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How A Poorly Organised Exhibition Changed Trade Shows For Decades

One of the best ways to connect manufacturers with retailers is the trade show, and thousands of specialised events of all shapes, sizes and sectors run every year, filling exhibition venues around the world with fascinating products and innovations.


The health of a particular sector can often be seen in the strength of its flagship exhibitions; a good event sells products and inspires confidence, and a great event can help precipitate a boom period for a particular industry or act as an epochal breakout moment.


However, a poor event can, in some cases, inspire a revolution and transform how trade shows are run in an industry for decades.


Fragmentation


One of the best examples of this in action can be seen in the computer games industry, which for over two decades lacked a trade show specific to the industry itself.


Instead, publishers would use the European Computer Trade Show in London or the Consumer Electronic Show that was typically held in Las Vegas, Nevada.


The CES show itself initially emerged from the Chicago Music Show, and for 16 years consisted of a Chicago-based show in June and a Las Vegas show in January. This made what would happen in 1995 even more ironic.


CES was primarily used to connect retailers to publishers and presell considerable amounts of products, although as specialist publications such as Computer And Video Games Magazine started to emerge in the 1980s, it also became a notable marketing tool for enthusiast customers.


However, the relationship between video game companies and CES was tempestuous, and as the industry recovered and reached greater heights after the 1983 crash, the multipurpose offering provided at CES was becoming an increasing point of contention.


According to Tom Kalinske, the head of Sega of America between 1990 and 1996 and one of the most vocal and visible figures in the video game industry at the time, 1991 was the breaking point.


Due to the expansion of the CES event but not the venue it was held in, the entire video game contingent of the show was placed outside in gazebo tents, a situation that was hardly ideal for selling electronics.


According to Mr Kalinske, the January 1991 event was struck with rain, and due to the poor quality shelters they had been provided, their relatively new Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe and Japan) console was pelted with rain.


This led to a dispute between Sega, who would in 1991 become the biggest video game company in the industry, and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the organisers of the two annual CES shows.


The CTA saw video games as toys rather than as part of their consumer electronics remit and relegated the industry as far back as possible, allegedly next to small snack vendors, portable lavatories and other industries they saw as less desirable.


Sega endeavoured to not attend CES again and experimented with independent events from 1992 until 1994 when the founding of the International Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association or ESA) started to make formal plans to break away from CES.


Trade Wars


The IDSA planned to produce a show that would help fund the operation of the trade association as well as place the industry at the centre of a major expo event, later to be named Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).


The leading figures promoting this included Tom Kalinske, who had been advocating for a video game-specific trade show for years at this point, Pat Ferrell, founder of GamePro magazine and part of the International Data Group that had run the popular MacWorld event, and companies such as Electronic Arts.


Having been insulted by the poor conditions in 1991 and an unwillingness for the CTA to change, E3 was announced and started arrangements for a May 1995 launch.


However, by this point, the CTA saw that the IDSA were serious in their plans and proposed a video game-focused offshoot of CES, leading to a direct competition to see which show would be seen as the flagship event of the industry, both set to take place at the same time, forcing companies to pick one or the other.


Whilst most companies stuck with the E3 concept, in part because of the promise of part-ownership, two major companies in Microsoft and Nintendo were undecided, with the latter believing that as CES was a major consumer electronics show, their consumer electronics products should be showcased there.


Ultimately, Gary Shapiro of the CTA conceded and cancelled the CES event as well as the Summer CES show that year, and E3 1995 ended up being one of the most talked-about news stories in the industry.


The infamous announcement of an early launch of the Sega Saturn at $399 and the “$299” riposte from Sony immediately afterwards helped to cement E3 as a major trade event until its ultimate discontinuation in 2023 after three cancelled shows in a row.


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