Show Preview: International Confex 2007

Confex's event director hopes a raft of fresh ideas will draw in the crowds, writes Ben Lerwill.

International Confex is not one to rest on its laurels. Last year it underlined its status as the country's foremost industry event, winning praise for a series of fresh initiatives and arresting a slide in visitor numbers. A total of more than 11,000 largely satisfied customers in 2006 would be taken by many organisers as a sign that the hard work had been done - but event director Duncan Reid disagrees.

"When I picked up the show about 18 months ago I think it had been drifting along for a number of years," he says. "It hadn't had any fresh investment in the product. The same show was being turned out year after year - (organiser) CMPi was happy to take a bit of profit from it and see it carry on. We carried out a lot of research to see what could be changed and what people wanted from the event. It was clear that people were mainly looking for inspiration and fresh ideas, so that's what we've focused on."

Given the lively industry that it represents, an emphasis on evolving the Confex experience for visitors has always been vital. The danger with constant transition, of course, is that you can end up losing sight of the show's original reason for being. This potential banana skin has been nimbly avoided, with all the standard business ingredients still firmly in place, but a raft of new features and additional products have helped create a bold, forward-thinking package.

"Time is precious these days. If you're going to ask event planners to leave their offices, you've got to put on a pretty good offering to make them want to come," he continues. "There's a combination of things we're doing. Among the key additions are a massive seminar programme and three big-name keynote speakers. They'll provide a chance to address the key challenges facing the industry."

The seminar programme - called the Confex Knowledge - is nothing if not comprehensive. More than 45 free sessions will take place over the three days, run over four separate seminar theatres on the exhibition floor and split broadly into corporate, agency and association subject matter, with the final theatre run by the Association of Event Organisers and dedicated to sustainability, marketing, operation and logistics. The hope is that every visitor will find sessions to tickle his or her fancy, with talks aimed at everyone from newcomers ("How to get a job in events") to old campaigners ("Win-win benefits of corporate partnerships") and all those in between. In a topical industry first, visitors will be able to watch any sessions they may have missed as podcasts on the show's website.

The keynote speakers, meanwhile, are similarly impressive. Those attending the show on Tuesday will benefit from the brand expertise of Simon Woodroffe, Dragons' Den panellist and founder of Yo! Sushi. On Wednesday, Tony Blair's former adviser Alastair Campbell will be focusing on strategic communication and drawing on his unique experience of Whitehall's inner workings. To round things off on Thursday, Dave Magliano, director of marketing for London 2012, will be relaying advice after his involvement in what has been dubbed the most competitive pitch of all time.

Other features at this year's show are the Fun Zone, an area to take a breather from the rigours of commerce with arcade games and penalty shoot-outs (who says business takes itself too seriously?), and the Secret Garden, a contrasting space given over to spa treatments and relaxation.

Visit Denmark will be running a seminar on the Thursday that segues into an actual trip to Copenhagen that evening for pre-registrants, while on offer throughout the show will be an advice centre, a creche and five all-important bars and lounges.

The ongoing overhaul since previous director Jessica Blue's departure in 2005 leads Reid to draw comparisons with another British institution.

"Confex is similar to Marks & Spencer," he says. "If you go back a year or 18 months, M&S was a well established brand with quite good footfall and revenues. It had its brand advocates but the problem it had was that a new market had emerged. So it changed its ad campaign, refreshed its image, and suddenly footfall and revenue were up - that's what we're looking to do with Confex. We've tried to be more engaging, more creative and more fun."

And this approach is more than just a short-term thing. "This is something that's ongoing," he adds. "At the moment I'm looking at 2008 and 2009.

When you're trying to change something, you've got to have a multiple-year strategy in place. I'm already talking to Visit Britain and Visit London about things we can do in the latter part of this decade in preparation for the Olympics. Next year's floor plan is already being drawn up."

CMPi acquired the National Venue Show in the early part of 2006, a move that helps the parent company fulfil its strategy of holding an autumn and a spring show for the industry. It now boasts the country's two best-attended trade shows in the sector. However, the NVS acquisition in itself is not likely to have any direct effect on the nature of Confex, whose vision is more one of self-betterment. In a step likely to meet with much interest, Reid lets drop that there will be an announcement at this year's show detailing a 'co-location' with another event for 2008. This would mean another, partly related show running concurrently in the same venue.

"We'll probably be sharing news about a co-location for 2008," he says, staying tight-lipped about the details. "The thinking of course is that if you put shows together that have a similar kind of audience, you'll see an overall increase in numbers. It means that visitors still only need to take one day out of the office and the exhibitors get to see more people."

Reid is optimistic that visitor numbers will continue their upward trajectory towards the 13,000 mark that the show enjoyed in its late-1990s heyday.

Non-exhibiting attendees generally fall into one of four categories: agencies, corporates, associations and supplier visitors. The first three of these are split relatively equally, with agencies slightly outweighing the others.

Supplier visitors are being "discouraged in as friendly a way as possible" to retain a focus on "quality attendees", although last year they still comprised more than a quarter of total visitors. Some 96% of those at the show were from the UK, and this too is an area that is hoped to be decreased in coming years.

Exhibitor numbers have increased slightly on 2006 but remain around the 1,000 mark. There are more than 80 new attendees, including Visit Brighton, Stadium Experience, Grass Roots Group, Czech Tourism and Shire Hotels.

Shirley Pinn, marketing for Stadium Experience, which handles event facilities at 47 football league grounds, says: "It's a prime time to create awareness of our offer and Confex is the natural platform. We'll be coming into contact with precisely the kind of clients we're after."

Importantly, the show is taking more than just token steps to become more environmentally friendly. One seminar theatre is given over entirely to green issues on the Tuesday, bulky press packs have (mercifully) been scrapped and there are hopes that the £10,000 raised last year for charity will be matched. "It's tricky for the events industry," says Reid. "From getting in your car and travelling to the event, and using all the materials at the show itself, you could in one sense say it's all wasteful. But people need to be looking at how to make events as green as possible, and that's what we really want to get across - that it's about lots of small steps." As the 24th International Confex prepares to usher the industry into Earls Court, this is a philosophy that could be applied to the progress of the show as a whole.

FACT FILE

- Last year's visitor attendance, audited by ABC, was 7,211 - this was marginally up on the previous year's figure. Total attendance for visitors and exhibitors was 11,127.

- This year's show will be the 24th to date. The inaugural Confex was held in 1984, making it the longest running show for the events industry.

- Earls Court will welcome visitors to this year's show from 10am until 5pm daily, Tuesday 20th to Thursday 22nd February. Access is via the London Underground, bus, car or mainline rail.

- There will be five colour-coded zones on the show floor, covering UK Destinations, International Destinations, Corporate Hospitality & Parties, Exhibiting & Events Live and the London Area.

- Visitors can register at www.international-confex.com

MORNA REEKIE

"We represent Edinburgh and Stirling Castles and have been exhibiting at Confex for about 10 years. For a long time we formed part of the Scotland stand but for the past four years we've taken our own space. Increasing our presence has actually been very successful for us. It's a good way of raising awareness of the facilities and getting hold of firm leads that hopefully lead on to bookings.

The layout of the show last year meant it was hard to compare it directly to previous years, but we'll be able to do that this year. This is the only show that we attend in the UK - it's just the most efficient for what we're after. It's great for us that there are plenty of agencies and corporates present - Edinburgh Castle in particular attracts a lot of big functions and events in that market. And Stirling Castle brings in a lot of incentive groups - it's the full palatial experience and available for exclusive use - so again the show works well for us. We want to get across a key message this year about our caterers rebranding, and it gives us the platform to do that."

- Morna Reekie, sales and marketing assistant manager, Historic Scotland

IAN TAYLOR

"I'm really excited about this year's Confex. We won four awards at last year's show so it was a great success for us, and we've spent the past 12 months refining our service even further.

The show gives us a great platform - we're sharing stand space with the ICC and the NEC Group, but this time we've also got six hotel partners exhibiting with us. It provides us with good physical presence.

We're looking to touch base with the London audience, meet new contacts, reconnect with existing ones and get the message across that Birmingham is the place that can hold it all together.

In terms of other shows, we always work very closely with the National Venue Show. In addition, we attend a lot of the Visit Britain events and Birmingham has standalone presence at Imex for the first time this year.

We're looking closely at EIBTM too.

I think the new team at Confex has had a really good impact. It's beginning to understand that it needs to be an event and not just an exhibition and I think you saw that last year. The plans and marketing for this year seem to be carrying that on - it's a happening show, and I think that's important for the industry."

- Ian Taylor, commercial director, Birmingham Convention Bureau

DOMINIC HONEY

"This will be our fourth year as exhibitors at Confex. It's the best trade show for our type of services, and for the event industry as a whole, that's held in the UK.

There are plenty of others we've attended as either exhibitors or attendees, both here and abroad - the likes of the Event Show, the National Venue Show and EIBTM - but Confex still remains the number one show for us as a company. It's the only one we exhibit at now.

We supply a number of different services that are all based on bringing interactive technology to an event - things like simple voting wireless keypads, which can be used for anything from gameshows to corporate meetings.

These can be used as an energiser or in a more considered, businesslike role, which is great because Confex covers both of those areas.

The show is about the delegates that we get to meet. Every year that we exhibit at Confex, we get direct contact with between 100 and 300 people who are decision-makers or event organisers.

It's always very helpful for us in that respect."

- Dominic Honey, operations general, Crystal Interactive

JONATHAN READ

"We've been at the last couple of shows. Last year was very successful for us which is why we're coming back.

I think one of the factors that entices us at the moment is that some of the larger hoteliers are moving away from these shows, which opens up the door to independent hoteliers like us and gives us more exposure.

I still think Confex is the best show in the UK for meetings and events, and that's our predominant business at both our properties - Sopwell House in St Albans and Five Lakes Hotel in Essex. They're both close to the capital and that's another reason we go to Confex - to attract London buyers.

We ended up running three large events last year as a direct result of Confex. Everyone's marketing budgets are getting smarter and ours is no exception, and we look very hard at which shows we've done in the past and which ones have been successful.

Confex comes out on top at the moment. Even though we had a slightly smaller stand last year than in 2005, the quality of people we spoke to seemed to be better. It's encouraging for the future."

Jonathan Read, regional business development manager, AB Hotels.


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