Last chance salon for Paris

The French need a successful machine tool show in Paris next week – otherwise the city could find its place on the EMO circuit under threat. Paul Carslake reports

Engineers gathering in Paris next week for the international machine tool show EMO may be tempted to cast their minds back to the last time the event was held in that city. It was in 1991, when Europe was in deep manufacturing recession. Many UK manufacturers regarded the show as a disaster. Some still recall empty walkways between stands on some show days. Others point to a marked lack of business from those visitors that did make it to the stands.

Some things have changed since then. The show has moved to a new site, close to the main Charles de Gaulle airport to the north of the city. To the benefit of British visitors, the Channel Tunnel has opened. But other things look worryingly similar.

Once again, eight years on, British manufacturing industry is in a slump, though it looks set to recover this year. Output in some of the major continental European countries has been faltering. The Asian markets have yet to bounce back. And the booming US economy is now heading for its own slowdown.

For the Parisian organisers, the coincidence of their show with each trough of the business cycle means they have been dealt an enormously unlucky hand. This year, the success of their show is all the more important, as it is France’s final chance to prove itself as a fixture worth keeping on the European EMO circuit. This alternates every two years between Hannover, Milan, Hannover and Paris on an eight-year cycle. A new fixture programme – possibly including changes of host country – will be drawn up to take effect after 2003.

Some within industry are already talking of this year’s show in Paris as `the last chance salon’ for France. `If it is a bad show, this could spell the end for France on the EMO circuit,’ says Chris Pockett, marketing director for Gloucester-based metrology supplier Renishaw.

The debates over how the set-up should change are familiar. Some argue that Hannover, on the home ground of Europe’s biggest machine tool manufacturing nation, should get the show every two years. Others say Italy (with 10% of world production) should stay on the circuit, but that France (with 2.9% of world production) should not host the show.

If France’s position on the circuit is in jeopardy, then the chances of an EMO show in the UK look all the stronger. Britain has a bigger machine tool sector and exports more machine tools than France (see box, p27). The Machine Tool Technologies Association (MTTA) already runs smaller machine tool shows every two years under the Mach name. It said last week that it would be keen to host an EMO in Britain. `The agreed cycle is set in stone until 2003. Then everything is up for discussion, and we will be joining those talks,’ a spokeswoman says.

To date, a shortage of exhibition space available in one place has helped prevent the UK getting on the EMO round. The NEC in Birmingham was not big enough to meet the strict criteria laid down by the European EMO organisers, but that has changed with the NEC’s recent expansion, bringing the floor area up to 190,000sq m.

A move to the UK would not go uncontested by the French, who may point to the relative strength of their overall industrial manufacturing base, despite a dearth of locally based machine-tool makers. Some believe it would be a hard battle for the MTTA to fight – not just with the EMO power brokers, but also with elements of its own UK membership, particularly those on the importing side.

Not surprisingly, the Paris show organisers are sounding a positive note for the show, with promises of high visitor numbers and up to 210,000sq m of space. Figures for the end of March revealed that booked exhibition space accounted for 57% of this total, at 120,000sq m, with the remainder, according to a spokesman, earmarked for `alleyways, eating areas and so on’.

How does the organisers’ target of 200,000 visitors compare with the numbers that came to Paris back in 1991? A quick call to the organisers’ office last week drew a curious response: `The archives for 1991 were destroyed in a fire,’ said one of the administrators. Even more curiously, this misinformation was quickly followed by a correction, as the assistant was able suddenly to produce the figures – which were apparently uncooked. These showed that 171,000 visitors came to EMO in 1991, a figure which compares favourably with the 178,000 who set foot at the Hannover EMO in 1997.

`The 1991 show was a disaster,’ says one UK visitor. `But the statistics told a different story.’ That anomaly may be because of the numbers of exhibitors included in those figures, or indeed the tendency of visitors to turn up en masse with work colleagues. The trend now is for firms to spend less on visiting shows. Whereas eight years ago a project manager would attend with his whole team, six of whom might speak to the same exhibitor at various times, today only the project manager may make the trip. In business terms, the result can be almost the same, if it is the project manager who decides what to buy.

Undaunted, more than 50 British companies are making the trip across the channel. Most of the big players are there (see panel, p27), with the notable exception of Bridgeport. All hope for a successful show. But whether the aisles are packed or deserted, most exhibitors will not be able to measure the success of the show until the orders start – or fail – to roll in later this year.

{{Flying the flag: UK industry at EMO