UK VENUES: When venues exhibit - Venues are increasingly taking space at exhibitions in the battle to win business. Emma Reynolds looks at their strategies

As the UK event industry grows, venues are pitted against one another in the battle for business. As a result, venue managers are using exhibitions to promote their facilities direct to the industry that helps keep them in business.

The key shows are International Confex, the National Venue Show (NVS), Meetings and Incentive Travel (M&IT) and EIBTM, the exhibition for the European Incentive Business Travel and Meetings industry. Most UK venues attend one or more of these events.

Boosting the profile

NEC Group marketing director Christina Nicholson says: "Exhibiting gives us a presence within our target markets and boosts our profile in the industry and among general business audiences. We know it's important to make that face-to-face contact with customers."

Wembley exhibited at February's Confex at Earls Court and launched its "Lifting the lid

strategy, designed to encourage people to lift the lid on Wembley and take a look inside. Wembley senior commercial and marketing manager Julie Warren explains: "We felt it was the place for us to be. It's held in February so you get the chance to deliver messages and information about services at the start of the year."

Harrogate International Centre (HIC) head of marketing Stuart McKay agrees that exhibiting is a vital part of a venue's marketing strategy. "It's about putting yourself on show and demonstrating your commitment," he says. "We can talk to people face-to-face to give them information about developments."

HIC used Confex to promote its Hall A entrance, which had been completed in January, an online accommodation booking facility and an air-conditioning system for all halls, which will be installed by the summer.

Attending a show is also an effective way to launch a product or service to a large audience. Stoneleigh Park unveiled its new identity at Confex, having dropped the NAC - which stood for National Agricultural Centre - from its name, and promoted its new corporate package for exhibition organisers. Carl Partridge, head of commercial events at the Coventry venue, says: "At exhibitions you can see what your competition is doing and learn from each other."

Excel used Confex to launch its yacht hotel, The Sunborn, which will be moored at the venue in London's Docklands from this month. The 104 luxury suites are complemented by a restaurant and bar lounge and the yacht also features an auditorium, two conference rooms and a meeting room with a sauna.

Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) went to Confex to spread the news about the venue's £85,000 CCTV camera network in the multi-storey car park, and a £30,000 infrared deaf-loop system that relays sound by line-of-sight for the hearing-impaired.

Ready-made opportunity

Earls Court & Olympia Group (ECO) exhibited at its own venue at Confex.

ECO commercial director Nigel Nathan says: "It was a ready-made opportunity to highlight our £60m improvement programme.

This includes Earls Court's hall-dividing gridded ceiling system that allows the venue to stage smaller events.

But it's not just improvements that can be emphasised at shows - they also provide an opportunity to showcase the town or region in which they are located.

BIC head of conferences and exhibitions Clive Tyers says: "Exhibitions such as Confex and EIBTM help to raise Bournemouth's profile on the international stage and keep the venue and the town in the forefront of the minds of conference and event organisers."

G-Mex marketing manager Keith Robertson says his venue and the Manchester International Convention Centre (MICC) exhibited at last year's National Venue Show under the banner of "the perfect partnership". And at Confex the two teamed up with tourism body Marketing Manchester to promote the city. G-Mex is not only pushing its involvement with the 2002 Commonwealth Games, but also the development of local hotels. "These are facilities that enhance our own centre," Robertson says.

Similarly, Philip Rees, commercial director at The King's Hall in Belfast, says one of the reasons the venue exhibits is to promote the Northern Ireland capital. "Organisers may have preconceived ideas about Belfast and we need to tackle this head-on,

he explains. "Shows such as Confex and the National Venue Show are effective tools that allow us to present ourselves at places with a high footfall.

Rees adds that although the venue's exhibition presence hasn't highlighted any specific products, the objective is to promote King's Hall as a versatile venue.

This is also the case for Alexandra Palace at Confex. Chris Gothard, head of sales and marketing at the north London venue, says: "Not enough people know what we can do at Alexandra Palace and exhibiting is one way to change that.

Budgetary constraints mean the venue attends only Confex, but Gothard says the amount of leads gained at the show are a good return on investment. "I would be most upset if my budget was cut so that we couldn't go to Confex,

he says. "Over the years it has become part of the industry psyche that you have to be there."

For the past two years The International Centre, Telford (TIC) has been at shows to promote its redevelopment programme, which includes a new conference and banqueting suite, six additional break-out rooms and improved public circulation and registration areas.

Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) has been exhibiting in the UK and at EIBTM in Geneva to draw attention to its £18m expansion programme. This includes two multi-purpose halls, 23 break-out rooms and upgraded IT and audiovisual facilities.

TIC sales and marketing manager Matthew Lambert argues that it is a big mistake for venues to think that exhibiting involves nothing more than turning up and setting up a stand.

"You have to prepare for an exhibition,

he says. "I am a firm believer in the effectiveness of shows but only if the preparation, the manning of the stand, and the follow-ups are done correctly. If you ignore any of these elements then you may as well not be there."

Wembley's Warren agrees. "Anyone doing exhibitions needs to be mindful of their return on investment. That's why you have to go there with clear objectives and an understanding of why you're there. It needs careful planning and follow-ups,

she says.

Going it alone

The King's Hall used to share exhibition space with the Northern Ireland Conference Bureau at NVS and Confex, but this year commercial director Rees decided to go it alone. He believes it will make the exhibiting experience more effective. "I think it's better to be clearly identified with one product,

he says.

However, London Arena, which has exhibited alongside London East Side at Confex for the past three years, has found it beneficial to share a stand.

London Arena director of sales, exhibitions and conferences James Rees says: "There's good cross-fertilisation and the joint marketing effort works well for us."

While venue managers are aware that exhibiting is an important part of the marketing mix, they are keen to stress that they work best in conjunction with other marketing methods.

AECC managing director Clarke Milloy argues: "I think that exhibiting is one of the best ways to make people aware of your venue, but it needs to be integrated with and supported by other communication efforts such as advertising, direct mail and follow-up sales visits."

An example of this is HIC's decision to use direct mail to promote the Harrogate venue's presence at Confex by inviting people to the stand.

Venue objectives for exhibiting at shows range from launching products and services to highlighting redevelopments, gaining business leads and raising their profiles. For some it is simply an opportunity to meet customers and catch up with industry colleagues.

Whatever their objectives, venue managers recognise the need to exhibit not only to promote their facilities, but to show support for the exhibition and events market. As G-Mex's Robertson says: "Exhibiting gives us credibility within the industry. It shows organisers that we believe in what we do, and in what they do. It demonstrates that we are committed to the industry and that we believe exhibitions work."

OPINION - Martin Neale, general manager, The Concept Centre

Venues are in the live event business so it would be slightly incongruous if they did not buy into the concept that using a live event as part of their marketing mix was a sensible strategy. It is essential that venues evaluate which live events to support. The type of business they enjoy and the customers they attract will enable them to understand which events they should be a part of.

The Concept Centre has exhibited at most of the key shows for venues. As a full production venue with no accommodation EIBTM is of limited value to us, as is M&IT, which is much more about small meetings than big productions.

Confex delivers mainly direct corporates and venue finding agencies, as does the National Venue Show. For us the exciting new kid on the block is RSVP, which provides a mix of direct corporates and production/ design houses.

Organisers must deliver the audience but venues must make the most of their opportunities, whether they have 9 sq m or 90 sq m of exhibition space.

Local shows can also be relevant to some venues for parochial business opportunities. Exhibiting at a trade show in a market sector that is not dedicated to the event industry, but where you could offer your venue to the visitors and to other exhibitors, can be an interesting approach to take.

For us, exhibitions are the core activity in our marketing strategy. Try it - you may like it.

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