A show stopper

Why is the conference and exhibition industry so bad at promoting itself? With a recent drop in attendances, it can’t afford to be shy.

The adjective “thriving” is rarely used by marketing writers these days, and certainly not by those describing the conference and exhibition industry. After a buoyant time during most of the Nineties, attendance levels showed a marked drop in 1999. Explained away by the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) as a cyclical blip, this still represents the biggest single drop in visitor numbers – almost 1 billion visits, according to the Exhibition Venues Association – in a decade.

This fall could be due partially to the growth in Internet technology and “virtual shows”. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2001 E-commerce Impact Study for the Exhibition and Conference Sector – one of several business sector reports commissioned by the Government to assess the use and impact of online technology – “Marketing budgets apportioned to exhibitions reduce as electronic forms take a greater share of the overall marketing mix. The number of overseas visitors falls as only key people make the trip while others view the exhibition electronically.” Add to this bleak assessment the reluctance of many Americans to travel in the wake of September 11, and a tightening of budgets among the European business community, and 2002 has “potential disaster” written all over it, particularly for international events.

Don’t neglect yourself

It is in hard times like these that an industry must market itself well, telling companies why they need exhibitions and conferences to further their causes. But just how effective is this industry, that spends its time promoting its exhibitors’ interests, when it comes to promoting itself? Can it sell the strengths of individual events while establishing a brand and communicating the relevance of the industry?

David Baldwin, group managing director of London-based full service marketing agency The Big Group, says: “Exhibition and conference organisers are similar to media owners and advertising agencies, in that they’re not good at promoting themselves. They use the words ‘brand’ and ‘marketing’ as if they were seasoned campaigners, but in reality they have little understanding of either. Take a look at the advertising in any of the sector’s numerous trade publications. Many ads look like pages from brochures, packed with as much information as possible, rather than being targeted, well-designed ads. The approach is based on sales, not marketing. The industry seems to be preoccupied with market share, with no understanding of branding. Considering that the events business is in decline, this approach raises serious questions about its long-term future.”

Right person, wrong job

Having worked as a supplier of marketing services to companies in the exhibitions and conferences sector, Baldwin speaks from experience. But where does he feel the problem lies? He says: “Exhibition and conference organisers suffer from a similar problem to a number of other industry sectors. Responsibility for marketing is given to the best salesperson, or to the chairman’s PA. It is rarely given to a marketing professional.”

So is there a lack of marketing information for the industry to work with? Baldwin says: “Far from it. Most companies have well-maintained databases, clearly defined target markets, regular mailing programmes and websites to die for. But it’s a bit like watching a group of over-60s trying to programme a VCR – most of them are hopeless, even after reading the manual. Needless to say, there are exceptions, but these tend to be among the smaller, more adventurous companies – not representative of the industry at large.”

In their defence, it can be said that exhibition organisers spend a lot of time and effort promoting individual shows and many use PR companies and advertising agencies to help them. This tends to be on a project-by-project basis, however, and rarely does an agency get the chance to develop the corporate identity and brand of an events company. This means that the events industry is insular. It preaches to the converted. What it appears not to do is spread the word to those companies and industries which haven’t used its services before.

Talk to big events’ organisers and they appear happy with the situation, seeing no need to boost their brands further. They seem content to rely upon their reputations for being the biggest and best at whatever they do.

Haymarket Exhibitions marketing director Sarah Horrell boasts: “We are the UK’s biggest consumer show organiser.” But when asked about how her company promotes its brand, she falters, saying: “We don’t promote it – perhaps we should. But Haymarket already has a high profile in what is essentially a small sector. The number of organisations within the UK likely to use our services is small and we are in touch with all our competitors. We prefer to concentrate our budget on attracting exhibitors and visitors. It’s difficult to justify spending on something that doesn’t deliver a direct return.”

When Reed Exhibitions managing director Andrew Roberts is asked if he thinks Reed could be doing more to promote itself, he replies: “Anyone who markets themselves would probably like to have more money and do more. We are no exception. As the world’s largest exhibition organiser, however, I believe we do more than most to help develop the case for our medium. We have invested heavily in IT systems to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of exhibiting at our shows. Every one of our shows has a website, many with links to the sectors they serve.”

But all that is still related to individual shows, not to the Reed brand itself. To be fair, larger exhibition organisers would argue that they don’t need to pull in the kind of business that would lead to the creation of a new event, as they can research, create, attract business to and run their own. So it is not surprising they are more intent on promoting the brands of their shows than their own corporate image. It could also be argued that the proof of the pudding is in the eating – the best form of marketing is to run a good show – but once again this does not s

pread the word of exhibitions beyond those already involved in the industry. Reed has recently been developing its brand with the addition of the strapline “delivering business contacts”. But could the company be promoting its brand more effectively?

Opening doors

Some exhibition organisers are waking up to their brands’ potential. Quantum Business Media has repositioned its exhibitions arm to work more closely with other divisions in the group, which include publishing and hospitality. Marketing manager Libby Wilkinson says: “This has really opened up the lines of communication within Quantum, fostering cross-promotion of the company’s activities. This means we can offer a broader range of products and services to our customers if they need it.”

Higher-profile corporate marketing has followed on the events side of the company, and Quantum has used design agency Crocodile to rebrand its exhibitions and draw attention to the Quantum name. Spreading the corporate message throughout the company means that the publishing and hospitality sides of the business will be pushing exhibitions to their clients.

Size doesn’t matter

Although smaller conference companies may not be flocking to recruit agencies and consultants to push their brands for them, they still understand the need for self-promotion. Penny Hanson, who runs small exhibition and conference consultancy and organiser the Hanson Organisation, says: “Smaller events’ organisers need to be marketing-aware to attract companies for which they can run conferences, meetings and exhibitions. Many advertise in the trade press, through magazines such as Meeting and Incentive Travel. They exhibit at conference events to mingle with the staff of medium-sized and large companies who may need their services, and they join trade associations, such as the Society for Incentive Travel Executives to network further.”

Hanson is concerned, however, that event organisers are not considered when companies are deciding how best to promote themselves and that advertising agencies are not selecting relevant marketing media. This means that events companies could be missing out on a lot of business. One reason for this is that, in large companies which require conferencing and exhibition services, those who look after marketing are often in different departments to those who purchase conference services. This lack of understanding also manifests itself on a larger scale. Proximity London chairman Barry Clarke, who recently expressed his concerns to delegates at the AEO’s annual conference, says: “There is little direct contact between advertising agencies and exhibition organisers. Events companies should be targeting their efforts at selling their marketing potential and databases to agencies.”

But no matter how well or how poorly exhibition organisers are promoting themselves, the AEO is campaigning for exhibitions and conferences to be recognised as a mainstream marketing medium. Chief executive Trevor Foley says: “Using funds from our members, we’re putting together ad campaigns for use in the trade press and at exhibitions to increase awareness. We’re also producing user guides to show exhibitors how to use their stands more effectively.”

But Foley is frustrated by the ambivalence of much of his industry towards using agencies. “Many in the industry feel that nothing beats direct client contact, and that consequently they don’t need agencies. But communication between the two sectors would surely be beneficial for all sides.”

Agency clients could be introduced to the benefits of using events. Exhibitors could benefit from better overall marketing techniques. And who knows? Perhaps exhibition organisers may discover the true potential of their brands from people who specialise in corporate identities. They may also come to market themselves more effectively, focusing more attention on the industry as a whole – an industry that may need all the help it can get.

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