The decision by The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) to award the contract for a 2006 Motor Show to the London consortium of Excel, London EventCo and Single Market Events, has shocked industry observers.
The bid from the Birmingham NEC and Haymarket Exhibitions was considered favourite to emerge victorious from the four-month pitching process. The venue extends over 125,000sq m and is the UK's largest exhibition space, capable of holding the 500,000 visitors the show needs to attract over its 11 days, according to the SMMT's brief.
In the aftermath of the 10-year licensing contract being awarded to the 90,000sq m Excel site in London's Docklands, the SMMT criticised the midlands venue of complacency in its bid, which led to motoring manufacturers voting to move the event to London.
"The NEC was given every opportunity to address both the failings of the 2004 Motor Show and the concerns exhibitors had over stand costs and carpark charges, but it didn't respond," says a senior SMMT source. "We had practically given Haymarket and the NEC preferred bidder status and a second pitch allowed the opportunity to improve its bid. Excel's consortium returned with a much improved proposal whilst the NEC remained overly reliant on the amount of space it could provide."
Christopher Macgowan, chief executive of the SMMT, adds: "While we understand this decision will come as a disappointment to the midlands, the reality is that Excel presented a very strong bid while the NEC was unable to deliver a proposal that responded to market demands."
The NEC Group chief executive Andrew Morris responds: "We genuinely believe that our plans provided the best possible solution to the question of how to develop the Motor Show. Feedback from visitors and exhibitors to the new-style show in 2004 was very positive and it is sad that we shall not have the opportunity to build on our commitment.
"Given the support that we were enjoying for our proposals we are incredulous about this decision and once the automotive industry has come to terms with it, I would not be at all surprised if we see a backlash and defections from the show."
Single Market Events managing director Tim Etchells is, however, confident that the manufacturers will support a 2006 London event planned for 12-23 July, claiming his consortium's proposals received unanimous support.
The manufacturers will also be impressed by the consortium's £2.5m marketing budget.
"Our plan centred around making the car the star and emphasised real value for both exhibitors and visitors," Etchells says. "Entrance ticket prices will be kept low and exhibitors will be encouraged to book smaller stands while we create a real festival environment across the site."
Single Market Events and London EventCo plan to install a 1km-long racetrack around the venue halls, which will form a live action arena. Much of the activity will take place outside of Excel including a Rock around the Dock concert earmarked for the weekend, drive-in movie screenings and test-drive tracks. Etchells continues: "The content was very much a double-act between myself and London EventCo managing director Rob MacKenzie. It is by far the most exciting challenge I have faced."
Haymarket Exhibitions managing director Gavin Brown conceded defeat but insisted that the NEC did address the issues that came out of the 2004 event. He believes that the deciding factor in awarding the contract to Excel was its London location but says that the venue will struggle to attract 35,000 visitors a day.
"We worked closely with the local council and Advantage West Midlands to put together a winning bid but the SMMT indicated that London was a more favoured location," says Brown. "The failings of the 2004 event were not of the NEC's making. A change in date plus the re-brand confused the visitor and that, ultimately, rests with the SMMT."
The NEC's Morris has indicated that he may still launch other events aimed at the automotive sector in Birmingham, but Haymarket Exhibitions is unlikely to be involved. Brown explains: "We already run Autosport International and Max Power Live at the NEC, which have a significant economic impact on the region. Naturally we are disappointed about losing out on the Motor Show but we must now focus on developing our highly successful portfolio."