The exhibitions industry has always been international – indeed, its roots lie in the great medieval trade fairs of Europe. But it is in recent years that international business has really taken off.
This is partly because of the increasing influence of multinational companies, which are driving towards the globalisation of their marketing, and partly because of the recession-induced need for national companies to increase their overseas sales.
Earls Court Olympia’s group communications manager Caroline Moore says: “We are seeing two trends in international exhibitions. First, there is the increasing globalisation of business, reflected in multinational branding strategies. Second, there are an expanding number of potential exporters coming to UK exhibitions as a way to meet new customers. For example, a large number of German food companies came over for the International Food & Drink Exhibition earlier this year.
“There were more exhibitors, and they took more space than usual. Obviously, some of that was due to favourable exchange rates, which made it cheaper for them, and there were many former East German companies exhibiting for the first time. But the main reason was that they could meet a large number of international buyers.”
However, while UK companies may have seen their sales increase, there is some debate as to whether the UK itself will be able to compete effectively as a venue for major international shows compared with the exhibition venues of North America, Germany, Italy, France and the Far East.
Moore believes it can. She points to a number of international events that have been brought to this country. For example, there is Comdex, the world’s largest information technology show and formerly located in Las Vegas, which came to Earls Court earlier this year.
Another is the Food Ingredients Europe show, which used to move from venue to venue every year. The organisers have now decided that the show will be anchored in London every second year, although it will still migrate around European cities in the “off” year.
While London may not have the same amount of venue space as other European exhibition centres, it is still a key communications hub and has considerable attractions for North American and Commonwealth business people. The reason, particularly for Americans, is quite simply the language and the culture, both of which they feel comfortable with.
Another reason Moore cites for the increasing popularity of the UK has its roots in the recession. Domestic visitors to national exhibitions have been decreasing in number and are spending less. If the organisers are to meet the exhibitors’ expectations, they have to go out and sell UK exhibitions to overseas users.
Nicky Havelaar, a director of exhibitions production company Crown Business Communications, suggests the UK offers a centre of excellence.
She says: “The UK is about the best in the world in terms of exhibitions services companies, which have had a long-term relationship with international clients. Because of that relationship, and because UK companies are having to go abroad more to find clients, we are doing more and more global business.
“If you want to work abroad, it’s your experience that counts, not where you are based. New technology means we can service clients abroad easily – it’s no longer imperative to have offices everywhere. But you do need to have a workforce that is comfortable working in other languages and cultures.”
But while new technology may make it easier to communicate with clients and exchange information, it will never replace the impact of real meetings. “People want to be face to face with their clients,” explains Havelaar.
Technology can enhance the effectiveness of a live show. Peter Knowles is sales and marketing director of IML, a company specialising in the development of interactive computer technology and groupware response systems. His company was recently involved with the European launch of the Vauxhall Vectra, with presentations to General Motors’ salesforces in 145 venues and 17 languages.
The sales people saw the same video presentation, but with subtitles in their own languages, and were able to send back comments in their own languages as well. The system was also set up so that it could collect and store the responses from each sales person, so that individual concerns or areas of interest could be addressed later.
IML’s Hong Kong agent has been working on a Mercedes project in Beijing, with a presentation in English with Chinese subtitles. Knowles says: “It’s a simple solution to a major problem in international conferences.”
Similar interactive systems can be tailored for use on exhibition stands, so avoiding the frustration many exhibitors feel when faced with a potential client but with no common language.
Brian Bradford is managing director of Reed Exhibitions UK. Reed has been expanding internationally in a big way, because of its perceptions of the way the industry is developing. Bradford agrees the UK is seeing far more international exhibitors and visitors, as well as major shows. “We are seeing more of the larger players coming over here – just as we are going to other countries.”
Increasingly, branded shows are receiving global treatment. Reed has done this with the World Travel Market, which took place in London recently. It is launching travel show spin-offs in other countries, backed with the parent brand’s clout. Bradford explains: “With big exhibitions, sales and marketing are increasingly handled on a global basis.”
According to Bradford, in addition to this globalisation of big exhibition brands, the UK has played host to more exhibitors and visitors. He claims that in 1994, the total number of visitors to UK exhibitions was about 10 million, with around ten per cent coming from outside the UK. He adds: “Our latest figures indicate that we’re well up on last year.”
However, Bradford admits: “Britain is not the cheapest country in the world to exhibit in, but the fall in the value of the pound has helped, and our economy has begun to come out of recession. In many cases, if Americans want to come to Europe, they would rather come to London than a city in France or Spain.”
Steve Hill, marketing manager for exhibition, display and graphics company Academy Expo, agrees that the main drivers behind the internationalisation of the exhibitions industry are “the globalisation of brands and increasing consistency in international marketing. Creative executions are becoming more consistent, especially in Europe”.
He feels that the UK, with the transport infrastructure to service top exhibitions, should also have a major part to play.
However, Richard Tomlin, creative director of Cairnes Design, which does a considerable amount of work in the exhibition field, is doubtful that this internationalisation is anything new, or whether Britain is likely to benefit from it as a venue provider.
He says: “We’ve always been working abroad. We work for multinational companies based in Britain, but when we do exhibition work for them, it tends to be outside the UK.” He feels that no amount of marketing by the British exhibitions industry will change the fact that “the centre of the exhibitions industry will increasingly move to Germany. That’s where the big shows are. The UK is a small offshore island”.
If the UK is doomed to become less important as a venue for major international exhibitions – and not everyone in the industry would agree with Tomlin – then it is even more important that UK companies working in the industry sell their services on the international stage.
Tomlin believes exhibition services companies need to combine creativity with diplomacy. Cairnes has been working for some years for EVC International, a large European vinyl manufacturer. His experience suggests that the first hurdle for UK exhibitions companies to overcome is a cultural one.
“We’ve got to design stands that try to meet the needs and preferences of the Italian, Germans as well as the English,” says Tomlin.
“In the first job we did for the Italians, we created a stand with a bar and coffee area at the back for entertaining clients, complete with espresso machine. But the Italians said: ‘You’ve completely misunderstood the way we do business’.
“It turned out they wanted the espresso machine at the front of the stand, where people could see it – it’s an integral part of how they do business. So we moved the espresso machine, and they loved it. You’ve just got to be able to get under the skin of clients, to find out what they really want.”