Better by association

Exhibition organisers want a unifying body to raise standards and attract government support but conflicts of interest abound.

Most industries have dedicated bodies that allow for a common voice among members. Exhibition, event and conference practitioners have no lack of specialist industry groupings if they wish to join them, yet there is no centralised industry voice, which many feel is now needed to draw its diverse interests together.

However, the task of unifying the existing associations is a daunting one.

For John Runacre, chairman of exhibition organiser Clip, the youth and diversity of the industry make a unified stance difficult to achieve.

“The exhibition industry, in comparison with other media sectors, is relatively new. It has grown over the past 20 years out of what was essentially a lot of fragmented entrepreneurial businesses,” he says.

In response to this rapid development of the industry, the British Exhibition Venues Association (BEVA) and the National Association of Exhibition Holders (NAEH) recently merged to form the Exhibition Venues Association (EVA). Then there is also the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) and the British Exhibition Contractors Association (BECA) to contend with.

According to Philip Rees, chairman of EVA, most UK venues have already joined the new body, which aims to encourage government support of the industry. And Rees, like his colleagues who head other bodies, is much keener to talk about encouraging government initiatives than the more delicate subject of unifying all the major industry bodies.

“In the UK, the exhibition share of the marketing mix is about nine per cent. This figure is 20 per cent in Germany and 30 per cent in the US. Our industry needs a major boost from government. This needs to be seen in tangible terms, together with recognition of the increasing importance of exhibitions in the economic life of this country.

“A significant amount of our Government’s resources goes into export initiatives. We believe that the supported in-bound mission is at least of equal importance. The benefits are enormous – every facet of commercial life will gain from the successfully staged exhibition.”

According to Brian Rusbridge, director of the Association of Event Organisers, moves are afoot among exhibition organisers to foster more effective ways of attracting government support for the organisational aspects of the industry.

“There is a clear need for strong associations to represent the special interests of their members. We co-operate with a whole range of interests, covering travel, hospitality, publishing, outdoor events and conferences. The best way to do this is by joining together in a series of forums to identify areas where there is common interest and how to take it forward. This is the policy which will be pursued by the AEO.

“Among the interests we have are getting the support of government, bringing in overseas trade and generic promotion. We co-operate also in raising standards of service but we do not seek the imposition of regulations, indeed we would like to simplify the ones we have.”

Despite the promises made by various industry bodies, Steve Hill, marketing manager of exhibitions company Academy, says he has never found it necessary to belong to any specialist grouping.

“We don’t have any particularly strong views on not joining but there is a lack of productivity in terms of promoting the industry and the work they’re doing – and some of the changes that they are effecting.”

What would convince him that a joint body would do better than individual associations have done?

“It would have to raise the awareness of exhibitions as a marketing communications tool. Everybody’s doing it, but it’s very disjointed. Somebody needs to instigate regular communication for a common stance throughout the marketing press.” The need for unity has been exacerbated by European issues, says Hill. “On the practical side, in terms of health, safety and labour issues, there are things which I think we’re going to need to know about. Each country has very different rules. An industry-wide body should produce guidelines to help exhibitors decide which shows to go to abroad.”

EVA press and research secretary Bill Richards points out that there have been several efforts in the past to form one united body. He cites the Exhibition Industry Federation, the British Exhibitions Promotion and the Exhibition Liaison Committee.

Obstacles ranging from constitutional inadequacies to financial failure beset these bodies, says Richards. The advent of the Department of Trade & Industry’s model trade association outlines only made the task more difficult, with individual associations falling short of the DTI’s guidelines.

He sees resistance to unity in the exhibition and event sector as deeply rooted in perceived conflicts of interest. “Organisers see venues as vicious landlords who overcharge them. They are highly entrepreneurial and very nervous of each other.”

Another problem, in Richards’ view, is that only the venues have significant capital invested in their product. “Contractors have capital invested, to a certain extent, but they also have other industry outlets like shop-fitting. Organisers, on the other hand, have no capital investment at all in their business structures.”

Conflict of interest is a real problem in the drive for unity, agrees Runacre. “These bodies all protect their patch, which is fine, but somewhat parochial, and I think misses the point. We are entering Europe, either willingly or kicking and screaming, and exhibitions are becoming much more multinational. There is no commonality of health and safety standards, or custom and practice issues within the industry.

“Taxation is still an issue. One cannot very readily claim back VAT on exhibition services for clients going overseas. There are a number of issues where, if the industry did have one body, there would have to be some benefits in introducing common standards.”

Runacre believes that the various specialist associations may find themselves ill-prepared for the changes taking place in the industry. “We’ve seen the evolution of individual representation of various parts of the industry. I suppose these associations would all argue that they are there just for that purpose, to represent their members’ interests to other parts of the industry as well as to the outside world.

“However, when it comes to national issues (representing the industry to government or to Brussels, as is increasingly going to become the case with issues such as safety standards) we don’t have one voice. That’s where I think there is at least a platform for discussion. In the past, there have been attempts to consolidate but it still doesn’t go the whole way.”

He cites an example from his experience in the manufacture of modular exhibition systems. “I comply with all of the available standards of health and safety and fire retardancy, but there are no common standards throughout Europe. What is acceptable in the UK, which allows my products to be used here, is not necessarily recognised overseas. So I have to go through the whole process of having my products tested in each country. It causes confusion for exhibitors and hassle for organisers – and it could be overcome more readily if we had a common voice making a louder sound in government.”

Another option, says Runacre, would be to have Europe-wide representative bodies for each specialist area. “That approach might actually be more workable, because the issues that these people face are very similar.”

The lack of universally accepted standards allows some organisations to make a good living by providing the assurances that clients cannot get out of the industry itself.

The Visual Communications Register (VCR) is one if them. Director Ron Alldridge is in no particular hurry to see more unified representation for the events industry, since his company was built on this area’s shortcomings. VCR offers a matchmaking service which puts clients together with production companies for events. Independent, with no financial or practical ties to the industry, the company is committed to an impartial stance.

“We see a lack of parity between standards and methodology, and also a lack of understanding among the clients as to what can be achieved and the time and cost involved. So we find the standards varying from horrendous to extremely professional. That’s mainly because people within the industry come from various backgrounds.

“Anyone can set themselves up as a supplier. We give the client a guarantee of the supplier’s status, of our relationship with them and of performance. Just a basic guarantee which states that the supplier will function in certain kinds of ways.”

The fact that VCR has taken on the role of guarantor suggests the industry has been failing to regulate itself satisfactorily. Alldridge adds: “The industry is all over the place. There are probably 3,000 production companies in the UK alone. And there are about 30,000 sub-suppliers. How can you regulate all that?”

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