EN talks to UK Construction Week event director Nathan Garnett about the show’s new code of conduct, and its rules regarding ‘appropriate clothing’ for promotional staff.
Trade events have been hitting the mainstream headlines in recent months, and not for a particularly good reason.
The conversation around the clothing worn by promotional staff in a trade show setting, and in particular the employment of ‘showgirls’ by exhibitors on their stands, has split opinion on all sides of the industry.
In October 2017, an exhibitor at UK Construction Week – and therefore the show itself – became embroiled in a discussion about equality and diversity, both at exhibitions and in the construction industry.
The controversy stemmed from the exhibitor’s use of ‘showgirls’ as part of a Las Vegas-themed stand, which a number of visitors and members of the industry found offensive and counterproductive.
“Construction is a male-dominated industry,” event director Nathan Garnett tells EN. “But it’s very sensitive to that issue and is looking to fix it by primarily fixing the image of construction. People have highlighted things that are not quite right, stands that had the wrong point of sale, that isn’t right for the nature and tone of the event.
“We felt for the exhibitor, because they fell into this; they didn’t set out to have scantily-clad women to draw people onto their stand. However, it was obviously deemed as that and it upset people and started a massive debate, which was mainly on social media. It highlighted that the problem in the industry is actually not getting better.”
In a response to the controversy, UK Construction Week organiser Media 10 decided to release a new code of conduct for the event, which stated: “Clothing must be deemed appropriate for a business event. If the organiser deems the clothing to be unsuitable the organiser reserves the right to prevent admittance of the staff into the event”.
“It’s more like a guide to help exhibitors rather than, ‘here’s our policy and you have to abide by that or we’re going to close you down’,” continues Garnett. “It would be quite easy for someone to do this again, and that’s why we want to help make sure it doesn’t, just by saying, ‘have you thought about this?’”
The organiser has also attempted to help heal relations within the construction industry itself following the October event.
“We invited some of the people that were upset originally to meet with the exhibitor who made the cockup, and that was really useful. Having had the chance to hear the company explain, they said, ‘we can see that you didn’t do this deliberately and actually we want to help you’.
“It was really helpful and, actually, I think something good will come of it for that exhibitor, because they’ve now got direct access to these people who are going to help them talk about what they’re going to do this year.
“The irony of it is that the company in question is actually doing very well on the diversity front themselves.”
Within the exhibition industry, the debate has brought up the issue of how much control organiser have, and should have, over the stands their exhibitors use at the show. At the end of the day, says Garnett, it is usually the name of the show, not the name of the exhibitors, which appears in all the headlines.
“It’s your name above the door,” he explains. “That’s we learnt in Construction Week. Although it was one of the stands at the show, some of the press coverage we got was saying that we had hired them.
“The national journalist doesn’t necessarily get their facts, and us going to them and saying ‘please can you correct that, that’s not true’, they don’t have time for that. They don’t really care either. A stand at your show can reflect your whole event. One stand can tarnish your whole name, and the whole event. So yes, I think it is something that you have to keep a really close eye on.”
So what, asks EN, has the feedback been like from visitors and exhibitors at UK Construction Week since the new code of conduct was published?
“Very, very positive,” says Garnett. “Initially, back in November, it was turning a bit nasty on social media. But what we did with the announcement has only had positive feedback. We’ve had lots of exhibitors saying it’s fantastic.
“I’m so proud to be part of this. We’ve had lots of people who visited the show saying the same thing. I’ve had other organisers contact me to say, ‘can we talk to you about how and what you did to come to that decision?’ It’s been very positive.”
Whatever side other event organisers fall on the debate – Media 10 itself isn’t extending the same policy to all of its events – it’s clear that the issue of gender, equality and what is ‘appropriate’ for a trade event will continue to evolve. There are no clear right or wrong answers, and up to each individual organiser to find their own event’s middle ground.