Last October the NEC staged an exhibition that not only generated more than £200m for the economy but also put the UK on the international stage.
While the industry is still basking in the success of international textile machinery show ITMA, which attracted visitors from 130 countries, one question remains - should UK venues do more to attract other large international shows to British shores.
NEC commercial director Simon Horgan argues that bidding for international events is made difficult because the UK industry is structured too differently to that on mainland Europe. "UK organisers don't bid for events because they're only interested in owning tradable vehicles. So the venues do the bidding, but it means that they have to offer an organising arm," he says.
The NEC tried to be more European by introducing a contracting scheme that oversaw the appointment of stand contractors and included the service offer in the price of the stand. But the system raised eyebrows in the UK. "The industry is closed-minded and people didn't understand what it meant," insists Horgan.
The International Centre, Telford managing director Shaun Ormrod believes that the UK's problem is geographical. "We are seen as peripheral to venues in mainland Europe because of that strip of water. It's an issue of perception," he comments.
But not everyone agrees. Royal Horticultural Halls (RHH) head of sales and marketing Maugie Lyons retorts: "Overseas visitors to World Travel Market (WTM) compete fiercely to get to London. If organisers in mainland Europe won't bring their shows here because they get it easier in their own country then to my mind that's not the sign of a good organiser."
Reed Travel Exhibitions' WTM is one of a handful of UK exhibitions that Business Tourism Partnership (BTP) chairman Michael Hirst terms "truly international". Another is Trade Promotion Services' (TPS) Spring Fair which attracts almost 10,000 buyers (10% of the total) and 600 exhibitors (15%) from overseas.
"An international exhibition requires a meaningful representation of overseas exhibitors and visitors," comments Hirst.
He believes the UK industry should be more proactive in bidding for this type of business, not least because of the money it brings in to the country.
Closer to home
Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre chief executive Mike Closier counters that UK venues should focus on business closer to home. "Bidding for international shows should only be a priority for venues such as the NEC and Excel because the effort is disproportionate to the returns," he says.
Closier, who is also chairman of the Exhibition Venues Association (EVA), adds: "On the face of it, attracting an international show sounds very sexy, but you have to ask 'Does it make money?' and 'Do people want to come and see it?'"
Earls Court & Olympia Group (ECO) chief executive Andrew Morris agrees. "ITMA showed how the UK can rise to the challenge of these huge events but at times we can't, and perhaps don't need to, commit to them when we have plenty of domestic business to take care of," he says.
Morris also warns of the huge cost involved in effectively marketing a venue overseas. He and Excel chief executive Jamie Buchan believe business tourism organisations are the best way to make a mark with international marketing. "We need to put more effort into presenting a unified front through Visit Britain and Visit London," argues Buchan.
The Docklands venue chief adds that attracting more overseas business would force the Government to recognise the commercial value of the UK exhibition industry - something which many feel is long overdue.
"I don't think the Government even recognises there is such a thing as a UK exhibition industry," says the RHH's Lyons. "We're a service industry and we can be quite invisible at times."
She believes the Government's support of ITMA was to help the textile industry rather than the UK exhibition industry.
Her view is shared by Hirst at the BTP, but he adds that world-class industry-specific events will come from supporting those industries. "The DTI has sector strategies that are of interest to the UK exhibition industry. We have to influence those sectors about the importance of exhibitions and make events integral to their strategies," he argues.
The NEC's Horgan insists the venue had little help from the Government when it was organising ITMA. And he is dismayed that there are subsidies for UK companies that exhibit abroad, but no such support for companies exhibiting in the UK.
"The Government doesn't understand British tourism in the context of exhibitions and it penalises exhibitors by not supporting them if the show is in the UK," he explains.
The DTI's export division, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), organises trade missions that UK companies can go on to promote their services abroad. This can include exhibition venues.
UKTI leisure and tourism team head Richard Parry points out that the division wants to help companies - including firms within the exhibition industry - to develop and become international. "I recognise the enormous value of inbound tourism," he remarks. "The business visitor industry is huge for the economy and that includes exhibitions." His words are underlined by the fact that UKTI is setting up a team to look at business services, which will include exhibitions.
Despite this ray of hope for the exhibition industry some believe we can learn a thing or two from our European counterparts. "We look to Germany, which is the heartland of international trade fairs, but we've only just got to grips with the dimension that's necessary," comments Hirst.
But ECO's Morris argues that you cannot compare the German messen to UK venues as the former are publicly funded and can offer "dramatically different deals" to those offered by privately owned venues.
For Lyons, the UK industry focuses too heavily on what other countries are doing. "We tend to look outwards, but there are already international shows that exist in the UK," she states.
These include IIR Exhibitions' print show IPEX where at last year's show 25,000 overseas visitors accounted for a third of the total attendance. And Emap-Mel's Interbuild UK, where one in five exhibitors is foreign.
Lyons believes that rather than attracting shows from abroad, the UK industry can make a name on the international stage by building on UK events that have international potential and can be developed to attract more European visitors and exhibitors.
She is not alone in that view. Montgomery Exhibitions chairman and Union of International Fairs (UFI) vice-president Sandy Angus cites his own Hotelympia exhibition as well as TPS's Spring and Autumn Fairs and gardening and leisure show Glee as examples of UK shows with an international reach.
"UK organisers already run international shows and we have some high quality international trade fairs here," he says. "We should invest in our own shows and the Government should support us to get more international visitors at UK exhibitions."
Buchan at Excel believes that the situation requires a two-pronged approach. "While I agree that we can ensure the health of the domestic industry by helping shows grow and by fostering the growth of new launches, I don't think doing that is mutually exclusive to attracting international shows," he says.
Others in the industry are equally optimistic about the possibilities for home-grown talent and the BTP's Hirst points out that statistics from sources such as the Association of Exhibition Organisers and EVA's UK Exhibition Facts show an encouraging increase in international presence at UK shows (see tables).
"We mustn't abandon the UK's extraordinarily strong domestic business - it's our lifeblood and we have creative and entrepreneurial show organisers here," he says. "We can build on our UK shows - we just need more understanding about marketing overseas and about what makes an exhibition international."
Others, however, need more convincing about the willingness and ability of people in the UK exhibition industry to grow and change in order to fulfil its international potential.
The NEC's Horgan concludes: "ITMA showed that if the industry would change it could have more of this type of event. But people want to forget the lessons learned from ITMA and go back to how it was. But we want to bang the table and tell people that they have to learn."