CONTINENTAL CLASS

Cross the great divide of the Channel, and the quality of European exhibition venues rises immediately. Although we have fine sites such as Birmingham’s NEC, Verité Reily Collins finds that we have some hard lessons to learn from our Continent

The grass is always greener the other side of the fence – or in the exhibition world, on the other side of the English Channel. But is the reputation of Continental venues for efficiency and comfort deserved, or do their British counterparts excel equally in these areas?

Strolling down the aisles at ITB Berlin – the world’s largest tourism exhibition – at the Messe Halle venue it is hard not to compare the wide spaces between stands with the cramped conditions at its rival show, the World Travel Market at Earls Court, London. ITB really scores on the way that it looks after its visitors: stand names are clearly displayed, stand numbers on large signs are suspended from the ceiling, and at each junction there is a large “you are here” map.

At Crufts dog show, hosted by Birmingham’s NEC recently, a visitor will long for such helpful guides. Over in Berlin, uniformed staff devoted to offering information lend a professional gloss, and even the press centre’s cloakroom has two efficient staff. Conversely, at the World Travel Market, journalists were offered guidance by an agitated student on work experience, who gave up after half an hour.

Continental Europe has a long track record for slick events. More than 20 years ago, Mack-Brooks, the exhibitions company, decided that Basle in Switzerland could offer the facilities needed by its UK clients. That started an industry that has grown to reach global proportions, and today Switzerland’s exhibition halls play host to the world. Transport catering executives still talk about the Inflight Catering Association banquet for 1,000 at Palexpo, catered for by Gate Gourmet. The world’s airline catering managers were treated to six superb courses, each one prepared in field kitchens.

Albert Kemp, chief executive of Insurex Expossure, puts at the top of his list the European Incentive & Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition in Geneva: “Staff at the event treat exhibitors with great care and consideration… It is more expensive than other exhibitions, but worth every penny,” with organisers bringing in hosted buyers that provide good business.

Kemp feels the UK exhibition business still has much to learn, especially about its treatment of long-standing clients. This is a view echoed by exhibitors at a recent Antiques & Fine Art Fair in London. Clients there say it is not unusual for a stand to be moved from the space that had been booked, paid for and marked in the catalogue – without even a sign indicating where the new site is.

At first glance, exhibiting on the Continent can seem more expensive than putting on a show at home. But when the benefits included in the package are taken into account, the deal starts to look better value.

At the Messe Halle, smart, multilingual receptionists come as part of the package. Seemingly able to answer anything thrown at them by exhibitors and visitors, they are a far cry from the college students in T-shirts, the cheap option which is finding favour with UK exhibition organisers, if not their visitors or standholders.

And there are other extras: for example, at ITB, Frankfurt Airport offered a porter service to help standholders ferry luggage and equipment to the venue.

Small touches contribute to the overall picture of efficiency. At Messe Halle you don’t just throw away your rubbish – you separate it into clearly labelled containers. And the German venue sets out PR literature in neat racks, not falling onto the floor as happens, unfortunately, in some UK venues.

Reception staff on information desks are often the only contact a visitor has with organisers, but a recent survey by Banks Sadler, the conference reservations company, reported clients’ comments such as “reception staff not helpful, and appeared disinterested”.

That comment would not apply to the team at Messe Halle. All have to speak a minimum of three languages, and attend a daily briefing before an exhibition opens. Ask a receptionist at a UK show if they know what to do if there is a bomb scare – or a fire alert – and the chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare. However, one place where that would not happen is Earls Court. The venue’s chief fire officer, Peter Bassett, an expert on security matters, ensures staff are well-briefed on what to do in an emergency.

British exhibition organisers using local college students on “work experience” come in for constant complaints. Again, mainland Europe seems better at preparing students for the job without inconveniencing customers paying for an expensive service.

Exhibitors at Spain’s Fitur tourism exhibition are allocated four students per stand to act as gophers. The students gain on-the-job experience – without getting out of their depth – and generally feel part of the team. This process benefits both sides, and is far more beneficial than leaving a student stranded, ill-prepared, on an information desk.

Another common complaint about UK exhibition sites is the catering facilities for standholders. “Try getting a bacon sarnie during the build-up,” complains Iain Liddiard, presentations director at The Page & Moy Marketing Group. He admits that once the conference is under way, facilities are clean and, overall, catering is to a high standard. But he adds that the main differences are found behind the scenes, during the build-up.

“Few UK venues worry about catering during build-up so often the first thing we need to do is bring in a dozen bacon rolls for the crew,” he explains. In the rest of Europe, catering is on tap from the start, and although it is expensive, it is “freshly prepared and of a high quality”.

Liddiard says that the most service contractors abroad are punctual and extremely efficient. However, he complains of some cultural differences – on the Continent such workers can lack flexibility, and a sense of humour.

At the Vinci Centre in Tours in France, Paul Easty, production director of conference specialist Clearwater Holdings, found that “flexibility and service is excel lent in spite of the fact that is a municipally owned venue. It is very well equipped – but so is the International Convention Centre in Birmingham.”

For Easty, the best feature at the Vinci Centre is its provision of multilingual co-ordinators. “The centre went to great pains to provide us with as much language and technical assistance as possible, made us feel very welcome and therefore more important as a client.”

Others echo these observations about Continental venues providing tailored assistance, and say that customers in the UK can suffer from the feeling that they are just one in a long line of clients.

However, many in the exhibition industry say that Birmingham NEC’s construction is user-friendly, and Easty hails the facility for driving trucks directly onto the floor to be unloaded.

Overall, the general opinion gleaned from companies that exhibit frequently in the UK and Europe is that, yes, the grass is greener in mainland Europe, but you can expect to pay extra for it.

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