A different cast

Gone are the days when IT companies spent huge sums on exhibiting at every show around. Survivors of the dot-com bust now prefer smaller, targeted shows. Organisers, meanwhile, are turning to other sectors for business. By Niall Hunt

In the heady days of the late-Nineties dot-com boom, the IT industry was awash with big spenders, throwing money into anything that might raise their profile. In terms of exhibitions, this meant having the flashiest stand at the biggest show, where buyers would flock to cash in on the latest buzzword. Those days ended abruptly, however – the new economy disappeared almost overnight.

According to the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO), there were some 1,858 exhibitions in the UK last year, spread across 458 venues and attracting more than 17.3 million visitors. These are big figures, but remain below those at the height of the dot-com boom. On the other hand, the exhibitions industry has not been greatly savaged by the collapse of the IT sector.

The Exhibition Department client services director Chris Parsons says the IT sector has seen a dramatic fall-off over the past two years, with many clients disappearing altogether: “Two things became apparent as early as last year. Firstly, IT clients have been attending fewer shows, and secondly they have been cutting budgets and taking smaller stands.”

Acclaim Events & Media Communications works with a number of IT clients, as well as businesses from more traditional sectors like retail. It provides a range of services, from conferences and annual general meetings to product launches and seminars. Director Simon Hambley says: “Generally our IT clients’ budgets have shrunk, but not disappeared. We have lost one or two though.”

The morning-after feeling

Donna Land, marketing manager of Information Builders – an IT company specialising in business intelligence – is responsible for booking space at shows. She says: “I read a quote recently, which said that ‘attending exhibitions is much like getting drunk – it seems a good idea at the time, but it costs too much and the next day you wonder if it was worth it.'”

She says Information Builders attended three large, well-known, industry-recognised exhibitions last year, and that the results were abysmal. In reference to one of these, she says: “People were packing up on the first day. We were one of about seven stands and three of them left on the first day. It was a waste of money and we got burnt badly. Not only did 80 per cent of the pre-registered attendees not show up, but half the exhibitors pulled out at the last moment.”

Land believes that, in the current economic climate, decision-makers do not have time to spend a whole day at an exhibition. She says: “There was a time when you visited lots of exhibitions just to get a feel for what was going on. Companies want to get strategic decision-makers to visit an exhibition, but these people haven’t got time to spend all day going around Earl’s Court. You can find yourself at a generic show, talking to someone for 20 minutes and then realising they have nothing to offer you.”

She adds: “The jury has most definitely ruled against generic IT exhibitions as a good means of lead generation. Exhibitions where organisers facilitate the bringing together of visitors looking for a specific solution are the way forward.”

This helps to meet the new demands of IT companies, which are now more selective about the shows they attend. Hambley suggests that this is caused by economic constraints and the need to generate sales from events. He says: “The past 12 months have forced our IT clients to examine more closely where they spend their money and to think about events a lot more carefully.”

Land also thinks that niche events are a better way of targeting key decision-makers, but adds that this must be backed by strong pre-show contact. She believes that exhibitions have to be integrated into the overall marketing approach because of the constraints on budgets and the need to demonstrate returns on investment. She says: “It is very difficult to measure the effectiveness of exhibitions, so its hard to say: ‘Yes, let’s go and do an event,’ when you’re not sure what you are going to get at the end of it.”

Land says that contacting potential clients before an event is crucial. This includes mailouts to the company’s database of interested parties, as well as advertising its presence at the show in trade journals. “We take a rounded approach, rather than just turning up at an event and hoping people will be there. You need to support your attendance with marketing to make sure you get a return on your investment,” she adds.

Hambley believes that this must continue throughout the course of a show because talking to the right people is more important than a flashy stand. He says: “Some of our clients have taken smaller stands, but spent more money on seminars or hospitality to attract customers to events.”

This, Hambley says, brings better clients to the show and allows exhibitors to spend more “quality time” with prospective customers. He adds: “We’ve been hiring restaurants, so clients can take their top customers out for the evening during the course of an exhibition. At the NEC, we’ve been using smaller rooms away from the main stands, so that our clients can talk in more detail with potential customers. This type of development could be bad for exhibitions, but good for other types of event.”

The bust-busters

So, if the IT sector is reining in budgets and going for more targeted events, what has replaced it, in terms of spending money on big exhibitions and spectacular shows? AEO figures for Exhibition Venues Association (EVA)-qualifying exhibitions – those that take place in venues with more than 2,000 sq m of indoor show space – show that last year saw a drop of only five per cent in event numbers – from 868 to 823 – compared with 2000. At these events, exhibitors spent about &£2.04bn on stands last year – an average of &£12,300 a stand.

According to the AEO, the top three public exhibitions last year were The Daily Mail Ideal Home Show at Earl’s Court in London (462,000 visitors), The Motorbike and Scooter Show (206,434 visitors) and the BBC Clothes Show (130,702 visitors). The top three trade shows were the Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham (79,961 visitors), World Travel Market (38,871 visitors) and The Furniture Show (36,685 visitors). None of these shows are particularly IT-oriented

Hambley has noticed a shift in exhibitors’ business sectors: “Until recently, there wasn’t much of a replacement for IT, but over the past couple of months we have started to get more enquiries from other sectors, such as insurance. We have had a lot of business from the London Business Forum, which has filled a hole for us. In addition, we have had enquiries from a major high street retailer and are working on some projects for the Government. This is interesting for us because in the past we have been very IT-focused. When the IT industry slowed, we went out to search for new business and have had a lot of good work from the Government.”

Good omens and bad signs

Although the IT sector will be feeling the repercussions of the dot-com collapse and the poor economic climate for some time to come, the exhibitions industry is still buoyant – if not effervescent. More traditional businesses have, to some extent, replaced IT companies as big spenders on exhibitions, although IT is not completely out for the count. With smaller, more streamlined events replacing generic exhibitions, the IT sector still plays a large part in the industry, but it needs to demonstrate tangible results from deflated budgets. Gone are the days when flashy launches and glitzy stands seemed to be the only way to gain attention.

Those sectors picking up the pieces in the exhibitions market have escaped from the shadow cast by the IT collapse and, if the momentum continues, could benefit significantly. Sectors that previously had little or no exposure are using exhibitions to highlight their success. However, if the IT sector can recover from previous mistakes, and if traditional industries keep pace, this can be nothing but good news for the conference and exhibitions market.

The danger comes from the focused events suggested by Hambley and Land. If smaller events prove to give better return on investment, then glamorous, high-profile exhibitions may become a thing of the past, especially if the traditional exhibitors move this way as well. Whether this happens or not, there is still a demand for conferences and exhibitions, but it is a demand that is more reliant on quantifiable results than strobe lights and theatrical performances.

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