Showdown

How many events does it take to support an industry? This question was raised when the rival shows which service the premiums and incentives market clashed recently.

When Incentive World, organised by Avenue Exhibitions, announced the dates of its 1999 exhibition, it was to coincide with Confex, the major conference and exhibition show, for the second year running. However, only weeks later, Miller Freeman announced that it would hold its rival show, Incentive International, under the same roof as Confex, which it also organises and on exactly the same dates.

So, from March 2 to 4 there were going to be two main incentive industry events (one in Wembley and the other at Earls Court) plus Confex, which is said to have some crossover with the other two, also being held at Earls Court. Finally, Avenue Exhibitions moved Incentive World’s dates back two weeks because of Miller Freeman’s plans. Not surprisingly, this has raised some serious questions about the role and value of exhibitions and their marketing tactics.

According to Miller Freeman, the reason why it scheduled In centive International during March was to save costs by running the show in the gallery of Earls Court 2, above Confex and to benefit from increased visitor numbers to both shows.

Says Ian Allchild, managing director of Avenue Exhibitions: “My concern was that exhibitors and visitors at either exhibition should not be disadvantaged by Miller Freeman’s aggressive move. So that the industry is not compromised, Incentive World 99 has been moved forward to February 16 to 18, still at Wembley.”

According to Peter Cole, industry commentator and editor of Exhibition Bulletin, holding competitive events on the same dates is not such a bad idea. “It would have the advantage of allowing delegates to visit both shows in one day,” he says.

“A company used to send two or three staff to an exhibition. In the past ten to 15 years, attendance at trade shows has dropped by about 15 per cent. During the last recession organisations laid off large numbers of staff and attendance at exhibitions was one of the first things to go,” says Cole.

Bundling exhibitions together is not a new idea. At Birmingham’s NEC, a number of related trade fairs will run at the same time in different halls. They market themselves jointly, which saves money and gives exhibitors the opportunity to express their individuality and there is the added advantage of increased visitor numbers.

The downside to this is exhibitors at one show may feel their targeted audience is being diluted by the increased numbers. And in the case of Incentive International, there is the extra psychological barrier of persuading visitors to go upstairs.

Both these issues are worrying exhibitor Alan Kellock, client service manager at Boots Voucher Centre: “I think combining Confex and Incentive International will confuse visitors. Getting people to go upstairs is a problem – this is as true of exhibitions as it is in Boots stores.

“Visitor numbers were down at Incentive International this year and quality was not as high as in the past. If the industry struggled to support two exhibitions when they were running two months apart, it will not support two within a fortnight of each other. I do not believe this move is doing anything to help either the industry or me as an exhibitor.”

Divisional director of Miller Freeman Clive Ellings, defends the move. “This was an opportunity to add value for both exhibitors and visitors. As many as 40 per cent of visitors to Confex match the profile of those to Incentive International. This will allow those who may not have attended both as separate events to do so,” says Ellings.

Aware that there is an upstairs/ downstairs problem, Miller Freeman is investing an additional 200,000 in Incentive International to improve aesthetics. More importantly, the show will have a separate entrance, ensuring it retains its independent identity.

Miller Freeman was asked to provide names of exhibitors at Incentive International which could give their views on why they preferred it as an event. However, Miller Freeman declined.

Although some industries are over-serviced by trade shows, competition is vital between exhibitions to keep standards high and give buyers choice. And survival of the fittest still applies. But small organisers often have an advantage over their larger competitors because they are flexible, creative, provide greater attention to detail and are able to develop a closer personal relationship with exhibitors.

Peter Bailey, managing director of JLR, which makes and prints sports bottles and collectors cups, has supported both Incentive World and Incentive International, but feels Incentive World has two major advantages.

First, the exhibition hosts international buyers and much of Bailey’s business is export. He feels Incentive International is low on overseas interest. His second point is more personal: “Most exhibitors at these shows are running their own businesses,” says Bailey. “They want a relationship with someone who knows the business. Miller Freeman is faceless. You could be dealing with accountants.”

Another exhibitor at both shows is Pelicans, manufacturer of plastic and polyurethane items for the automotive, banking and hotel industries. Managing director Steve Maxton highlights the approachable attitude of staff at Incentive World and was put out when Incentive International and Confex joined forces: “It was presented to us badly,” he says. “We were suddenly told: ‘You are going to be stuck upstairs.’ It makes people feel as though they are attending a side-show to Confex, so I may not support it next year.”

Martin Lewis, managing editor of Meetings & Incentive Travel magazine, who launched an exhibition of the same name (the M&IT show) six years ago to compete with

Confex, reinforces Bailey’s points: “We started from scratch with a view to countering problems that are an inherent part of an running exhibitions,” says Lewis.

Two elements that were included in the M&IT Show were porters for exhibitors and concierge staff providing a butler service at the front door to remove cloakroom queues.

And exhibitors appreciate the effort. Rene Dee, managing director of Royal Horticultural Halls has had a stand at M&IT and Confex for the past six years, but will only support M&IT next year. “Confex is extravagantly expensive,” says Dee. “And Miller Freeman was asking exhibitors to say whether they wanted to re-book the same position for 1999 by the end of the first day of the show. I took great exception to that. It is not possible to make the decision so quickly and it was an unnecessarily aggressive policy.”

Dee also feels that moving Confex from Earls Court 2 to the main hall was a disadvantage for smaller exhibitors. “The grid system of Earls Court 2 was easy to follow, but the new layout is confusing. The show is becoming too big,” he says.

He says the reverse is true of M&IT. “The show came of age last year,” says Dee. “There is a far better relationship between exhibitors and the organisers – partly due to the size of the show and partly because of the attitude of the organisers. The show has personality.

Confex has become remote.”

Other major shows serving the conference and incentive industry are EIBTM in Geneva and IT&ME in the US. The former is an international exhibition, held in a neutral country (that is, no home market), and the organisers host international buyers, ensuring the event retains its global emphasis. IT&ME caters largely to the US market. Smaller UK exhibitors do not attend these shows, but large organisations do.

Inter-Continental Hotels has a presence at the major European, US and Asian travel trade shows. According to vice-president sales planning and development Michael Prager: “Inter-Continental Hotels uses these exhibitions as a springboard for more tailored events such as the party we give during World Travel Market week. It is convenient to build marketing activity around industry events and it allows customers to see a number of people at one time.”

Prager also points out that those in the travel and hospitality business should be seen to travel and be hospitable. This suggests that reasons for attending exhibitions are often more emotional than analytical. Customers expect to see you there and if you pull out, someone else will fill the gap – with considerable fanfare.

Incentive travel and event management specialist The Marketing Organisation exhibits at M&IT and Confex because it feels the company should be seen to support both. “We also get a good conversion rate from the shows,” says The Marketing Organisation marketing and strategy director Jerry Smith. “The quality of business is excellent.”

The success of trade fairs is cyclical. “Exhibitions are like fashion,” says JLR’s Bailey. “One minute they are hot and the next they are not. The changes come about either because of stronger competition or through changes in the market.”

With that in mind, there will always be room for new exhibitions. As the bigger shows gobble up smaller ones and others drop by the wayside, someone will see an opportunity to offer exhibitors a different product – and backed by the sort of personal service and industry expertise clients value. Small, it seems, is still beautiful.

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