PME's ISH show tour was a rousing success, but let's talk about sex!

Look at the data pertaining to the 1999 ISH trade exposition, and one's first impression is that it must be filled with typographical errors.
  • Upwards of 220,000 visitors from 130 countries.

  • 2,243 exhibitors from 42 countries.

  • More than 825,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, spanning 23 exhibit halls in nine different buildings, plus outdoor displays.
The closest comparison in North America would be the ASHRAE show, but last January's record-setting ASHRAE exposition in Chicago had less than half the display space and only about a quarter the number of visitors as ISH.

Held every other year, ISH is put on by Messe Frankfurt, a quasi-public German agency that puts on shows for a variety of industries at its huge facility in Frankfurt. The ISH acronym derived from "International Trade Fair-Sanitation and Heating," although Messe Frankfurt now describes ISH as "International Trade Fair for Housing and Building Technology." Still, plumbing-piping and hydronic heating displays account for almost three-quarters of the exposition. That percentage will increase at the 2001 version because air conditioning will be taken away from ISH and grouped with lighting and other building electrical technology in a separate trade show that kicks off next March.

Size is only part of the picture. Visitors from our shores-including 36 people who went along on a tour co-sponsored by this magazine and European flexible pipe manufacturer Ecoflex-inevitably come away dazzled by the vast array of advanced plumbing-heating technology at the show. Typical comments from PME tourists:

  • "A lot of European fixtures are probably 10 years ahead of American fixtures in technology and innovation," said Bob Merrill of Pipe, Inc., Suffolk, Va.

  • "Viessmann in particular has taken a quantum step in boiler design and technology," offered Paul Pollets of Advanced Radiant Technology, Seattle, Wash., a regular ISH visitor.

  • "These people are so advanced, it's mind-boggling," said Mike Schnorr, Schnorr Enterprises, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.

Conservation ethic, with style

European technology is driven in large measure by an environmental ethic even more pronounced than America's. Geography is Europe's mother of invention. You don't see wide open spaces like you do in the United States. Just about every parcel of land has something built or planted on it, and their road maps scarcely have enough room to print the names of all the towns that dot the land every few miles.

Germany is the continent's largest country (excluding Russia, which spans both Europe and Asia). They cram some 85 million people into a space smaller than California, and similar population densities characterize most of the rest of Europe. Without stringent environmental regulations, western Europe would be choking on its exhaust fumes and poisoned by waste. In other words, they would resemble eastern Europe, which is still paying the price for over half a century of incompetent Marxist government.

So it is that every fuel-burning appliance must meet stringent tests of fuel economy and emissions, and every plumbing fixture and fitting must operate on tiny amounts of water. Coupled with technological innovation is the European penchant for stylish product appearance. This, too, can be attributed in part to their cramped living conditions. Inside their tiny homes and apartments, boilers and radiators often must pull double duty as furniture. So they come in pleasing colors and shapes. And where is it written that toilets and faucets have to bear the look of nothing more than a "necessity"?

Trade show culture

ISH also has a different "feel" than North American trade shows. It is filled with social and commercial accoutrements that just isn't part of our trade show culture. This is a place not just to look, but to make deals and book orders, and have fun. Most exhibitors have private meeting rooms in back of the displays where they can talk business with visitors without interruption.

Most companies of any size also have a refreshment area to ply favored visitors with food and drink, including plenty of the great beer for which Germany is justly renowned. The larger exhibits span tens of thousands of square feet and have multiple meeting rooms-sometimes even a sit-down restaurant with wait staff and menus for selected guests. Personnel working these larger displays typically are assigned pagers so that business associates may locate them amid the teeming masses.

What most fascinates me about ISH brings to mind Adam Smith's metaphor about the invisible hand of the marketplace. You see massive crowds of people walking every which way throughout a rather confusing complex of nine exhibition buildings with as many as four levels apiece. Yet, visitors manage to distribute themselves in remarkably even fashion throughout the trade show. Even small companies condemned to the nooks and crannies of an exhibition hall do not lack for traffic. Throughout the day, day after day, everyone seems busy talking business. You don't see exhibitors sitting down and reading the paper the way you do at some American PHC shows.

Keeping our promise

Okay, now about that promise to devote some time to sex. At one level the subhead was simply a cheap trick to get you reading this far, but it wasn't entirely irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Europe is a randy place. They have a casual attitude about nudity and sex that most Americans find refreshing-though it leaves most merely breathing hard. Let it be said that not the least memorable part of the ISH experience is the opportunity to ogle an endless array of naked women on product literature, in video clips and, yes, even live in booth appearances, though perhaps covered with body paint or flimsy diaphanous outfits as one might find in a Victoria's Secret catalog. After a leisurely stroll through the bathroom exhibit halls, trying not to linger beyond the point of good taste at any depiction of a gorgeous model taking a shower, I have come to surmise that European men and unattractive women must never bathe.

Like most Americans, at first I felt exhilarated at this celebration of exquisite flesh. But after awhile I found myself getting in touch with my prudish side. It started with spotting a sex shop amid the charming city center of Heidelberg, the quintessential old German city. Pushing me over the edge was a peep show right inside the Frankfurt airport, set off just a bit from all the respectable shops, newsstands and watering holes. I'm not kidding, a peep show! A place for dirty old men to kill time, right there in Europe's largest airport, through which funnel people of all ages, races, nationalities and fundamentalist religious persuasions.

My apologies, Cotton Mather, for all the insults I directed at you as a young history student trying to make sense out of your angst-ridden diaries. At long last, I feel your pain.