Exhibition Halls: Survival strategies

As larger shows stagnate, organisers are relying more than ever on niche events or are playing to regional commercial strengths, writes Clive Walker.

'Adapt or die' is a hackneyed adage but it is proving to be the saving grace of the exhibition industry, as organisers expand their portfolios and retrench into highly targeted niche shows.

Research by the Exhibition Venues Association (EVA) indicates large exhibitions, commanding 20,000sqm, are stagnating while demand for specialised events under 5,000sqm is booming.

Overall, the number of trade shows is reported to have risen from 408 in 2003 to 466 last year, while consumer events rose by 51 to 449 in the same period. Antiques and crafts exhibitions commanded 59 per cent of venue space, confirming the trend for lifestyle and hobby events. Meanwhile, information technology, at one time the UK's fastest growing industry, took only 16 per cent of space.

Paul Lewis, acting EVA chairman and Harrogate International Centre director, says the market remains flat because many exhibitions are drawing on the same pool of visitors.

However, specific genres of exhibitions are clearly dominating UK show halls, he says. "Medical and pharmaceutical is still a growth area for those venues able to combine exhibitions with conferences. But increased leisure time, health issues and greater influences on lifestyle are prompting growing interest in these areas, especially in terms of consumer shows."

Eyebrows are unlikely to rise on learning that London is still reporting the strongest business growth. But the optimism belies seismic shifts in the type and size of events staged across the capital.

Information technology, where sprawling one-stop shows have been superseded by specialised or 'vertical' fixtures, is typical. InfoSec, staged at Earls Court and Olympia (EC&O), is currently the UK's largest IT show.

Staged by Reed Exhibitions, the event lured 10,000 visitors through the turnstiles from 26-28 April. By consolidating itself within the security market, the show has survived at a time when the IT industry is in steady decline.

This is a classic example of a major exhibition sector transforming beyond all recognition into a tightly focused format, argues EC&O exhibition sales director Jeremy Reef. "IT companies are buying each other and consequently the exhibition square meterage just isn't there today. InfoSec's focus on IT security is very relevant. It shows how exhibitions are becoming tailored to specific jobs and specific people," he adds.

Alexandra Palace in north London reports a similar surge in special interest events. The British Toy Soldier and Figure Show, organised by Vectis Auctions, is held three times a year in March, June and December. It has grown into the biggest show of its kind, attracting visitors and exhibitors from across Europe and the United States.

Chris Gothard, Alexandra Palace's sales and marketing head, believes organisers and venue managers have a tighter grasp on what works and what flops.

"Exhibitions are not dead," he says. "Like all marketing in the modern era, audience segmentation is the solution. So instead of having an exhibition of cars, you have an exhibition of customised cars. Instead of toys, you have one of British toy soldiers and figures."

The popularity of property make-over TV shows like the BBC's Changing Rooms has spawned a new generation of interior design exhibitions aimed at specific groups of aspiring homemakers. In fact, homes and property is now the most vibrant sector at Excel, according to deputy chief executive Kevin Murphy. This year's line-up includes Show House, organised by Blendon Communications from 1-3 November, and Centaur Exhibitions' London Homebuilding and Renovating Show from 30 September-2 October.

By virtue of its very name, Islington's Business Design Centre (BDC) is also carving a lucrative niche in the decor industry. From 2-3 March, in-house organiser Upper Street Events and Single Market Events staged The Surface Design Show for 3,500 visitors. Upper Street also worked on New Designers, from 29 June-10 July, attracting 14,000.

To consolidate its position within the design sector, BDC recently ran an e-marketing campaign targeting associations and city-based companies, along with extensive advertising in key design titles such as FX and Icon.

BDC commercial director Graham Stephenson says: "We have a relatively good split between trade and consumer exhibitions, the balance leaning towards trade. Owing to the nature of the venue, we attract a number of design and more specifically interior led shows."

Association events are also providing a lucrative revenue stream, adds Stephenson. The International Map Trade Association's trade show on 11-12 February attracted 350 visitors, and the annual exhibition of the British Association of Public Safety Communications Officers (BAPCO) on 21-22 April saw 1,250 delegates attend.

At the same time, regional venues such as Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) are increasingly playing to local commercial strengths.

Aberdeen is the undisputed energy capital of Europe and most of the oil, gas and renewable energy players have headquarters around the city. For this reason, the AECC has emerged as a dominant player in the energy exhibition sector.

AECC managing director Clarke Milloy explains: "We target the energy exhibitions due to the strong links the sector has with Aberdeen. In fact, the AECC was originally built in 1985 to provide a home for the Offshore Europe exhibition.

"We also attract medical and life science exhibitions because various research institutes and industry experts are based in the city."

In many ways Offshore Europe - or OE as it is now known - bucks the trend for tight events. The biennial show attracts 1,400 exhibitors and some 26,000 visitors from around the globe. Organised by Spearhead Exhibitions, it was held from 6-9 September this year and is contracted to remain at the AECC until 2019.

On a smaller scale, All-Energy, organised by AECC and Media Generation, showcases the vast array of equipment, components and services demanded specifically by renewable energy equipment manufacturers. More than 2,000 delegates and 200 exhibitors attended during 25-26 May.

Scotland has sharpened its approach to exhibitions since the evolution of Event Scotland in 2003. The joint venture between the Scottish government and Visit Scotland is bringing financial assistance, marketing expertise and long-term co-ordination between venues. By beefing up the region's marketing muscle, it is hoped that event organisers will take a fresh look at Scotland's facilities.

Key venues, such as the Royal Highland Centre (RHC) in Edinburgh, are reporting a healthy rise in exhibition bookings. The RHC has seen event business double in 12 months, driven principally by niche car exhibitions.

Among the car events debuting this July was AutoTrader's Fast and Modified which brought 9,500 spectators; and Wheels of Yesteryear, staged by the Scottish Association of Vehicle Enthusiasts and attended by around 300.

Venue director Grant Knight says: "Business is up by 10 per cent with car related events delivering most interest. We are now keen to attract a four-by-four event and we are talking to a couple of organisers which want to bring this category to Edinburgh."

Consumer shows form the business bedrock of the Yorkshire Event Centre (YEC) in Harrogate. New fixtures include the annual Organic Food Festival, organised by BCF, which clocked up 2,000 visitors last November. Twice as many attended the British Beer and Pub Association's Great Northern Beer and Fine Food show staged in October 2004. Also of note is the twice-yearly Papercraft Extravaganza, run by Craftwork Cards, which saw 3,500 visitors during its February and September slots last year.

Overall event business - including trade exhibitions - is up by 15-20 per cent year-on-year. The increase can be partly pinned on the preference shown by exhibitors to remain local, according to YEC managing director Heather Parry.

London shows are increasingly spawning northern versions to satisfy both exhibitors and visitors tired of trekking to the capital. Parry cites Bakers' Fair North as typical of this trend. Organised by Pearl Media, the biennial event attracted 400 delegates last November.

Across the Irish Sea in Belfast, the King's Hall Exhibition and Conference Centre says consumer events are outstripping trade shows because of the province's burgeoning economy. Around 70 per cent of business is consumer-led and, like the rest of the UK, the focus is on lifestyle fashions and specific past-times. For example, Nationwide Exhibitions brings its Stitch and Creative Crafts show to the venue next year from 16-18 March.

The venue's marketing and events manager, Ruth Cleland, explains: "Disposable income is higher, greater money is being devoted to leisure and social activities and consumer goods are more attainable. Organisers are recognising this and producing shows to capture the market."

Trade shows make up the remaining 30% of events at King's Hall and, once again, economic factors are shaping the profile of exhibitions. The Good Friday peace agreement, for example, has ushered in an era of unprecedented construction and engineering around Belfast. Consequently, King's Hall plays host next year to the annual Construct Expo, organised by Expo Exhibitions from 9-11 March.

There has been much speculation about a downturn in attendance at UK exhibitions and trade shows. While the future of mega-shows looks uncertain, the rise in niche formats appears to be unassailable. Lifestyle fads, namely home improvement and handicrafts, currently dominate the landscape.

The challenge for organisers is predicting which new genres are waiting in the wings.

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