Britain is near the bottom of the European exhibition league. UK companies spend less on exhibiting than German, French or Italian rivals who also allocate more senior staff to run their stands.
This attitude is reflected by our exhibition infrastructure – the UK has only 4.4 per cent of Europe’s exhibition space, trailing France (16.5 per cent), Italy (17.5 per cent) and Germany (38 per cent) by some way.
But demand for space in this country, stagnant during the recession, is growing again. Not only are there more trade shows needing venues, the established events also require more space. The provision of purpose-built venues is being stretched and some exhibition organisers are concerned that soon there either won’t be enough room for every event or compromises in venue selection will have to be made.
So what is the current state of Britain’s exhibition facilities? Can demand be met, and if not, what is being done about it?
“It is becoming more difficult to find good slots,” says Brian Bradford, managing director of event organisers Reed Exhibitions UK.
“1998 will be a particularly difficult year because there are a large number of cyclical shows that happen to be booked in the UK that year. This tends to restrict growth in the industry, which is very frustrating at a time when the economy is growing and our business is set to expand.”
On the Continent, exhibition organisers have no such worries. Derek Tuke-Hastings, co-chairman of Park Avenue, a live events specialist which designs exhibition stands for major international clients, points out: “If you look at some of the major exhibition venues in Europe such as Frankfurt, Hanover, Geneva and the new site in Turin, you can see Britain has a lot of catching up to do.”
He points to the NEC in Birmingham as the one bright spot in a mediocre supply of venues. “The NEC has continued to expand to provide new space as required. It is not, however, just a question of square meterage. The transport, leisure and accommodation facilities must also be in place if a site is to meet exhibitor and visitor requirements. Again, the NEC has worked hard with local and national suppliers to ensure that, for example, hotels don’t suddenly hike up prices when demand is high, which does happen in some European centres.
The NEC also has strong links with the city’s conference centre and leisure facilities, such as the Symphony Hall, as well as the wider community. Exhibition organisers are becoming more aware of the need to offer both good access and facilities to those working on and visiting a show.”
The NEC is the only British venue that comes anywhere near competing with Europe’s largest facilities. Since opening in 1976, it has nearly doubled in size from 90,000 sq m to 158,000 sq m to make it the ninth largest venue in Europe and there are plans to add another 30,000 sq m, pushing it up to seventh place.
The problem for the NEC, however, is that expansion is very expensive, as its marketing director, John Cole points out: “Each recent phase of expansion has cost about 50m, which is money we have to generate. In other countries, financing tends to be organised on a different basis. Leipzig, for example, has recently opened a facility costing about
DM 1.3bn (565m) which has been funded through public investment. In the US there are bed taxes in hotels which fund capital spending.”
Demand at the NEC is not just for the blockbuster events such as the Spring Fair which uses every hall and could fill more. The smaller events are also beginning to put a strain on the space available.
“Most people think of the NEC as a venue catering for the really big events but, in fact, last year we hosted 140 shows, 62 per cent of which required less than 10,000 sq m,” says Cole. “The growing trend is for organisers to run several small specialist shows all under one roof. This can generate peak pressures.”
For this reason, the NEC’s new facilities are designed to make space allocation flexible. Each of the halls has its own separate entrance and facilities to provide an exclusive area for small events, while also allowing the area to be opened up to become a single massive space.
Birmingham is on track to keep up with Europe, but capital projects in the rest of the country have been thin on the ground. Indeed, even high-profile venues such as Manchester’s G-MEX and London’s Business Design Centre are merely conversions of existing buildings.
The only recent purpose-built development of a significant size is Earls Court 2 in London which does little to change the fact that, for a major international city, there is a shortage of space. In addition, most of what is available is old and not what exhibitors are looking for.
“We have found Earls Court 2 to be a good venue,” says Patricia Conibear, European manager of the Hong Kong Convention & Incentive Travel Bureau. “The modern design provides a good ceiling height, air conditioning, straight gangways and good lighting.”
Martin Orton, marketing services manager of Canon UK, would also like to see more modern venues in London. “A lot of the halls are old and pretty grim. For a company such as ourselves specialising in hi-tech products, the image presented by these buildings is inappropriate. We would really like to see better facilities with a modern feel,” he says.
Fortunately for Orton, there are plans for large new centres in the London area which should ensure that the city meets the projected demand for space. Opening first, in September 1998, will be ExCel (Exhibition Centre London), to provide 66,000 sq m of exhibition space and 24,000 sq m of conference and banqueting in the Royal Docks, about six miles east of the City. The project, a joint venture between the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) and London International Exhibition Centre, was planned following the results of market research by Touche Ross.
“The study showed how little space there is in the UK,” says Stephen Gaimster, development manager at LDDC, “especially in London which has less than half the space available in Paris. Obviously there is a different philosophy on the Continent concerning the importance of exhibitions, which explains some of the findings.”
London may have a tiny slice of the European cake in terms of floor space, and exhibitors might find it a bit stale, but is there any guarantee the new facilities will succeed?
“Apart from the statistics provided by the research, we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that things are changing in the UK and companies are committing bigger budgets to exhibitions,” says Gaimster. “This is backed up by the Show 96 [the exhibition industry’s own exhibition] survey which reported 62 per cent of companies are increasing their spend. The organisers we talk to are also saying that they are finding it increasingly difficult to find slots – which is backed up by an encouraging number of bookings already made for ExCel.”
In UK terms, Excel will be a large venue, comparable with P&O’s Earls Court which has 60,000 sq m. P&O, however, did have the opportunity to tender for the running of the Royal Docks site but did not think there was demand.
Capacity hasn’t yet returned to pre-recession levels,” says Caroline Moore, head of corporate communications at Earls Court/Olympia. “Also, events are tending to be shorter and there have been significant productivity gains in recent years. This effectively means more events can be fitted into a given period. Our view is that there won’t be sufficient demand for a major new centre until the year 2000.”
Which just happens to be when P&O expects to open a major new centre close to Heathrow in West London, backed by the argument that this is the best location for such a facility because easy access from London’s main airport is critical.
LDDC counters the argument, pointing out the Jubilee Line extension, London City Airport and quieter roads with more parking actually give it an advantage – the problem lies only in perception. Competition from the backers of the proposed new sites, however, may be an irrelevance in the long term.
Twenty years ago, the country had little more than Earls Court and Olympia. Since then the NEC has been built and it has generated enough business for continued growth.
Other smaller venues have opened throughout the country, but organisers are still looking for more space. At worst, the Docklands project may struggle in its early years. The area’s other projects have confounded predictions and succeeded.
With long-term growth in the exhibition industry looking inevitable, projects on both sides of the capital as well as expansion at the NEC may still not be enough to satisfy demand and redress the UK’s position in the European exhibition league.