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April 4, 2008

Exhibitions: refocus or die

Your article about the trends in visitor attendance at trade shows touches on the problem without really getting to the true heart of the matter.

There are lots of opinions around on this subject, some from informed sources and some less well informed. An awful lot of what I hear is based on what individuals with vested interests would like to believe, rather than focusing on the reality of the current situation.

A case in point is the workshop “Where have Visitors Gone” staged by Mash Media at the recently held Exhibiting Show. There was a very clear presentation of issues based on the well-known statistics from CTS as outlined in your article. Yet despite the fact that the CTS figures clearly show a worrying trend, none of the organisers in the room (including some of the largest players in the business) claimed they had anything other than successful events with growing audiences. If they are all doing that well, then the rest of the organiser community must have a massive problem!

The rise of corporate conferences

It is almost 10 years to the day since I completed a business plan that formed the basis of raising £210 million for the construction of ExCeL. That plan assumed that the driver for the new venue was primarily business-to-business exhibitions, coupled with a meeting content. That business plan not only went through the rigours of being scrutinised by large financial institutions, but also included input from the AEO (Association of Exhibition Organisers) and a number of organisers such as Reed Exhibitions and Miller Freeman.

The very clear consensus was that trade exhibitions with an increasing meeting and conference element represented the future of the industry.

But what has happened is that an increasing proportion of events at ExCeL are not organised by commercial organisers, but are corporate or association-based events or conferences.

So in less than 10 years, the rationale for the business case for building a new exhibition venue has been increasingly diluted. More by luck than judgment on my and other people’s part, we have a fantastic venue that is increasingly successful in its ability to adapt for events that are not exhibitions, not run by members of the AEO, but closed community and corporate events run by top-flight production companies and their corporate or association masters.

Look at the three sections that make up EIA [Events Industry Alliance, recently formed]. I would argue that there has been no overall growth in the organiser or contractor segments – it is only the venue segment that has seen considerable growth in numbers and capacity. However, the majority of those venues do not see their natural constituency in an association of exhibition-based venues.

Time for organisers to face the truth

From my own knowledge I am aware that of the three major venues, only ExCeL is looking to increase capacity in the foreseeable future. That increase in capacity – though it may accelerate the move of more events from the NEC to London – will primarily be driven by demand from the corporate sector. If the NEC burned down tomorrow is anyone seriously trying to tell me that Birmingham Council would rebuild 200,000 square metres of exhibition space?

I am not surprised that you could not get any organiser to comment for the article. There are a number of unpalatable facts that impact on the UK commercial exhibition sector.

• Exhibition space in UK trade shows is the most expensive space in the world;
• Exhibitors generate over 50% of visitor attendance at the majority of trade shows;
• Attendance at UK events is a small percentage of the equivalent show held in continental Europe;
• The average time a visitor spends at a trade show is less than four hours.

All of the above points make it very difficult for trade events in the UK to offer a real value-for-money option for companies going to market. Clearly there are a number of highly successful exhibitions which do meet market needs and provide real value for exhibitors and visitors. However, it is very clear to me there are a significant number of exhibitions that are becoming increasingly marginalised.

Online impact

Now to the impact of the internet on exhibitions.

Currently I spend a significant amount of my time with a company called Decisive Media, which has an IPTV channel called TelecomTV.com that serves the global information technology and communications sector (Telecoms and IT to the man in the street).

This involvement has exposed me to the power of the internet and how major corporations in this sector – such as BT, Microsoft, HP, etc – use it as a major and growing route to market. The belief that I have heard expressed by certain organisers that you cannot sell complex products or services over the internet, is a complete fallacy.

These major telecoms and IT corporations all have international markets, and through TelecomTV they can reach subscribers in over 150 countries in a way that is highly cost effective and totally measurable. These companies still attend trade events around the world, though increasingly they combine their presence with a significant and complimentary web-based campaign.

With BT well advanced with its 21st Century Network rollout, which will provide a digital backbone for the whole of the UK, individual propensity to use the internet can only increase. A statistic that came out this week shows that the average broadband user is now online for 23 hours a week. Compare that to the average time spent at trade shows.

I, like the others who were quoted in your article, believe the exhibition industry has a real future. However, I am not convinced that it will be anywhere near the volume we have experienced over the past few years. We know a significant number of visitors to trade shows come to evaluate and compare new products and services. I would think the vast majority of people now see the internet as the first source of information to achieve this.

My own highly personal view is that successful exhibition-based companies will combine a face-to-face proposition with a content-rich IPTV channel. Those organisers who believe in isolation – that they own the face-to-face proposition in any market sector – will become increasingly marginalised.

Keith Greetham
Decisive Media Ltd



This feedback relates to the article we published on 7 August called "Exhibitions: an industry in a crisis". Read it here: http://eventsreview.com/news/events/121/

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