Exhibitions account for a sizeable chunk of companies’ marketing expenditure, but the results of exhibiting have often been left unquantified. Now, organisers are coming under pressure to fund independent audits of visitors to shows. By David Benady
Exhibitions organisers are in disarray over plans to impose a system of independently audited attendance figures as the industry tries to show it is a media vehicle with as much right to a slice of marketing budgets as advertising and direct marketing.
Independent audits are seen as providing essential information for exhibitors, allowing verification of organisers’ claims about how many people attend their shows, and whether they are relevant consumers. But there are voices of disenchantment with the current Audit Bureau of Circulations system. At present, only 176 trade shows and 45 consumer shows – out of a total of over 850 exhibitions a year – submit themselves to ABC audits. There are big questions over whether ABC audits will really catch on and whether they will succeed in legitimising the exhibitions industry in the minds of marketers.
Organisers are being told by their trade body and by the ABC that an independent “currency” to compare the success of exhibitions and trade shows can be used as an added tool to prise funds from exhibitors’ pockets. But some have questioned the validity of the ABC method, saying it only counts tickets sold rather than the number of people actually turning up at the shows.
One, two, three with ABC
Auditing through the ABC is recommended practice for members of the Association of Exhibition Organisers running indoor shows of more than 2,000 sq m or outdoor shows of more than 8,000 sq m. As aeo deputy director Austen Hawkins says: “We believe that, if all other media have independent measurement of audiences, exhibitions should of course supply the same quality of data.”
Hawkins is a former ABC marketer who set up the current exhibition auditing system and was hired to the aeo post because of his background. Some feel there has been a concerted effort by the aeo to impose a system of independent auditing on the industry regardless of whether it is appropriate.
The auditing drive is part of an effort to make the exhibitions industry a respected form of marketing. After all, in 2001, over &£2bn was spent through exhibitions; that’s 11 per cent of the UK’s total marketing spend of about &£17bn (Advertising Association). As a marketing medium, exhibitions are nearly four times the size of radio.
All concerned admit that the situation today is much better than before the ABC audits became common practice, about five years ago. There had been a belief among exhibitors that organisers could make up their figures about how many people were coming through the door and there was no way to check this. With the ABC audits, at least there is a more-or-less believable measure available at a much lower cost than other methods.
But Sally Peers, managing director of Exhibition Audience Audits (EAA), which conducts research into the numbers attending exhibitions, questions the quality of the ABC data. She says: “Most of the audits are done by the ABC, but they use a ticket-counting method. We have been auditing in the exhibition world for 30 years and we count heads coming into shows. It is more expensive, but we include detailed visitor research which is reliable to a known statistical level.”
Counting the pennies
EAA sends teams of researchers to exhibitions to ask those attending what sorts of jobs they do, which part of the country they come from and what budget they are responsible for. The bigger the show, the more counters are required. An EAA audit can cost an exhibition organiser &£10,000 or more.
On the other hand, ABC offers two types of audit: the standard audit, which costs up to &£540; and the more complex profile audit, which includes data such as the job titles of attendees and costs a maximum of &£2,714.
But Peers says that ABC audits may include exhibitors and people who worked at the shows, and that they may also count people who have pre-registered but did not actually turn up, or people who came in from a conference next door.
However, ABC insists that it ensures its audits are statistically reliable. Jan Pitt, director of business to business at ABC and the executive responsible for exhibitions, explains how the auditing takes place. After the show, the exhibition organiser sends in its claim for attendance on a form. This will include the number of people the organiser says attended the show. ABC checks this by telephoning a sample of about 100 people to ensure they attended – rather than pre-registering and not attending. If the organisers have ordered a profile audit, they will send registration documents with information about the attendees such as their job title, and the name of the company they work for.
Pitt defends the use of sampling to check the validity of data: “We do statistically valid samples. If we have issues, we sample a larger base. It is a pretty accurate way of doing things.”
And she says the inclusion in the total number of attendees of people working on the show as well as others who drift in from other shows is acceptable, because it is clearly stated in the audit that these people are included.
The way an ABC audit is conducted is governed by rules laid down by the industry. Pitt says: “Exhibitors are included in the attendance figures because that is how the industry wants us to count it.” ABC has an eight-person specialist committee for exhibitions, made up of exhibition organisers and one or two exhibitors. All rules that they make are passed to the ABC Council, which is made up of eight people from ad agencies, eight buyers, such as Procter & Gamble and Masterfoods and 16 sellers. They take the final decisions on passing the regulations.
Numbering the beasts
While only about a quarter of UK shows are audited by ABC, Pitt says this is a similar proportion to the number of audits the organisation runs in other areas such as business and trade magazines. She says the important measure is the size of the shows that are being audited – they tend to be the major shows, rather than smaller ones. Exhibition auditing has grown by 40 per cent over the past few years.
She says: “Awareness of the service ABC is offering has improved. Marketers need to be more aware that the figures exist and need to ask for these audits, otherwise there is no great incentive for organisers to audit their shows.”
Hawkins defends the ABC system, and rejects criticisms that he is somehow trying to build his own career through extending exhibition audits. He says: “My job would be easier if we didn’t have exhibition auditing, and we would have more members.” He admits that criticisms of the way the figures are put together are often valid, but argues that it is better to have a common currency than none at all. He continues: “I accept that auditing is not everything. Research is as important, if not more so, because it gives quality data. But you must have a comparable media currency, and if you don’t start somewhere you will have an uneven playing field where people tell misleading stories.”
Hawkins believes it will be a long time before ABC audits assume the degree of importance in selling exhibition space that they have in magazines and newspapers. This is because print ad space is often sold through agencies, which demand a higher degree of transparency.
At the biggest shows, the biggest exhibitors will usually sign up whatever the audit says about visitor numbers. It is the smaller companies which need to know whether they are wisely investing their money in shows. For them, and for those who are new to the field, audits become especially important. Only time will tell whether the move to ABC auditing pays off and exhibitions become as transparent a part of marketing as other parts of the mix.
International Confex 2003
International Confex will take place from February 25 to 27 at Earls Court in London, with over 1,300 exhibitors from over 70 countries.
The exhibition is split into four industry sectors:
â¢ UK venues and destinations;
â¢ Overseas venues and destinations;
â¢ Corporate hospitality and events;
â¢ Support services.
Exhibitors include national tourist offices, hotels, venues, special event organisers, display specialists, catering companies and convention bureaux.
There is a programme of seminar sessions throughout the three days of the show, covering everything from the latest news and advancements in the events industry to marketing ideas on how to promote your next event.