For the first time in its 90-year history the British Exhibition Contractors Association (BECA) has surveyed its members (Event, February).
The report revealed a high level of satisfaction, but can BECA do more to help its 250-strong membership.
Ross Redican, divisional director at Camden Exhibition Services (CES), has always worked at companies that are members of BECA. He argues that the extent to which firms benefit from membership depends on their size.
"It's a useful tool for smaller contractors who might not be able to afford human resources or health and safety departments," he says.
Opex Exhibition Services sales and marketing director Laura Tythcott argues that the company's stand design and build division, Optimum, is more likely to benefit from the services that BECA provides, rather than Opex as a whole. "Because we are bigger we don't need as much from BECA in terms of advice and information," she states.
A medium-sized company such as Graham Parrish Exhibitions is more likely to take advantage of the benefits. General manager Andy Metcalf has worked at BECA companies for more than 20 years. He says: "It's important to be in the association. I think it has shown consistency in the quality of information it shares on issues such as congestion charging in London, and the service that it has given."
But there have been calls for BECA to better promote its services, which include help with health and safety issues and employment legislation. One other service the panel welcomes is BECA's bargaining ability.
"That's what the role of a trade association should be - to negotiate better deals and rates for its members," argues Metcalf.
For Opex and CES, the major benefit of being a BECA member is credibility. The panel agrees that using the BECA logo on promotional material is a good marketing ploy, although Tythcott believes Opex wouldn't suffer without it. "It is good to say you are a member, but it isn't a driving force for people to use us," she comments.
Redican says BECA membership is crucial when pitching for European projects. "We would not be able to do those tenders if we weren't a member," he says. "European organisers want reassurance about a firm's level of competency.
Membership proves you are health and safety trained and the BECA Guarantee Bond, which guarantees that any work started by a member will be finished, is another assurance."
The survey revealed a surprisingly high percentage - 87% - of BECA members working abroad. BECA director Lynn Felton has said that the organisation needs to develop new services to reflect this level of overseas work and Redican suggests BECA could look at inviting European contractors to join, or establish European partner contractors.
A common area of concern is BECA's annual functions. "They ought to be better opportunities for networking, and less expensive so that people other than the directors can go," argues Metcalf.
The format of events such as the BECA Ball and the BECA Golf Day were also called into question. Tythcott says: "With the pressure placed on people's time, anything you go to has got to be relevant. If it is going to be just a jolly, or you can't have a credible conversation with anyone, then you're less likely to go. You have to justify what you're getting out of these things."
Driven by the past
Tythcott calls on the organisation to "drag itself into the 21st century". She says: "BECA is still suffering from being seen as an old association, driven by the past. It needs shaking up."
She adds that BECA's image suffers in comparison with that of the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO), which is "slick and modern". The difference in quality of the two associations' newsletters is a case in point.
"BECA needs to market itself much more heavily, but it comes down to how much it can afford to raise its profile," says Redican.
A heightened presence is likely to give BECA added clout and answer calls by surveyed members for it to be more proactive on industry issues, such as the problem of shortening tenancy times and the effect this has on build-up and breakdown.
Tythcott, however, argues that members have a responsibility to draw attention to matters that affect them. "Members need to bring those issues to the table. They won't be common to every member so BECA can't know about them," she says.
One argument to improve representation is a proposed merger between BECA, the AEO and the Exhibition Venues Association. The panel is unanimously opposed to this idea. Metcalf says: "For all this talk about having just one association representing contractors, organisers and venues, I think there would be a conflict of interest."
Redican adds: "We all have issues but they do overlap. There are too many egos in the three associations to make it work."
The panel believes the solution lies in more collaboration and better communication between the three associations.
Harness the power
Tythcott says BECA needs to capitalise on its membership the way the AEO does. "It makes sense to harness the power of the bigger members, and that doesn't have to be financially," she says.
Metcalf suggests BECA might even like to consider inviting exhibition companies outside the contracting sector to join.
But the biggest concern for the panel is that while contractors have improved their services and expanded their offers, their trade association is failing to communicate this to the wider industry. Metcalf says: "People don't fully understand the whole range of services and expertise that contractors have. It's not just technical knowledge and management because it now includes help with organising, whether it's registration or advice on colour schemes. Perhaps contractor is not the right word for what we do now."
Tythcott believes BECA needs to address the crossover of services between contractors and organisers. "Companies are moving into different fields. Times have changed and the players have changed with it," she says.
Looking for help
Redican argues that this trend for contractors to help with the organisation of exhibitions stems from cuts in operations departments. "Organisers are less experienced and are looking for help from contractors," he says.
Metcalf agrees, and adds that contractors have become the operations side of exhibition organising. "BECA needs to make people aware of the breadth of experience and expertise that contractors have, and how that has changed," he says.
The panel notes that Felton is pushing for change but says she needs the support of the BECA committee. "She can't do it all on her own," says Redican.
And while there is general praise for the job done by the BECA board thus far, there is a suggestion that some new blood wouldn't be a bad thing.
"The industry has older heads at the top of the tree and the perception is that contractors and BECA are made from an old mould," says Redican.
But despite the concerns about BECA's direction, Metcalf, Redican and Tythcott are all keen to emphasise their commitment to the association and their desire to see it develop into a sophisticated and modern force.
As Tythcott says: "It's about seeing BECA as a really credible force, driving itself, and therefore its members, forward. Contractors have had to become much more proactive in terms of delivery of service and quality, and BECA has to mirror that."
Laura Tythcott, sales and marketing director, Opex Exhibition Services
Worked in exhibitions and conferences for a decade. Has been at Opex for four years
Ross Redican, divisional director, Camden Exhibition Services
Career in the industry spans more than two decades. The 42-year-old father of three rejoined Camden in 2001 after a previous three-year stint as a sales manager
Andy Metcalf, general manager, Graham Parrish Exhibitions
Joined the company in 2001. Has worked as sales and marketing director at Melville Exhibition Services and done stints at De Boer Structures and Witney UK.
"BECA is still suffering from being seen as an old association, driven by the past. It needs shaking up"
"It's important to be in the association. I think it has shown consistency in the quality of information it shares on issues such as congestion charging and the service that it has given"
"BECA needs to market itself much more heavily, but it comes down to how much it can afford to raise its profile"