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October 29, 2009
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Matt Benyon:A manifesto for growing the trade show market




In just five years, exhibition organiser easyFairs has expanded from a small portfolio of manufacturing industry shows in Belgium to 90 events in 16 countries across Europe and Latin America, spanning multiple sectors. Meanwhile, the company reported a €30 million turnover in its last financial year. Here, the managing director of easyFairs UK argues the case for a simpler, but more robust trade show model to guide the sector out of the downturn and secure long-term growth.

Trade shows were originally simple events where tradespeople from near and far could display their wares to local buyers. They had their roots in the medieval fairs of central Europe, and were particularly important for family businesses and other small traders.

Somewhere along the way, this simple and democratic idea got lost. Today, trade shows tend to be large, international, impersonal, infrequent, expensive, bad for the environment, and a lot of work for everyone concerned. These monsters have been in decline for several years, and the recession has hit them very hard, with most companies simply unable to afford or unwilling to pay the high cost of participation.

Back to basics
This is surely a sign that the time has come for a return to the principle of trade shows for people who simply want to do business. Of course, this must be achieved in the modern context, where people have less time on their hands, and even small companies tend to trade in national and international markets.
 
Twenty years ago, few people could afford to fly. But the low-cost operators have transformed the industry by stripping out costs that did not add value for the ordinary traveller. This same low-cost approach has been successfully applied in a wide range of other industries, such as hotel and catering and home furnishings.

Until now, it has not been prevalent in the exhibitions industry. Yet it is my contention that the most successful trade show organisers in Europe in the future will:
• Run events that look and feel basically the same, whether they are in Barcelona, Warsaw or Helsinki
• Not sell floor space by the square meter
• Offer everyone the same kind of stand
• Hold most trade shows in smaller venues
• Attract the majority of visitors from within a 200km radius

Moreover, they will do this ethically, will charge no hidden add-on fees, and will reduce the impact of trade shows on the environment. At easyFairs, we are pioneering this approach, and our success in doing so speaks volumes.

Better for business
Unlike in some sectors, I believe that the low-cost business model will actually improve the exhibitions industry as a whole, principally because it provides an easy ‘nursery slope’ for first-time exhibitors. We are not taking business away from the big international exhibitions, but are actually expanding the market.
 
What’s more, our low-cost model is good for the environment. In recent years, the exhibitions industry has come under fire for its wastefulness. By contrast, all of the stands at an easyFairs show are reusable. In fact, we want to be known as the green trade show organiser.

There is also a huge untapped market for the right kind of trade shows. There are currently 20 million companies active in the 27 countries of the European Union, and the vast majority do not take part in trade shows.

For example, there were 375 trade shows in the UK in 2007 with approximately 50,000 exhibitors. With 2 million companies in Britain, this means 98% do not exhibit at trade shows. Meanwhile, in Germany, approximately 140,000 exhibitors take part in trade shows out of around 3.5 million economically active companies.

Focusing on sales
What is it that distinguishes this untapped market from the active market of exhibitors at traditional exhibitions? What is it that this untapped market is prepared to forego? What can we strip out from the traditional product offering to reduce the cost of participation? How can we significantly reduce the price of participation at a trade show in order to attract them to exhibit?

The answer lies in focusing on what the majority of small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs), which make up most of this untapped market, want from trade shows – and that’s sales.

Unlike larger organisations, they’re not interested in making a big brand statement, or entertaining customers and prospects on their stand, and generally their marketing budgets can’t support such activity. Their motivations for exhibiting at a trade show are simple and straightforward: they want to promote their products (especially new ones), win new customers and make sales.

Flourish not flounder
In fact, the branding and hospitality aspects of a trade show can actually inhibit selling for SMEs, which are quite literally sidelined from the main action, occupying the outer aisles where there is limited foot traffic. Even if the organiser offers a low-price shell scheme for smaller exhibitors, many potential exhibitors see this as a wasted investment.

In the business-to-business environment (and in particular, in the technical sector) information is as important as the goods and services themselves, and there are simply too many distractions at a large exhibition to facilitate information exchange with new customers and prospects.

The low-cost model seeks to attract this untapped market by stripping out costs that do not contribute to the objective of exchanging information and making sales, which is the clear focus of our low-cost trade show model.

By embracing the low-cost model, not only will the trade show sector open itself up to a far greater audience, but it will also be more robust and be better positioned to flourish rather than flounder under tough economic circumstances.

Matt Benyon is the managing director of easyFairs UK.

easyFairs has produced a white paper on the future of exhibitions entitled Re-inventing the Trade Show as a Sales Event. To download it, visit www.easyfairs.com


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