One afternoon earlier this month, just before his whiskey “ambassador” was to begin serving customers at the 4 p.m. happy hour— “I think he was appointed by the Scottish government” — James Lang, who likely knows more about airplane seat leather than anyone alive, spoke wistfully about the time several years ago when his company hired a bagpiper in an attempt to curry favor with airline executives.

“That caused the most monumental stir in the hall,” said Lang, director of Scottish Leather Group, the UK’s largest leather manufacturer. “It’s just a little bit of fun. People either love piping or hate it. But you get noticed.”

Few know more about what it takes to cause a scene at the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo than Lang, who remembers the first one, in Cannes, France, in 2000. No one knew what to expect, and, as he recalls, only about 30 or 40 companies came. “I think,” he said, “the word, Cannes, hit people more than aircraft interior.”

No longer.

Now, more than 14,000 people come, not to Cannes, but to a massive convention center in Hamburg, where the show moved in 2002. At this year’s three-day event in early April, roughly 1,200 representatives from more than 260 airlines visited stands for 600 companies, some paying more than 680 Euros per square meter ($840 U.S.) for prime space.

Big companies, like Airbus, or Recaro, the seating manufacturer, often build outlandish multi-level stands to house cabin and seat samples, sometimes only allowing people to enter if they have appointments, an approach that keeps competitors (and sometimes journalists) away. When airline executives arrive, sales people may hurry them into meeting rooms, where waiters might come with the fresh wet towels, drinks and, at least in one case, canapés.

“You go to the bigger stands and they’ve got full bars set out,” said Gareth Burks, managing director of rebel.aero, an upstart seat-maker. “They’ve got hospitality events going on, and bands playing. It’s a little intimidating for the new guys.”

Some airline employees talk about being ushered into secret rooms, where manufacturers display innovations they don’t want others to see. A few larger companies even build walls around their displays, to ensure no riffraff peeks through.

At night, airline employees — their presence is highly coveted everywhere, since they control passenger experience budgets — depart for secret dinners with vendors followed by late-night afterparties. Some are truly invitation-only, while others, like Gogo’s soiree at the nightclub Gaga, bill themselves as “exclusive” and then allow anyone with a business card to enter.

As any trade show, the idea is simple — vendors want to interact informally with customers, both old and (potentially) new.

“It’s difficult or it’s rare to get so many customers in one place where you can have quite in depth discussions,” said Claire Nurcombe, head of marketing for cabin interior at Stelia Aerospace, a maker of business class seats. “It’s an opportunity to meet our customers in a slightly more relaxed setting. We have somewhere where we can make them feel at home, hopefully.”

Smaller companies, like Lang’s, which supplies seat leather to American Airlines and British Airways, among others, go with a more understated — and budget-friendly — approach. But even they chase eyeballs. “We’ve got the most enormous sign this year,” Lang said, proudly.

Fun Stuff Grabs Headlines

Some innovations at the show make international news. In what was probably the most impressive announcement, Airbus said it and seat-maker Zodiac Aerospace would give airlines the option of installing sleeping berths in the cargo on some jets hold by 2020.

Companies also displayed new seating concepts — some with seat cushions that fold up — and at least two companies tried to sell espresso trolleys flight attendants can roll down the aisle. Meanwhile, on the seat front, Zodiac competitor Rockwell Collins introduced its Valkyrie Bed. It’s a business class seat that can turn into a real bed, if passengers pull out a mattress stored in a console.

For the bathroom, Zodiac showed off a double urinal it hopes will make lines shorter on long-haul fights. “We’re taking the men out of the common lavatory,” said Scott Savian, the executive in charge of Zodiac’s design and innovation studio. “The one that’s adjacent to it could be dedicated to women, who actually, in our polling, appreciate it because it’s a much cleaner environment now. And ask many guys, ‘Do you mind using a urinal?’ You won’t find anyone who says no.’

Meanwhile its sister company, Zodiac Water and Waste Aero System, shared two new bidets for Middle Eastern and Asian airlines (each region prefers a different water arc). It’s a bare-bones product, designed that way so passengers don’t spend too much time on the toilet.

“You want to keep the options minimal because you know how it is you fly a lot, you don’t want to stand in line when you have to go to the bathroom,” said George Stachowski, director of business development.

Some innovations may eventually fly. Others will not, perhaps because they’re too costly, or they’re impossible to certify, or simply because they don’t fill a marketplace niche. The cargo hold pods are one example. They’re a novel idea, and they’re technically feasible. But how many airlines, other than Qantas, want beds in the cargo hold? And in an emergency, how would those passengers evacuate?

Less Innovation, More Relationship Building

As much as fun stuff grabs headlines, the annual event in Hamburg is actually more prosaic affair, with hundreds of smaller companies renting space, often at the periphery of the hall, to sell everything from seats cushions to emergency exit signs, to lifejackets, to overhead bins, to LED lights for business class seats and overhead panels.

They’re all hungry, desperate for a few minutes of an airline executive’s time, and since innovation is the name-of-the game, they’ll sometimes pretend they have made advances since the previous year, whether true or not.

“It is one of these things where you have to pretend you have a new product, even if you don’t have a new product,” Burks said. “If you don’t get a new product out now, you have to wait almost 12 months until you can launch it. It probably is a make or break show for everyone.”

Burks knows the routine well. In 2016, his company won a Crystal Cabin award during a hotel ballroom ceremony insiders call the Oscars for airplane cabins. The seat that won, called the S:Two, is novel because passengers can both sit, as normal, or they can half, stand and half sit, by lifting up the seat cushion. For long flights, Burks figures passengers might like the second option, because they can change their hip angle or stretch without walking down the aisles. The seat could also help airlines board faster, because, with the seat cushion up, window passengers could reach their seats quicker.

Since then, though, it has been slow-going. And while he was expecting airline executives to come check out his seats again this year, including a new one called Joy, Burks knew they would probably spend more time with the behemoths — Rockwell Collins, Zodiac, and Recaro.

It can be discouraging. Burks wanted to persuade potential customers to hang at his booth, but he knew it lacked panache. He could offer instant espresso in the morning and Welsh beer at night, but that was not quite the same as having baristas and bartenders. Even Gogo, the U.S.-based airline Wi-Fi provider – it has never made a profit as a public company — had a barista serving lattes and cappuccinos.

But Burks knew he had to be there.

“I believe that if we were ever to miss a year, tiny whispers would spread through the show, ‘Where has Rebel gone? They must have gone,’” he said. “You could decide not to do the show and do another show, but the rumors would spread. I think the industry would crucify you for it.”

Photo Credit: The Gogo stand at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, where a barista was on hand to serve coffee. The event is the biggest of the year. Aircraft Interiors Expo 2018