CeBIT, which opens tomorrow in Hanover and runs until Wednesday March 15, has grown to become the world’s biggest IT and telecoms fair.

In its current form it is 20 years old, so its adolescence is behind it but there are important decisions to make about the road it will take in adulthood.

It developed into an IT event from an exhibition of office equipment (CeBIT originally stood for Centrum der Büro- und Informationstechnik “Centre for office and information technology”) and has changed along with the industry it serves.

The slogan for this year’s event shows the dilemma facing the organisers, and many exhibitors. “Digital solutions for work and life” embraces both business technology and consumer electronics.

Since the end of the dotcom boom in 2001, much of the market for enterprise IT has been flat or in decline. But consumer electronics has enjoyed significant growth, driven by technologies such as MP3 music players and high definition television.

“Historically, consumer entertainment and enterprise IT have been worlds apart,” says Gartner analyst Steve Prentice, who will be speaking at the conference. “But we are fast reaching the point where the two come together.”

At CeBIT, convergence has led to overlapping themes in different halls. Some companies have taken multiple stands: Symantec, for example, will be in both the security and storage halls.

For smaller exhibitors, however, this is not a practical option. “There has been a lack of clear segmentation of the halls, and that has not worked well in the past,” says Mark Muschelknautz, marketing director for business software company Mindjet. “The organisation does need to be transparent when you have 470,000 sq metres of exhibition space.

For some exhibitors, though, the mix works well. “Some people think that you can segment the business user and the consumer, but after 6pm we all become consumers,” says Oscar Koenders, general manager for marketing at Toshiba’s European computer division.

He adds: “There is the fairly traditional mix of B2B customers at CeBIT, but also a growing number of consumers, and we will be addressing both.” As well as computers, Toshiba will be showing projectors, video players and high definition television.

Other exhibitors are happy to see convergence back on the agenda, despite attempts by the organisers in the mid-1990s to “re-professionalise” the show and attract business visitors rather than the general public.

This led to a shorter event with higher ticket prices but the trend seems to have reversed, at least in part. This year there will be evening opening of selected halls aimed at teenage visitors, and the digital home hall is expected to be one of the busiest.

“CeBIT plays to our strengths in voice, broadband and home media,” says Martin Kinne, chief executive of Siemens’ home and office communication devices. Last year, Siemens made an impact, bringing in Brazilian footballer Ronaldo to promote its wares.

This year, the presence might be slightly lower key, with Siemens exhibiting alongside BenQ, which bought Siemens’ mobile phone division last year. But Mr Kinne still expects to do a significant amount of business, especially with network operators and internet service providers interested in Voice over IP and other advanced services.

Mr Kinne expects a significant number of leads to come from overseas visitors. Last year, a third of visitors to Siemens booths were international. But for some vendors, that figure is as low as 15 per cent. This has led some companies to question CeBIT’s value as an international event, rather than a show for the, admittedly large, German market.

The telecoms, broadcast and internet services market that provides the key customers to Siemens’ home and office communication devices division is very international. This helps explain the high level of overseas interest. It may be that visitors want to see German vendors on their home turf.

For other companies, however, the focus for CeBIT is primarily on Germany, Austria and Switzerland or central Europe.

Tim Pickard, vice-president for international marketing at RSA Security says: “We find that the most benefit for us comes from opportunities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We justify attending CeBIT on the basis of our German business.”

For overseas exhibitors, this appears to be the pragmatic approach. Microsoft, for example, found that 82 per cent of its non-German requests for information came from elsewhere in Europe. But German visitors still generated more than 90 per cent of requests for further information.

Microsoft treats CeBIT primarily as a German event, although Frank Mihm-Gebauer of Microsoft Germany points out that it is a critical event for the software company. One reason Microsoft is committed to CeBIT, he explains, is that it is a chance to speak directly with customers.

As a company that sells through channels and partners, rather than direct to the public, this is an opportunity Microsoft values. But as Mr Mihm-Gebauer adds, the show does have to justify itself by generating new sales leads and ultimately, licence revenue for Microsoft.

It is this hard-headed, metrics-based approach that persuades IT vendors to put, and keep, CeBIT on their agendas. Over the years, there have been some significant absentees from the event: Apple Computer will not be exhibiting, nor will Oracle, nor HP.

But for companies which manage their CeBIT presence well, it can be a profitable, if exhausting, week. Amanda Jobbins, EMEA vice-president for marketing at Symantec, says she constantly asks her German marketing team for evidence that CeBIT generates business leads.

So far, it has done so. “Our research shows that 25 per cent of visitors have come to CeBIT planning to invest in technology,” she says. “Up to 40 per cent of attendees are IT decision-makers or managing directors.”

The event, she says, is a chance to meet channel partners and distributors, and raise awareness with the public and with the media. She stresses that making the most of the event requires thorough preparation.

But the investment is worth it. “The opportunity pipeline for Germany shows a spike after CeBIT,” she says. “In terms of our German business alone, it is pretty compelling.”

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