AEO Conference Review: Delegates hear the brutal truth

The AEO conference in Birmingham this year will be remembered for its speakers' candidness, writes Mike Fletcher.

Brand Events managing director Chris Hughes maintains that this year's Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) conference was his last as its compere. From the moment he was lowered from the rafters on to the stage, the AEO should have been adding a column to its 2006 budget sheet in order to set aside enough money to change his mind.

Hughes's quick wit, professional delivery and enthusiasm, even with very little sleep - as was the case with his opening address of day two - rubs off on delegates and speakers alike. He is key to an annual industry gathering that has improved in content and production year on year since its inception in 2001, and he will be impossible to replace.

This year's conference, entitled 'Blast of Innovation' took place at the ICC Birmingham from 6-8 September. For the previous two years, the conference had been held in Brighton.

As well as taking a good mix of more than 350 senior and junior organisers, suppliers and venue personnel to the Midlands, the AEO risked rebooking one of last year's keynote speakers, former group marketing director of Barclays Simon Gulliford, who reappeared 'due to popular demand'.

Even Gulliford confessed there was a danger that he could repeat last year's performance and apologised in advanced, just in case. Fortunately it wasn't necessary, and his speech on why good is no longer good enough was not only innovative, but also pricked the conscience of many in the room.

"The challenge is to break the mould and there is often the most pressure to conform when you're in a large company. But if you just rearrange the pieces then you can't expect to sell for a premium," Gulliford says. "Being no worse than your competitor is not a competitive position and a driver of quality is doing new and exciting things and often doing them simply."

Gulliford illustrated how innovative risk taking can pay off, provided it delivers value, by citing Tesco's reduction in car parking spaces to allow more room for family vehicles. The retail brand's market capitalisation has risen from £320m in 1984 to £22.1bn this year and is now the same as Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Somerfields and Boots combined.

Two relative newcomers to the world of exhibitions are Reed Exhibitions UK chief executive Alastair Gornall and former Ministry of Sound chief executive Mark Rodol, who heads up Earls Court & Olympia Group's latest in-house organiser venture Trend & Culture. Given a platform to share their impressions of the industry to date, both used it to air some home truths.

"In my 25 years planning client PR and marketing campaigns, no-one ever came to sell me the concept of an exhibition," says Gornall. "Exhibitions are not on the radar of the media planner or buyer and are too often sold to exhibiting companies as a product rather than a benefit or solution to a marketing problem."

Rodol agrees. "I was spending millions of marketing pounds at Ministry and exhibitions were not mentioned once. Exhibitions need to start acting as brands and developing in the same way in order to get noticed," he says.

Other uncomfortable truths were brought to the fore as part of a conference programme that included expertly delivered blasts of innovation from motivational speakers such as Freud Communications chairman Matthew Freud and Intelligence Agency co-founder Richard Reeves.

Five-minute slots between speakers were handed to 'Innovation Idols' to deliver short blasts of inspiration, but only Opex Exhibition Services group managing director Andy Gibb used his time to inspire rather than advertise, and master of ceremonies Hughes began referring to the slots as 'ad breaks'.

The industry's ability to criticise and analyse itself whilst celebrating its creative flair came to a head with the final conference session, a panel debate.

The NEC Group chief executive Andrew Morris launched a scathing attack on what he calls "an industry in denial". And panellists including Emap TPS managing director Alison Jackson and Imago Communications director Hugh Keeble painted an honest portrait of an industry that needs to love its audiences more and invest in developing talent.

Reed's Gornall says: "Enhancing the value and the content of our medium is just the beginning. Now is a prime time to get closer to media planners by delivering an effective return on investment model, leveraging our insight and educating clients on the effectiveness of eyeball marketing in an age of digital bias.

"The battle is currently being fought at ground level and we need to get more planes in the air for a wider and more visible reach."

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