Vitra Tries to Reinvent the Trade Show

Cologne Hall Plan for Orgatec 2016 image: Courtesy of Orgatec

After NeoCon in June, the smaller regional shows take over for the long hot summer, sporting names that evoke the ghost of NeoCon by nearly always ending in the syllable “con.” But when October arrives, it’s like a hurricane of trade shows: IFMA World Workplace in Houston October 5-7, Greenbuild in Los Angeles October 5-7, NeoCon East in Philadelphia November 9-10, then internationally, Orgatec in Cologne October 25-29, and IIDEXCanada, in Toronto November 30 – December 1. If I missed any, don’t tell me.

2016-1010-vitra2-orgatec_invitationWhile trade shows seem to be trade shows, trade shows, trade shows, the formats are actually evolving. Shows like IFMA World Workplace and Greenbuild are basically large seminar-like conferences tucked inside some product exhibition space.

Attendees tend to love this type of show and exhibitors tend to hate them – there’s never enough time allotted for attendees to visit the very expensive product display booths, and since the attendees are primarily interested in the seminars, they may choose to walk right on by the product displays anyway, blocking them from their minds the way we look past the pop-up ads on a website.

But as in nature, evolution in trade shows happens in fits and starts. This year I’m looking forward to seeing for myself what may turn out to be a mutation with staying power – at least it’s a major departure from the norm. In an effort to change the game, Vitra has contracted for an entire floor of one hall at Orgatec. Perhaps I should explain for those of you who’ve never been to that show.

Orgatec is held every other year in Cologne, Germany at the Köln Messe (Cologne Fair grounds). The fair complex consists of about a dozen distinct multi-level buildings they call “Halls,” linked by a “Boulevard” that has both indoor and outdoor segments. This year Halls 5 through 11 will house Orgatec exhibitors (red on the map). Normally, Halls 10 and 11 house most of the companies operating in the higher quality commercial furniture space. The designation 11.2 indicates that in building 11 only the second floor is active exhibition space this year. Vitra has contracted to take the entire 2nd floor of building 5.

2016-1010-vitra3-work-posterThis move to control an entire floor of an entire hall is the first I’ve heard of and in my evolution analogy rises to the level of a mutation. Here’s why: For as long as I can remember, Vitra has been a “must see” at Orgatec. It has always had one of the largest “stands” (commonly called “booths” on this side of the Atlantic). And very often the featured new products at Vitra are at the vanguard of where workplace furniture design is headed.

If this move were just an effort by Vitra to fill up an entire hall with Vitra furniture it wouldn’t rise to the level of a mutation, but it isn’t that. Instead, quoting from its press release on the subject, Vitra has invited a group of like-minded “design, architecture and technology companies to share the exhibition space.” They are calling the exhibition simply, “Work” and rather than just showing its latest products, it aims to “convey a multifaceted picture of today’s working world with an array of products, spatial elements and furnishing concepts.”

2016-1010-vitra4-vitra-work-posterThe cost of exhibiting at trade shows is enormous – consuming an outsize share of a manufacturer’s total marketing budget. Conversations about which shows are worthwhile to participate in are a staple feature of C-suite discussions at most manufacturers. Without having been there I’m quite sure this “mutation” was the result of such a conversation at Vitra about how it might change the game at Orgatec.

Again quoting from Vitra’s press release, here is what we know so far about the plan for the “Work” project: “The ‘Work’ project is conceived as an inspirational environment for architects, designers and decision-makers. In contrast to conventional exhibition formats with discrete stands and separate presentations by each company, ‘Work’ affords visitors a comprehensive perspective. Together with selected partners, Vitra will utilise the entire space of Hall 5.2 to demonstrate the manifold aspects of workplace environments.

New AM Chair by Alberto Meda to be launched at Orgatec
New AM Chair by Alberto Meda to be launched at Orgatec

“The spatial layout of the hall is organised like a ‘city’. It functions as an open marketplace of like-minded yet diverse companies. In the centre of the hall, Vitra explores various scenarios of day-to-day office life. The partner presentations are situated along the main axis. A café and plaza with the installation ‘Social Sculpture’ by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec complete the concept.

“‘Work’ has been conceived by Vitra in partnership with the London-based architecture studio of Pernilla Ohrstedt and the Los Angeles office of the designer Jonathan Olivares. Ohrstedt is well known for interactive spaces and installations, and an unusual approach to materials. Olivares works span industrial, space and communication design, and often exist at the intersection of these disciplines.”

The partner companies include some familiar brands, including Artek, now a brand of Vitra, along with Kvadrat, the well-known textile innovator, IdeaPaint, Samsung and Mercedes Benz, but the rest are mostly unknown to Americans.

Meet Bulhaupt Kitchens and Dinesen “bespoke” plank flooring
Meet Bulhaupt Kitchens and Dinesen “bespoke” plank flooring

They are Archilogic, a Swiss software company specializing in 3-D interiors visualization, art aqua, a supplier of indoor water and plant systems for green workspaces, bulthaup, a German kitchen design company, Dinesen, a Danish wood plank supplier, Gantner, an Austrian access control and security system supplier, Laufen, a Swiss bathroom-fixture manufacturer, Ruckstuhl, the English natural-fiber carpet and area rug maker, Swisscom, the Swiss telecom company and Wästberg, the Swedish lighting wunderkind.

Says the Vitra press release, “The partner companies are united in their confrontation with the constant change that is impacting all sectors of the working world. The participating partners address the ramifications of these changes on working life and present their findings as part of ‘Work’.”

Meet Laufen Pro bathroom fixtures
Meet Laufen Pro bathroom fixtures

The mutation analogy has legs. In nature mutations come along quite frequently, but most are not important to the improved survivability of the mutant. Only those that truly benefit the organism in terms of survivability get passed on to enough future generations to change the course of the organism over time.

Wästberg w126 Uplight
Wästberg w126 Uplight

We’ve seen some mutations at trade shows that survived. For example, Orgatec changed from being an annual show to a biennial show and is thriving. At Milan, there was a time when only a few manufacturers had a stand at the fair grounds as well as a showroom or temporary space in Milan proper. Now being in the city someplace as well as at the show is de rigueur. So it will be fun if not exciting to see whether Vitra’s mutation at Orgatec 2016 is as important as it is dramatic!