Space Agents

The growth of the exhibitions sector has created a niche for space-selling specialists, but many companies argue the discipline should remain in-house. Richenda Wilson weighs up the pros and cons

The exhibition industry is bursting at the seams. New events are announced daily and estimates suggest there are up to 1,500 organisations running shows in the UK. These range from one-man bands and trade associations to expert exhibition companies.

This is exacerbating the competitive nature of the industry, and means that the job of selling stand space and persuading visitors to attend is getting harder all the time.

In this climate of rapid expansion, exhibitors are sometimes baffled about which events will best match their markets. And visitors, who are increasingly busy, are less inclined to take time to visit a show if they are not certain it will offer the information and contacts they want.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get people out of their offices,” says Andrew Newman, managing director of Exposure International, a specialist company which sells stand space for events including the City Information Show, which takes place at the Barbican later this month. “City people will go to the Barbican but not even as far as Olympia or the Business Design Centre,” he says.

With organisers being forced to work harder to make a show successful, Newman suggests they employ an outside agency of exhibition specialists to sell the stand space for them.

Julian Agostini, managing director of Ultimate Sales Professionals, another space-selling specialist, has a further reason for subcontracting the job: “Sales staff are unreliable,” he says. “They go sick, they have problems at home, they leave their jobs. We can overcome that. We have the same problems as other sales operations, but the difference is that we don’t pass them on.”

It sounds rather appealing to farm out one of the primary headaches of running an event – selling it – but it may be a mistake to do so, believes Andy Center, marketing director of Independent Exhibitions, which runs the annual International Leisure Industry Week show at the NEC in Birmingham. He says: “People say there are too many shows, like they say there are too many magazines. But there aren’t; there are too many non-performing shows. The opportunist events fail to deliver.”

In-house expertise

Center believes the best way to ensure a show appeals to both exhibitors and visitors is to keep all of the expertise in-house. By splitting the organising and sales functions, companies risk missing the mark.

“Sometimes I despair of the exhibition industry when I look at the promotional material that is put out with some shows,” he says. “It’s a mistake to do anything that distances ourselves from the customers. To protect the future we must get closer to them. Exhibition organisers should be part of the market they serve, not simply hired guns. The word ‘serve’ is crucial. Too often organisers seem to be pillaging markets rather than serving them. Using a third-party specialist would be an admission that the organisers are unprepared to understand the markets they profess to serve.”

Malcolm Taylor is managing director of exhibition organiser Brintex, which runs, among others, the traffic management show Traffex, the International Tunnelling Exhibition and the Lingerie & Swimwear Exhibition in Harrogate.

Knowing the market

He too believes that in-house staff are best placed to sell a show: “If we can’t sell satisfactorily, then we aren’t capable of handling that exhibition category. We’ve always had sufficient staff and we have a high regard for them. They are competent and dedicated and by working on just one or two markets they develop valuable knowledge.

“If you keep the job in-house, even if you are turned down by a prospect, you have learnt something. If outsiders do the selling, you can debrief them but you never pick up all the nuances that might have spilled out in a conversation,” he adds.

Tony Keefe, divisional market development director at Miller Freeman, one of the world’s biggest exhibition organisers, feels the same: “I wouldn’t advocate independent specialists as a permanent fixture. We prefer to use staff who have been trained internally to understand our markets. The route that a number of media companies are pursuing is focused on markets rather than disciplines. We have core markets, such as security, health and safety, computer networks, furniture, building, and then we produce publications, conferences and exhibitions based around those markets. We’re not really bothered about the medium, though, of course, you can’t run an exhibition without some knowledge of exhibitions.”

Many other events companies have, like Miller Freeman, developed from publishers, including Reed, Centaur and Haymarket. They have expertise and contacts in areas that it would be hard for an independent sales company to match.

Quick solutions

Having said that, Miller Freeman deploys independent specialists, including Agostini’s Ultimate Sales Professionals, for particular needs. This might include researching a launch or developing a show in a different but related market.

Keefe says: “There are times when you need a quick fix, perhaps if you want to canvas a group of people quickly. It makes no sense to increase your own overheads to do something that you are not going to do again. We’ll go to a third party that is good at disguising its lack of knowledge in a sector.”

Agostini confirms this: “Our sales staff may not start with knowledge of a specific subject but product knowledge can be gained quickly.”

Center of Independent Exhibitions also admits that sales specialists have tactical uses.

But, says Agostini, even if you have a full complement of in-house staff “you’re kidding yourself if you think your sales team is going to do everything, including crunching through a database. We’ll do that. We’re not there to replace but to augment the sales team. We’ll give them back-up. We’ll do list cleaning. We’ll do research”.

Brintex’s Taylor has employed Exposure International in the past to conduct exhibition research. “Sometimes it’s better to have research done by outsiders,” he concedes, “because they can be seen as impartial.”

List cleaning is another labour-intensive task that Taylor sometimes subcontracts. “For example, we run a tunnelling exhibition, and because there is a finite number of tunnelling experts in the world, we might employ an outside agency with multilingual staff to check and clean our directory.”

Smaller organisers

While specialist sales houses may be used only occasionally and tactically by big organisers, they can offer more to smaller companies. “There are between 1,000 and 1,500 organisers of events,” says Agostini, “and they don’t all have a salesforce like Miller Freeman. For the smaller organisers, we can offer a complete sales operation.”

Exposure International’s Newman also admits his company’s services will probably be of most use to businesses which are not exhibition specialists, such as PR consultancies that organise events. “Most PR companies are not set up to do sales, so they pass the job to a junior, and that can make their own company look ridiculous. And even a junior salesperson can cost £40,000, when you consider overheads, so we offer a cheap and effective alternative.”

Newman claims to achieve his results by following a few simple rules: “Make sure you get straight to the decision maker: junior marketing staff are a complete waste of time. Never phone a mobile – I have never sold a stand to someone on a mobile phone. Make sure people have the information about the show when you speak to them – send it to them in advance. Always tell the truth, don’t make guarantees about visitor numbers. Finally, make sure the exhibitors are right for the show.”

All of this seems very sound advice, but following such rules need not be confined to the independents. Exhibition organisers should be practising the same techniques. So what exactly are the sales specialists offering?

“We offer good sales people who know how to sell exhibition space,” says Agostini. “Seventy per cent of the job is persuading clients that exhibitions are the right medium to go for.”

The Association of Exhibition Organisers recently launched a generic campaign to highlight the advantages of exhibitions over press advertising, and this initiative should help with the job of selling the medium itself.

Alongside this, organisers need to concentrate on fulfilling the expectations of both exhibitors and visitors to prevent them going away disappointed. “Exhibitions are still losing a lot of first-time visitors,” Agostini points out.

Customer care

Newman has an explanation for this: “Often the big players don’t deliver what they say they are going to do. Exhibitors are treated shabbily. Organisers should look after them; give them lunch or a bottle of wine. A free lunch doesn’t cost much but it generates goodwill. Organisers should do anything to make three days on your feet more appealing.”

This, of course, is in everybody’s interests. If exhibitors or visitors have a bad experience, they will spread the word among their colleagues and refuse to rebook next time, making the sales job – whether subcontracted or kept in-house – even harder when it comes to pitching the business next time around.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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