The exhibitions industry is evolving rapidly; it is having to adapt to a modern, technology-driven arena. But is the industry succeeding? Companies are spending more than ever before on exhibition stands in an attempt to ensure brand identity and creative innovation. As a result, businesses specialising in bespoke stands are thriving as companies invest huge sums of money to make sure that they stand out from the rest of the pack.
Despite such frenetic activity there are still many issues that the exhibitions industry has to face and obstacles to overcome. Are companies making the most of their stands? Are they certain that they are participating in the right exhibition? How can companies encourage more people to visit their stands? Are their staff able to meet the needs of visitors?
These issues and more were covered in a round table discussion hosted by the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) earlier this year.
The participants included exhibition consultants, visitors, exhibitors and a couple of industry “sceptics”.
Obviously, as they work within the industry none of the participants thought that exhibitions had little or no value. But there was widespread acknowledgement, even from those who strongly support the industry, that if exhibitions aren’t high on people’s list of priorities, the industry has no one to blame but itself.
Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) deputy director Austen Hawkins believes that the exhibitions industry suffers from an inability to promote itself. He says this is because too many practitioners – existing exhibitors – lack any real understanding of how best to use the medium.
“I went to judge a show recently and came across a stand where the exhibitor had made a huge investment in the stand. It was fantastically well designed, but the staff were on mobile phones all the time.
“As I was leaving the stand, one staff member actually turned his chair around so he had his back to the aisle. I took a photograph and now use it in presentations. Everyone that sees it laughs, but I know I will see the situation arise again,” Hawkins told the group.
Generally, the group believes that the UK has much to learn from how exhibitions are organised and conducted abroad. Reflecting on his experiences in Europe, SCP Contracts director Richard Leeks said: “Continental exhibitions in my sector are much more innovative. An exhibition such as the Milan Furniture Fair demonstrates how a show can be turned into a major event.
“I’m not sure that UK trade shows can compare with that. Another difference is the fact that the costs to exhibit in the UK are comparatively much higher.”
Hawkins defended the UK’s exhibitions industry by saying: “The reason that it is cheaper to exhibit abroad is because the industry there is subsidised, at both government and local levels. This may never happen in the UK.”
AEO research shows that even those companies that don’t use exhibitions as a marketing tool still believe that face-to-face contact is the most effective method to market their products or services. But Hewlett Packard public relations manager, consumer products, Lindsay Baldwin said there is no guarantee that those attending, or even hosting shows, were the type of people that you necessarily wanted to see.
She added: “An exhibition may attract a lot of people, but how many of them are relevant and qualified?”
But Hawkins pointed out that the same criticism could be levelled at other marketing disciplines, such as direct mail. WORK exhibition designer and creative director Tim Pyne was no less critical: “I think that the experience of attending 80 per cent of UK exhibitions is like visiting a motorway service station or worse.
“It doesn’t matter what value the exhibition provides in commercial terms, the actual experience of being there is totally crap. A lot of the exhibition industry is still Mr Byrite when it should be French Connection.”
Again the blame was laid at the feet of the industry. This time it was the organisers, who Leeks said, often “lack vision”.
Pyne believes that organisers should take more radical steps to guarantee success and cited the show 100% Design in Earls Court, London.
“We chucked people out of 100% if their stands weren’t up to scratch and refused to let them participate the following year.”
Although the group agreed that this rather radical action did not provide a practical solution to dull exhibition stands – mainly because many exhibitors would be thrown out – Pyne was unrepentant. “If the stand isn’t getting the message across, if the people on it are bored and unfriendly, if they are not giving out any information, what are they doing there?” he said.
He drew an analogy with magazines where advertisers print copy that has been specifically created to fit with the publication’s design criteria. “Why, if some advertisers can go to that effort to be in one publication, are exhibitors allowed to trawl out the same stand at every show?” he asked.
The issue of exhibitions crammed with stands and exhibitors competing to hand out better freebies than the next one was also raised.
Baldwin said that in her experience: “Organisers take your money and you never hear from them again. You end up at a show packed with competing stands and delegates looking for free stuff. If you don’t give anything away, they’re not interested.”
All of the participants said they believed that the excess of free gifts may have more to do with the fact that nothing else of substance was on offer at many shows and the question was raised as to whether exhibitors were missing the opportunity to create brand experiences.
But Baldwin remained unconvinced. She cited her experience while working with another client: “We produced a very big stand with Olivio that could definitely be described as a brand experience. But if people aren’t interested, there is nothing you can do to involve them.
“Do you really need to spend a lot of money producing a stand for a show that may attract 100,000 visitors, if you can just as easily take the Olivio experience and put in a shopping mall, where there might be fewer but more interested people?
“You don’t get any advice from exhibition companies on what works or about how much time customers are willing to spend at a stand. You invest in a stand and hope that it does the job, but you have no way of qualifying it.”
Another bone of contention at the round table was the fact that the provision of attendance data by organisers is, for the most part, inadequate. Often organisers don’t necessarily provide accurate attendance figures, let alone a coherent breakdown of the types of people attending a show.
Hawkins pointed out that all AEO members had to audit exhibitions and felt that trade shows were much better at doing this than consumer events. But he did concede there is a yawning gap between auditing a show and providing insightful research into its effectiveness and agreed that, in general, potential exhibitors needed to have access to data of much higher quality.
This prompted the comment that the exhibition sector lacks specialist exhibition agencies, which evaluate objectives and develop concepts rather than simply take briefs and design stands. Baldwin agreed that this would be useful, especially if consultancies had the equivalent skills of a media buyer.
“You don’t go to a media buyer to produce your ad. You go to them for advice on where best to place your money. Incredibly, there isn’t anywhere I can find out about the range of exhibitions relevant to my sector,” she said.
The group’s conclusion was that where exhibitions have an inherent advantage over other media, the industry has failed to promote those benefits. Similarly, there is a definite lack of expertise in exhibition organisation and consultancy.
There are too many poorly staged events where the organisers have concentrated their efforts on the hard sell of stand space rather than the long-term development of the show.
The same lack of professionalism is true in terms of offering service to individual clients that cannot appoint an agency to research, develop and execute an exhibition strategy. In all these respects, the UK industry lags well behind Europe, where live events are attended by senior board members of even the largest companies.
The good news for exhibition organisers is that where companies use the medium well, there is little competition and exhibitions can be very successful.
The AEO recognises the inherent problems in the exhibitions industry and appears determined to overcome them. Whether it has the resources and is able to get the backing of the industry in order to make an impact is another matter.
Round Table Participants
Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) deputy director Austen Hawkins
Haymarket Exhibitions marketing manager Kirsty Adams
Hewlett Packard public relations manager, consumer products, Lindsay Baldwin
SCP Contracts director Richard Leeks (modern furniture company)
Swing FM managing director Anna Lewis (field marketing consultancy)
Velocity Marketing Consultancy director Doug Kesler
WORK exhibition designer and creative director Tim Pyne (exhibition consultancy)