Lesson learned? WPPI aims to reconnect with its attendees & move on from last year’s show
posted Monday, January 29, 2018 at 5:42 PM EDT
I’ve been a photo/video industry trade show goer for the last 7+ years. I’ve either personally attended or followed closely just about every show out there, from Photokina and Photo Plus, to NAB to CES. There are a swath of shows, big and small, that cater to the photography industry and the number only grows each year. But for the longest time if anyone ever asked me what my favorite show was, my answer was always the same and immediate: WPPI.
I loved WPPI. There was something special about it that really separated it from the others. When you go to PPE or CES or any of those other shows, they feel solely like advertisements for product. The constant pounding of the hard sales pitch is draining, and though you often see really cool things at the big shows, none of them spark my creative fire like WPPI has done.
WPPI was different because of the community of photographers that made it successful, not necessarily the classes, the competitions or especially the trade show itself. If you are unfamiliar, WPPI used to be hosted in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The trade show was in the hotel, and most attendees either were staying in the MGM or across the street at any of the close hotels in the proximity. When you left the show, you were surrounded by photographers. Meals, drinks and even random strolls down the hallway to your room? Other photographers.
It was the only show where everyone felt connected to the same experience, and meeting new people and hanging out with friends was easier there than at any other industry event anyone else threw. As an annual attendee myself, I have fond memories of the now-gone bar Rouge in the MGM. It was absolutely the “unofficial official” after hours hangout for attendees. I made many new friends and memories in that bar. Even more than the show events, I remember my hours spent there and in other bars in the hotel like the popular Whiskey Down.
But last year, all of that changed.
WPPI was unable to renew their contract with the MGM Grand and rather than relocate to a new hotel to simulate the MGM effect they moved the show to the Las Vegas Convention Center. "One of the biggest changes at the 2017 WPPI Conference was that the entire trade show was put into one large exhibition hall," Dina Douglass, who was rated as one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world by American Photo, explains. "When the conference took place at the MGM Grand, many of the smaller vendors were in one ballroom, while many of the bigger companies (Canon, Nikon, Epson, etc.) were in another." Douglass explains that this actually became an advantage. "By relocating the trade show to the Las Vegas Convention Center, the organizers had more space, and thus, every exhibitor was able to be in the same room. Another benefit of this was that the prints that scored 80 or higher were displayed in the trade show, rather than out in the halls or on multiple hotel floors, as in previous years."
But as much as there was to gain in space, the Convention Center is a huge complex on the northern edge of the Las Vegas Strip and unlike the MGM, offers no communal hotel experience nearby. "In 2017, a lot of attendees were not happy that the convention center was located so far from some of the better hotels," Douglass continued. "The conference seemed more spread out, making it more difficult to find and hang out with friends who might only be seen once per year. But a lot of us liked having all the trade show exhibitors be situated on one room, so there were definite pros and cons." There are a few hotels that are close, but like with CES and NAB, there is no single place that attendees congregate before and after the show. Because that end of the strip is considered unpleasant compared to the southern end, folks scatter when the day’s events are done. That, and the convention center itself lacks “soul.”
Some, like four-time show attendee Kate Hailey, did not choose to attend when they heard about the relocation. “I like to go to WPPI each year to catch up with peers, and industry friends. Last year I was traveling a lot and made the decision not to go to WPPI. Part of that decision was based on the location, having it at the convention center, I felt could take away from the community feel of the event.”
Wedding photographer Mikkel Paige, who has been to several WPPIs, agreed. “I didn't want to go the first year it was in the convention center,” she told me. “Half the fun is being in a central location where everyone can learn/eat/sleep/play. If you have it at the convention center you're taking away two of those points.”
Photographer and educator David J. Crewe, who has been to five WPPIs, confirmed the worst fears of those who chose not to attend. “Last year felt forced,” he told me. “Like that feeling you get when you’re in a relationship you’re going to break up on, and you ‘have’ to go to that one last family dinner.” He added, “There was not a lot of show traffic. It was weird, and way less fun. Overall it felt empty of the soul and energy that previous years have held. It was still an exciting thing to go to the expo floor to see the new tech, new gear, see what people have been partnered with what brands, who and what talent would be walking around and able to connect. But wandering the hotel with the badge on was an instant "Hey how are you? Where are you from? What do you shoot?" ice breaking opener, and that wasn't an option. When you break apart the locations, you remove the desire to wander around wearing a name tag, and doing so in last year's case made you feel like a dork... so you miss a lot of opportunities for the social side."
Another photographer, John Schell, had heard such great things about WPPI that he was excited to go to his first when he booked his ticket last year. “I’d always heard what a good experience it was - how much fun it was, and what a great way to connect with brands and industry peers,” he told me. Unfortunately he was let down. “I was only in town for about 36 hours, but in that time I went to the convention center, several parties, and a dinner. It's always nice to see friends and peers, but I was disappointed by the experience at the convention center not because of any one thing in particular, but because the whole thing just seemed like it was a pissing contest. Which brand had the bigger booth, who has the best speaker, who has the best giveaways. It was clear - after walking the floor - that it was not designed for working professionals but rather for people interested in gear, seeing famous ‘names' and teaching tips and tricks designed to sell how-to DVDs.”
Hearing that from John actually physically pained me. WPPI always had this aspect to it, as every show does. But it was always such a small part of the WPPI experience before last year. But in 2017, without the pleasant gloss of the community spread over it, the only thing left was the cold hard sales pitch that is a trade show.
“One of the biggest attractions for me is seeing my friends that are scattered across the globe. Last year was was really disjointed from the lack of a central hotel,” Brian Mullins, an accomplished wedding photographer told me. "They tried really hard to provide areas to congregate but it just didn’t have the same feeling of running into a friend in the hallway. Having one main convention hall was a positive but overall, I would not be going back if they didn’t have everything in one space this year.”
WPPI, which is hosted by the company Emerald Expo, took for granted what made it successful. From a business standpoint, it was easy for them to make the mistake that their show and branding itself is what people came for. With that mentality, it’s not hard to see how they believed that any location would do, and that no matter what, the WPPI faithful would return.
What they didn’t realize was that over the years, WPPI became an event that grew beyond the hosts. It wasn’t their show anymore.
It was ours. All of ours.
By taking away that which made WPPI great, the communal space, there was very little left of appeal to the WPPI formula. Emerald treated WPPI like every other trade show and forgot about what separated it from the competition: Its attendees.
And that’s why WPPI has so much to prove. With the let down of last year’s show, they have made adjustments in an attempt to win back that which they lost. This year’s show will be hosted at Mandalay Bay, which has a similar layout to MGM. It has its own trade show hall inside of the hotel, and its location leaves open the very close-by hotel options that MGM also had.
In a recent press release, Emerald absolutely takes note of why WPPI is popular:
“It could be the 100-plus seminars, classes, and photo walks that attract more than 13,000 photographers to the annual Wedding & Portrait Photography International (WPPI) Conference + Expo. Or it could be the 200-plus manufacturers on hand to display and demonstrate the latest imaging technology, software, and accessories available on the market today. But, if you asked most attendees why they attend WPPI, the answer will likely be summarized in two words: Networking and Community.”
It may have taken last year’s abject failure, but they seem to “get” it now. We as attendees don’t go to WPPI just for the competitions, seminars and expo. Those are bonuses. We go because we love each other, and this show was the most well-executed seminar that gave us a way to come together as a group of young creative professionals.
This year, WPPI is doing their utmost to harken back to the feelings of the “good old days” at the MGM. From their kick-off party, to their annual Fun Run (a 1.5 mile run/walk/crawl up the Vegas Strip as the sun rises on February 27), to pointing out a suggestion for a new unofficial bar hangout at Eye Candy in the Mandalay (to replace the beloved Rouge bar in the MGM), there is a considerable focus on community here.
That gives me hope, and I’m not alone. “This year I’m feeling hopeful that the old vibe is back,” Mullins told me. "Being able to find ‘your people’ at any given time is one of the things that has made previous WPPIs so amazing. I’m hopeful that feeling returns this year.”
Crewe, Hailey, Douglass and Mullins all plan to return for 2018's show despite the shortcomings of last year. They’re willing to give WPPI another chance, hopeful that the old magic can return.
Paige and Schell however, aren’t sold quite yet. “Im still on the fence,” Schell told me. “It's always great to connect with friends, peers, and the folks who follow and support my work, but all in all, it's crowded, hot, and I don't like spending my time feeling as though I'm being pitched to.”
Paige, meanwhile, just doesn’t think it’s the show for her now. “Not sure WPPI is a great fit for me anymore, although I do love the networking part and seeing everyone,” she said. With last year’s business choices, she’s having a hard time picking WPPI. “They burned a lot of bridges at a time when there are plenty of conference options for people to try besides them,” she told me. “Mystic, The Hybrid Collective, Camp Go Away (NY one run by a Brooklyn based photographer duo), Field Trip, Click!, Engage, the list goes on.”
Mandalay is a beautiful hotel, but the rooms don’t come cheap. Even on WPPI’s official hotel booking page, Mandalay isn’t listed first and is easily the most expensive, coming in at more than six times more per night than the Excalibur or Luxor hotels. And that might be a problem, since part of the key success of the MGM was that a majority of people actually were staying in that hotel, not adjoining ones. However the Luxor, Excalibur and the now-fully-booked Delano are quite close in terms of proximity, so anyone staying there will likely not be too inconvenienced by the walk to the Mandalay. That, and some events will be held in the Excalibur.
Personally, I believe in WPPI. They understand why 2017’s show was a failure and are doing their best to prove to their attendees that they also have internalized why, and are doing their best to rectify it. Their website and public statements about this year’s show reflect their understanding, and that gives me hope that my number one favorite photography event can indeed bounce back to its former glory.
"Jerry and Melissa Ghionis have taken over as co-directors of the WPPI Print Competition, and their continual involvement in the world's largest print competition -- coupled with their ready accessibility and enthusiasm -- is an incredible addition to the entire WPPI conference," Douglass went on to say. "Everybody loves Jerry and Melissa, and having them at the helm gives WPPI a great vibe and fantastic energy. This year, the judging takes place at Excalibur and the conference presentations and trade show take place at the Mandalay. The colleagues I've spoken with are all excited about the venue change, and are looking forward to seeing how things will be set up in the hotels. This will be my fifth year as a competition judge, and I highly recommend that photographers attend the judging. You learn so much! I wish I had attended many years earlier than I actually did. I can't wait to see what this year has in store!"
I will be in attendance this year, putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I share the same enthusiasm that Douglass does, hopeful that this year will be a return to greatness. As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t Emerald’s show, it’s ours. As long as WPPI is working with us like they appear to be doing this year, we can make it successful again.