Think Tank: Trade Exhibitions - Broad versus niche - the great show debate

This month's expert panel discusses whether the big fairs are under threat from the rise of niche events. Emma Reynolds reports.

Talk that the days of the big, horizontal trade shows are numbered is nothing new. But the idea has been given extra weight with the emergence of smaller companies operating in vertical, or niche, markets that lure exhibitors and visitors with the promise of tightly focused, specialist shows.

The situation begs the question whether niche events are a threat to the future of broad-based shows, or whether there is room - and indeed a need - for both.

Fresh RM managing director Andrew Evans says: "The start of the big blockbuster events came in around 1980 but a decade later, thanks to the recession, people became more focused about what they were doing and accepted that huge platform events were perhaps not the best way forward."

Relevant content

He adds that where a big show's success was down to the activities of the exhibitors, the onus is now on the organiser to provide content that is relevant to its market.

Reed Exhibitions is looking at ways to ensure it delivers on the needs of exhibitors and visitors, according to group exhibition director IT/comms Tamar Beck.

"It's a flippant statement to say that broad events don't work - it depends on what's happening at them," she says. "You have to look at your shows, and if people could spend money on other activities and get the same result it becomes harder to justify why they should attend. We have broad events that work very well and have a lot of transactions taking place at them."

But it is these successful, big events that offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to identify a segment within it and exploit that niche market. As Interactive Marketing Partnerships (IMP) Events managing director Clive Ellings says: "The lion brings down a huge gazelle and before you know it there are 20 or 30 other animals around and they are all going to have their share."

IIR Exhibitions managing director Nicky Mason believes organisers of established big shows will suffer from this sort of predatory action only if they take the business for granted and take their eye off the ball.

Understanding markets

"A lot of organisers can be accused of treating their biggest events as cash cows whereas with a launch show you put a huge amount of effort into understanding the market, putting on features that attract the right visitors and providing good content," she says. "Perhaps organisers are guilty of thinking that because they have the biggest brand in the market they don't need to make that kind of investment."

Beck responds that shows that are treated like cash cows will eventually dry up, and that it is for the organiser to continue to provide exhibitors and visitors with a strong reason to attend. This can include preventing a show from becoming too broad. "Where do you start with a show that covers everything?" she asks.

Evans says following research Fresh RM shifted the marketing campaign of Hotelympia to focus on the job functions of show visitors - chefs, for example - rather than company sectors, such as hotels and restaurants.

Ellings suggests this is how specialised events start, but Evans retorts: "If you're a horizontal, broad show you have to approach it that way, even if it provides a platform for niche shows."

Analysing events and making them more focused could be perceived as a response to the threat of niche operators looking to grab a piece of the action. But Mason disagrees. "It's more the recognition that it's much harder to get visitors to come to your show these days," she says.

Big organisers have perhaps come to realise that they need to be cleverer and more targeted in their approach to create and sustain successful exhibitions.

Beck says: "We may have been lazier in the past, chucking out tickets in the knowledge that people would come to the big shows because they were the industry event. A lot of shows aren't in that position any more."

Going specialist

One way forward for organisers of broad shows is to pare them down and go specialist. Ellings says: "If you have a big exhibition that's making a lot of money the best thing would be to get rid of it, segment it out, and start again with just one of those segments."

However, the brand value of a long-standing show may be worth more to the organiser than the price it would get on the open market. "The history of the show means the organiser is more or less locked in," says Ellings.

Mason argues that big exhibition brand names, such as the four-yearly print show Ipex can be of huge benefit to an organiser that wants to launch an associated niche event. "The Ipex brand is hugely powerful and we've been able to use that for launches," she remarks.

Evans says the trick to creating niche events from successful broad shows is knowing when to stop. "If we're not careful we could destroy shows like the Speciality & Fine Food Fairs by allowing in the wrong kind of exhibitor," he comments.

Beck agrees: "If you dilute your product too much you are in danger." Reed's alternative is to clone shows such as Storage Expo and relaunch them overseas.

One rule that applies to broad and niche events is that the exhibition must reflect what is happening in the marketplace.

Fast-moving sector

Mason argues that IIR-organised show Ipex benefits from being owned by printing trade association Picon. "This gives us easy access to the industry and enables us to look at it as a whole and identify what sectors are moving faster," she says. Having identified a burgeoning digital print sector IIR launched its own niche digital print event.

Beck agrees that it is the job of big organisers to look at broad shows, identify which areas are going to be "nibbled at" and get there first.

But Evans believes corporate culture doesn't always allow firms to get close to their markets. "When times are difficult big companies become sales-focused. Their sole purpose is to guard revenue and they are not as prepared as entrepreneurial organisers to test the market and invest in a new product," he says.

Changing the mindset

Evans argues that those bigger companies need to embrace a marketing culture and look at things in a way that is more in line with the mindset of niche organisers. "I don't believe that niche versus broad is new, but the way we have to tackle it is," he adds.

Sometimes this means allowing entrepreneurs to explore markets and launch shows that might later be bought by a larger organiser, which places all the risk in the hands of the smaller organiser.

Beck suggests that big companies could team up with niche organisers. "Entrepreneurial companies may be better at launching events, but companies like Reed have the databases," she says. "It could be a really good match."

And far from being threatened by the existence of niche operators, Beck believes there are positive implications. "There will always be room in the market for niche organisers who want to launch shows, and that's good news for the industry," she says.

In the absence of big show launches, another way forward is the co-location of small events to cater for similar audiences. Evans warns that this has to be carefully thought through and the reason for co-locating must be to offer added value to the visitor.

And the panel agrees that whatever type of show you run - niche or broad-based - success depends on the visitors.

"All organisers have to provide better events for the visitor, and broad shows need to evolve to satisfy their audiences. If we take our eyes off the ball then we've had it," concludes Evans.

THE PANEL

- Tamar Beck, group exhibition director IT/communications, Reed Exhibitions - Debuted at Elsevier in 1991 before moving to Reed in 1995 where she worked up to her current post

- Clive Ellings, managing director, IMP Events - Co-founded the niche organiser last year. Prior to this he was executive director at CMP Europe

- Andrew Evans, managing director, Fresh RM - Took up post in June 2003. He worked at Montgomery Exhibitions for a decade until 1996, when he joined organiser Brintex

- Nicky Mason, managing director, IIR Exhibitions - Has worked in exhibitions for 14 years, 12 of which were spent at Reed Exhibitions

SOUNDBITES

- "I don't believe that niche versus broad is new, but the way we have to tackle it is" - Andrew Evans

- "It's a flippant statement to say that broad events don't work - it depends on what's happening at them" - Tamar Beck

- "The lion brings down a huge gazelle and before you know it there are 20 or 30 other animals around and they are all going to have their share" - Clive Ellings

"A lot of organisers can be accused of treating their biggest events as cash cows" - Nicky Mason.


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