Winter is a great time for taking in industry trade shows, and for mulling over life in the life sciences. At Pittcon 2009 in Chicago’s McCormick Place, I noticed that exhibitors were contained within one exhibit hall, instead of two as in previous years. The organizing committee insists that there are as many vendors as in the past, if not more. The problem, it seems, is that exhibitors are buying less booth space. Large companies that would take up 8, 10 or 12 booths now may only have 6 or 8. Many smaller vendors are keeping to a single ten-foot booth. The aisles seemed a tad wider, too, giving the impression of a larger exhibition area.
I heard through the grapevine that a number of “big players” have requested that Pittcon be a biennial event rather than annual; that doesn’t appear likely, and a number of vendors have decided to skip every other year. Varian was not exhibiting for the first time in decades this year. Bruker announced in its press event that it would have a booth at Pittcon every two years (and attend Germany’s Analytica show in the other years). I heard talk of other companies skipping next year. Why would a vendor skip the premier US analytical showcase?
An easy answer might be to blame the recent economy, and, yes, that has something to do with it. Across the board, companies are cutting spending on new equipment, but older models still need to be replaced for FDA-mandated testing, so a steady stream of purchase orders is assured. It might be well to note that Pittcon attendance has been slipping for some time now. In fact, there is a parallel slippage in the attendance of all general meetings and professional organizations (a subject upon which I have commented in the past).
A number of factors would account for these trends, but I suspect two are to blame: the Internet and PAT. First, the Internet: Rather than attending meetings in person, many scientists have opted to “attend” webinars in the comfort of their offices or homes. They hear the same talks, but without the time and expense. Add to that the fact that every instrument company has its own enhanced website, allowing a scientist to peruse the wares, literature, application notes and even ask e-questions of the company gurus.
Is that as good as face-to-face contact? Not really, but, with limited budgets, it is encouraged. And, there is no networking to seek jobs; from an employee’s viewpoint, that’s bad; from his employer, maybe that’s a good thing.
The PAT initiative has been a boon to instrument companies, but not as in the past. Pharma manufacturers are finding that they need more and more custom equipment and software for their PAT projects. That means they enter partnerships with vendors on specific projects; this eliminates the need to go to a show and look at over-the-counter instruments, as was done in the past. Both of these trends lead to shrinking attendance at large shows.
So, what’s the good news? There is a cottage industry in specialized conferences and short courses. A few clicks on Google for PAT or QbD and the screen fills with one-, two- or three-day courses on economics, hardware, validation schemes, etc., all relating to PAT/QbD. Some are quite good, some are OK and many are, well, for want of a better word, money pits. (The sad part is, since so many people don’t network, word-of-mouth is ineffective in separating the chaff from the wheat.)
When choosing a conference and/or a short course, we have to back up for a moment and think how we spend our money. Once upon a time, a trip to a warm place in winter was swell, since we would also be going to several useful meetings, too. Now, with restricted travel budgets, we have to do what we should have been doing all along: check the “creds” of the instructors and speakers. Does the person have experience? Has he/she actually done any PAT work? Is it the same talk he/she has given 47 times already?
When a short course is given about hardware, what connection does the speaker have with any vendor? Has the person done industrial R&D with the equipment or is he/she an apps person with a vendor? Or, worse yet: Is he/she a marketing person for the vendor?
Overall, there is a great surge in instrumentation; instruments are, on average, smaller, faster, more accurate, quieter, wireless, less expensive and more rugged than ever. There exist small meetings and short courses that are more than worth the price of admission, too. But, as with offers from ex-Nigerian Finance Ministers, caveat emptor. Nothing can replace due diligence and asking your peers at other companies ... oh wait, you don’t meet with peers at other companies anymore, do you? You use the Internet ... oh well. Bon chance, mes amis.