The art of craft

The yo-yoing fortunes of the exhibition industry makes retaining staff difficult, particularly in the mainly freelance craft sector – a situation that is forcing companies to look to in-house training.

Next time you wander round the Birmingham NEC or tread the walkways of Wembley taking in the latest wonders on offer at your favourite exhibition, spare a thought for the hordes of craftsmen behind the scenes. These are the industry’s unsung heroes who will have worked all weekend to erect the stands, rig-up the lights and tweak the graphics.

Behind all the dazzle of a show – the sales pitches, products and punters – there is an army of crafts people dedicated to ensuring that the show really does go on. Thanks to the present economic mini-boom which has had a knock-on effect on the exhibition industry, there is a greater demand than ever from exhibition companies to tap into this specialised pool of labour.

Austen Hawkins, deputy director of the Association of Exhibition Organisers believes that indirectly e-commerce has had a hand in boosting the ante of the exhibition industry. “As more businesses are looking to e-commerce and we become more isolated in our work space, there is more need to get out there and take the opportunity to meet the customer face-to-face,” he says.

Whatever the reason for the growth in exhibitions, the Birmingham NEC is not complaining. Since it opened in 1976 with a handful of shows, the numbers have shot up to 200 for this year, which in itself is a 15-show increase on last year. Phil Shepherd, spokesman of the NEC, says: “We have seen a number of new shows springing up, designed to address niche markets, and we are opening up more halls to meet the demand for stand space.”

Such is the upturn in the industry that for the first time freelance staff have their own agency, EVENTxchange, which represents anyone involved in production through to promotion. Although this does not necessarily include the crafts people of the industry, co-founder Emma Brierley is sure that many on her books will have their own contact book of people they can bring on board if required.

But despite the exhibition sector’s growth, there have been complaints about the shortage of skilled labour. As Hawkins observes, “We have suffered badly from the labour skills shortage. There are a lot of exhibition companies which have had to look to other industries to recruit crafts people and this pushes the salaries up.”

Steve Barratt, chief executive of the Early Action Group, which claims to be one of the largest independently owned exhibition groups in the UK, has also noticed a dearth of skilled labour. He believes the root of the problem lies in the last recession. “The first thing people cut in a recession is training and now we find we haven’t got the people.”

Barratt maintains that the solution lies with the industry. “We should stop blaming the Government for not investing in training and accept responsibility ourselves.”

To this end, the Early Action Group runs a programme of training for apprentice joiners, electricians, decorators and graphics staff. All apprentices must attend day-release courses which lead up to NVQ levels 1 to 3. The company pays all the fees and after the four-year course it also offers funding and time for apprentices to go on to a fifth or even sixth year to complete their qualifications.

Giving young people a start

“At the moment, we have apprentices in all years at college and this ensures a constant training level,” explains Barratt. “Someone has to give young people a start in this industry, otherwise we will find ourselves in a similar predicament to the IT industry where there are too many jobs and not enough people to fill them.”

Melville Exhibition Services has adopted the same attitude to staff training. With a 20-year trading history, the company has seen its fair share of economic peaks and troughs – and has had time to adjust to the industry’s own unusual staffing demands. “We have seen massive ups and downs in this industry,” says Melville’s managing director Paul Revell. At the moment the company has 450 staff on its books. It can meet half of its demands after which extra staff are contracted in when required.

Revell also believes that continuity is the key to good exhibitions. “We turn to people we have dealt with before. They may be ex-employees who in turn have their own pool of labour that they can bring with them. The company will also train its own staff to all levels internally, whether it is in computer applications, customer care or graphic design.”

He adds: “This is a service industry and the key components include the quality of the kit, materials and construction and really good labour.”

Joan Turner director of the British Exhibition Contractors Association (BECA) witnessed the damage of the last recession. “Member companies went down like a pack of cards,” she recalls. “We lost 60 to the liquidators.”

Now the industry is back on its feet, she has noticed that it has had to depend on a pool of casual labour which will soon need younger recruits. “We need new faces to come into the industry and even our casual labour is getting older.” However, she also maintains that most of BECA’s members, particularly the larger ones, do send their crafts people on recognised courses. Turner denies that skills shortages have an adverse effect on the overall quality of exhibitions, although it is difficult to see how it can’t. She says: “A good contractor would not put people out into the field without checking and testing to make sure those people can do their jobs. Contractors only have the one shot to get it right.”

Addressing the skills shortage

It would appear that the exhibition sector is taking the skills shortage seriously and is investing the necessary time and money to bring on the next generation of crafts people to ensure the British exhibition industry remains competitive. But in the meantime, what steps can a client, which finds itself outsourcing its exhibition requirements, take to get the best from its contractor?

Fergus Mitchell, managing director of exhibition designer INM, says, “Any client buying in exhibition requirements must be vigilant – and not just in regard to the key objectives. Given the shortage of quality crafts people, they must also be careful with the procedures that the agency has in place for dealing with the actual craft issues.”

INM will turn its hand to anything, from designing and building a stand, through to delivering interactive new-media requirements for clients both in the UK and abroad. Mitchell finds that too many clients view craft considerations as back-end functions rather than of mainstream importance to the job.

He suggests that one option could be to pre-build all elements before the exhibition to allow time for a thorough inspection before sign-off. “It costs a bit more, but in relation to the overall cost of an exhibition and getting it wrong, it is a practical option. It alleviates pressure for those that may have difficulty visualising the difference between the finishes and styles.”

Having back-up plans

Finally, he warns, there must be back-up plans for any disaster. “All your best intentions are up the spout if someone forgets to switch on the electricity. It does happen. You can never be too prepared.” So wherever you are in the exhibition supply chain, the moral of the story is quite clear. However brilliant the product or the concept in exhibition land, the might of the hammer can put nails in your corporate coffin if you don’t give your exhibition craftsmen the respect they deserve.

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