was 47,718, MHI said. Registration is always free, which could account somewhat for ProMat’s in-person popularity. Still, it’s hard to imagine any other free-registration event in the supply chain space attracting an audience that size. ProMat is a trek that tens of thousands in the field have made religiously for decades, and a large number of attendees stay for the entire event.
Virtually all of McCormick’s trade show floor was booked for the 2019 conference, according to Carol Miller, vice president, marketing and communications for Charlotte, North Carolina-based MHI. It is too early to forecast attendance for the April virtual event, Miller said this week.
It’s hard for anyone who’s never attended a ProMat show to grasp the magnitude of the experience. The cavernous exhibit hall hums loudly all day long with the noise from a plethora of products. Some of the products, such as racking systems, are pretty workmanlike. However, others dazzle with high-tech features that equal anything displayed at an IT show. The relevance of ProMat and its sister conference Modex, which is held in Atlanta during alternating years, has mirrored the rapid growth of e-commerce fulfillment and the inside-the-four-walls infrastructure required to support it.
Deep-pocketed exhibitors from all over the world spend thousands of dollars at ProMat and Modex showing off their products, whether they be hard assets or highly advanced systems. Just moving around the trade show floor at ProMat becomes an exhausting endeavor because of the exhibit hall’s size and the tens of thousands of attendees one must compete with for foot space.
Therein lies the unprecedented challenge for MHI. Unlike other conferences oriented toward classroom-type industry and educational sessions, ProMat is first and foremost a trade show. ProMat does have its share of sessions, but for the most part people come to see and touch the products on display. Demonstrations of equipment and systems meant to be deployed in physical distribution settings may be difficult to replicate in a wholly digital environment.
MHI said it will implement an “online matchmaking platform” designed to make customer prospecting more efficient and targeted. “The platform facilitates interaction between attendees and sponsors before, during and after the digital event,” the group said in its literature. “Attendees and sponsors are matched based on their solution interests and offerings, bringing sponsors qualified leads.”
In an email, Miller said that ProMatDx will “provide not only sponsor and attendee interaction but also the ability to see equipment and system solutions in-action in product demos and live video meetings.” Attendees of the virtual event “can expect the same value from this marketplace for the latest manufacturing and supply chain solution-sourcing, education and networking — but in a digital environment until we can once again hold in-person events.”
MHI said it will hold the next Modex show, scheduled for the last week of March 2022, as an in-person event. A drawing last month for exhibit space in Charlotte attracted 604 exhibitors, who reserved a record 350,800 net square feet of floor space at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, MHI said in a statement this week.
The success of the exhibit space draw reflects the “demand for a return to in-person trade shows for the supply chain industry as a whole,” according to John Paxton, COO/CEO designate of MHI. Modex, which is more of an integrated logistics-material handling event than ProMat, is scheduled to occupy about 400,000 square feet, MHI said. It is expected to attract about 30,000 attendees, MHI said.