ISH digital 2021
Moving with the times

This year, the ISH took place entirely digitally. We take a closer look at which elements we found exciting and where we might have made adjustments.
by Anna Moldenhauer | 3/29/2021

Digital trade shows, a format that was of no real relevance but one year ago, have now increasingly started to take the limelight with the enduring global pandemic. The ISH, the world’s leading trade show for water, heating and climate control that was previously held in the halls of Messe Frankfurt, has braved the leap forward with the 2021 edition being presented entirely digitally. Launched on March 22 to coincide with World Water Day, the show encompassed two particular areas of focus: sustainability and hygiene. Here, the range of content spanned the full arc from technical heating solutions and systems designed to make a crucial contribution towards achieving climate goals, to ways of reducing the risk of infection with Covid19 by means of the latest ventilation technology. Depending on their particular area of interest, visitors were able to select both English and German elements of the extensive conference program; this included expert talks presented against the professional backdrop of a recording studio: Be it the debate with the Association of German Architects and the German Sustainable Building Council on “Building as a Material Resource” or the future concept of the “Green Bathroom” in the “Pop up my Bathroom” magazine. The audience was able to ask questions during each talk by means of a moderated chat.

Parallel to the conference program, there was the option to choose between the product presentations by the 373 companies from 33 countries. These included hansgrohe and Axor, whose presentation covered hansgrohe’s “Pulsify” family of sprinklers, a modern, water-saving solution for small spaces, as well as the further development of the “Axor One” collection by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. In addition, the manufacturers also had the opportunity to utilize “ISH digital” as a platform where their exhibitor profiles could channel visitors to their own digital events, be they “hansgrohe Aqua Days” at hansgrohe, the “Innovation Days” at Villeroy & Boch, or the “Bette Future Days” at Bette. However, it was not really possible to reflect the truly broad spectrum of participants in the real exhibition at “ISH digital”, since manufacturers such as Laufen or Vola were absent as exhibitors or were represented only by individuals who could be contacted via their user profiles.

Trade takes the lead

It has now been a year since the first lockdown and the industry has had some time to prepare a professional digital trade show presentation, as was abundantly clear from the quality of the product presentations at “ISH digital” and within its environment: burgbad, for example, presented its product innovations under the title “burgbad@home” back in early February 2021 at a real, physically constructed exhibition booth, and the virtual, 360° panorama tour of that same stand was also available to visitors via its exhibitor profile during the ISH. The contact with the manufacturers was generally easy to arrange thanks to the option of directly booking an appointment, while the platform used for the ISH also boasted its own digital rooms with video chat for meetings.

The search function, however, was perhaps in need of improvement, particularly with regard to the possibility of target-group-specific offerings: If the user entered the keywords “architecture” or “design” into the search, the system merely proceeded to list the participants of “ISH digital” whose profile could fit the relevant search terms. Here, it would have been helpful if the result had included the talks and presentations that also matched the themes. The sanitary, heating and air-conditioning trade had it easier here, with a dedicated trade channel at “ISH digital” providing bundled and manageably comprehensive innovations covering topics such as human resources, upskilling and training, data management and digitization, market and risk minimization. This included a virtual trade show tour, ISH web radio, and suitable expert talks.

Also helpful were the direct links to the navigation for the separate communication platforms. One example is that of “Pop up my Bathroom”, the platform which presented the design trends of “Green Bathroom”, “Living Bathroom”, “Smart Bathroom” and the central industry themes of sanitation and hygiene. Another came from the Technology and Energy Forum of Messe Frankfurt and the Federation of German Heating Industry (BDH), which highlight solution strategies that will help us all achieve ambitious climate goals in the buildings segment. Happily, these and other content from “ISH digital” remain available to view even now the trade show has ended via the website of the world’s leading exhibition for water, heating and climate control. “I think the supporting program worked even better in digital form, since people were not distracted by the hustle-and-bustle of the physical trade fair. Added to which, I get the impression that the digitally led discussions focus on what is most important,” says Dr. Thomas Welter, Managing Director of the Association of German Architects (BDA) and member of the advisory board of the ISH.

In conclusion, predictably “ISH digital” was not entirely able to substitute for the real experience of the trade fair, since a virtual event per se cannot facilitate face-to-face discussion, chance encounters on the ground, or an individual product presentation complete with touch and feel. Similarly, the intensity of a trade show visit in pre-corona times can hardly be recreated at a desk. However, this was not really the aim: Wolfgang Marzin, Chairman of the Board at Messe Frankfurt GmbH, said even before the trade fair began in a press statement on the ISH that he can see digital elements being an important addition to physical exhibitions in future, since they offer new potential. Yet the digital realm could not entirely replace face-to-face encounters, he said, and he is already looking forward to welcoming the world back to Frankfurt.

Even limited to virtual attendance, “ISH digital”, with its packed events calendar combining product presentations and expert talks, was thoroughly successful in satisfying the industry’s thirst for discussion and information and offering many new points of contact. The program comprised more than 277 live and streaming events over five conference channels, along with personal contacts via chat and video calls. Anyone who missed a livestream was able to watch the recording afterwards. Similarly, a good 30 start-ups were given the opportunity to present their ideas via the format of the digital trade show and to make contact with relevant figures working in building technology. Just as if they were visiting a real trade show, visitors needed some preparation time to sort through this wealth of offerings, so they could filter those that were most relevant to them from the program and compile their own schedule using the ISH digital calendar function. “I’m assuming that in future trade shows will be more hybrid in style, since digital elements represent a huge opportunity as support for the offering of the physical trade show without posing competition – be it for the purposes of preparation and follow-up, digital mailboxes for the catalogs, or matchmaking. A platform such as “ISH digital” makes it possible to form networks that are pleasingly low on interfaces”, says Welter.

Hence, we can look forward to seeing what form the ISH takes in 2023; the stage has already been set for the trade show format of the future. Meanwhile, the sanitation, heating and air-conditioning sector is not short on growth: According to a press report by the ISH, the German building technology industry achieved turnover of 64.11 billion euros in 2020 – an increase of 5.3 percent on the previous year.

Opening ISH digital 2021