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April 4, 2008

Exhibitions ? an industry in crisis?

Recent figures published by registration services company CTS show that visitor numbers at last year's trade shows fell by 2.1% . To put these figures in perspective, the report plots how attendance for an average show would have changed over the past seven years. “If an annual event held in 1998 had attracted 100 visitors,” explains the report, “it would have drawn 97 in 1999, increased to 99 in 2000, decreased to 87 in 2001, then steadily declined to 75 by 2005. That is an average drop of 25% in visitors from 1998 to 2005.”

The report's prognosis for 2006 is not good. The ramifications of the 7/7 bombings, threats from avian flu, downturns in the property market and continued lack of consumer confidence are all set to have a potentially huge effect on exhibitions.

We asked a cross section of key events industry figures whether they thought this was a fair reflection of the state of exhibitions and what organisers and exhibitors should be looking to do to buck this trend.

“All stakeholders in the event industry need to work together to present exhibitions as a marketing channel that is fresh, creative and exciting and, most importantly, relevant to visitors,” says Nigel Nathan, group commercial director EC&O Venues, which comprises Earls Court, Olympia and The Brewery. “The most successful exhibitions at our venues are the ones that are content-rich and inspirational and which have studied their target markets properly in order to make the content relevant. As other marketing channels, such as the internet, become more and more interactive, imaginative and creative, the exhibition industry faces tough competition. However, the format does have one unique proposition: the increased interest in face-to-face communication as a marketing medium. This is a huge opportunity for the industry, but we need to act quickly to leverage the opportunity."

EC&O is already seeing many of its organisers making a huge success of their exhibitions through highly targeted, inspirational and content-rich events. For example, BETT, the educational information and communication technologies show, achieved an impressive 6.7% increase in visitor numbers at this year’s event compared with 2005, with four days of innovation and inspiration from over 650 educational suppliers.

Nathan’s thoughts are echoed by Tim Perutz, of stand design company Nimlok. “An exhibition that really focuses on delivering value to its exhibitors and visitors remains a very valuable event,” he says. “An exhibition that does not work hard to understand its community and deliver what it needs today is going to be eclipsed by other mediums especially electronic ones that do work hard to deliver value.

“Most organisations have growing programmes and budgets aimed at engaging face to face with customers, distributors and employees,” continues Perutz. “There are huge opportunities for our industry to provide quality services and products to facilitate the growing number of sophisticated face-to-face dialogues.”

Laura Moody, managing director of stand designers Nomadic Display UK, which has experience both as a supplier and as an exhibitor, concurs. “As with any industry, the world of exhibitions is ever changing and you have to move with it," she says. "The key is to understand what an exhibition needs to deliver within its marketplace. At the moment, there is a huge emphasis from everyone (organisers and exhibitors) on really understanding the visitors' needs and making sure you meet their expectations.”

Moody also doesn’t feel the CTS figures are a fair reflection of what’s going on in the industry. “It would be very easy to look at these figures in complete isolation, but you need to take many other things into account,” she says. “I think generally there is too much emphasis on attendance numbers. These should never be looked at on their own because it is the quality of the audience that really matters. Often a smaller audience that delivers higher quality and includes serious buyers will help you gain the business you need.”

Nathan agrees. “We need to consider many other factors before concluding that the prognosis is poor," he says. "There are many positive aspects to the exhibitions industry, such as the quality of visitors and the number of new events being launched – we are hosting 40 new exhibitions in 2006 and so far have 15 new events booked in for 2007.”

However, he does highlight one major problem with the exhibition industry. “We don’t know how to put a value on what we offer and we’re not comfortable using the language that our target audiences want to hear,” he says. “As a bare minimum we need to have, ready to hand, robust data that measures the value of our events. We need to unite behind organisations such as the Events Industry Alliance and support them in communicating the benefits of events clearly, succinctly and in the language of those we wish to engage.”

It is interesting to note, at this point, that in an industry needing to deliver measurable value to its clients, the organisers have not grasped this concept, and it is the event agencies, such as Jack Morton, who are leading the way in terms of measuring success (click here for more). This is disappointing for the exhibitions industry because agencies are more likely to be developing client-specific events and not putting on exhibitions.

However, Nathan concludes: “I see this as an exciting time to be in the industry. We face tough challenges, but if all stakeholders – venues, organisers, exhibitors, and the industry bodies and media – work together to achieve joined-up thinking and a clear strategy to communicate the benefits of our medium, the future is bright.”

The prognosis is also good from Perutz. “If we are to move forward as an industry and produce successful events, we need to be engaged, creative and close to our customers. We need to understand their business, and develop products and services that solve their problems. If we are all prepared to do this then I truly believe the future for exhibitions is bright.”

Sadly, none of the organisers we approached were prepared to comment…

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