EN pays a visit to The Conference and Hospitality Show, a MICE event taking the road less travelled by.
For one day a year, The Conference and Hospitality Show (CHS) comes to Leeds.
“People have asked about doing it over two days,” Emma Cartmell, CEO of organiser CHS Group, tells EN.
“But we’ve said we don’t want to do it any bigger. We’ve got it where it’s in a really good location, and now it’s all about increasing visitor numbers.”
Early last month, EN took a trip up north to Leeds’ first direct arena to check out the eighth edition of the show, and our first impression is that the show is unmistakably…Northern.
What do we mean by this? Well, not to engage in stereotyping, but without exception everyone we met at the show was incredibly welcoming.
“It’s a really friendly show,” agrees Cartmell. “Visitors literally go from stand to stand talking to people. We’re so close to our exhibitors that if there’s something wrong then they will pick up the phone and tell me, it means we get to hear everything.”
CHS is a trade event for meeting and event professionals, largely from Yorkshire and the northeast but with exhibitors from as far afield as Scotland and London. Cartmell took over the show from its previous owner, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, in 2010, with no previous experience running exhibitions.
“I come from an event management background,” she explains. “I took the show back to its roots, and went to see all the exhibitors who were already signed up and asked for their feedback.
“We still have some of the principles that we learned from those exhibitors right at the start. One comment they had was that exhibitors were paying different prices, so now we only have an earlybird rate and a full rate. We don’t do last minute deals, and it works because everyone knows they’ve paid the same.”
Perhaps it’s the influence of a background in events management, or the fact the show takes place in an arena rather than an exhibition hall, but CHS feels somehow different from other trade shows.
For one thing, CHS Group provides exhibitors with a complimentary lunch and refreshments throughout the day.
“Part of the reason is that we’re in a venue, not an exhibition hall, so we have no catering,” says Cartmell, “It’s come from a problem, rather than being an idea in itself, but it’s a nice thing and we’d certainly get some feedback if we took it away!”
Another element that gives the show a unique feel is the gigantic teepee taking pride of place in the centre of the show floor. It first appeared at the show in 2016, after a similar structure was used at Cartmell’s stepdaughter’s wedding.
“It takes up a lot of floor space that could be sold,” she admits. “When we first walked in it was just so big, but people gravitate towards it so it works really well. You hear people saying, ‘I’ll meet you under the teepee’. If you lose things like that then you lose a bit of the soul of the show.”
The final intriguing element of the show is its relationship with students. When Cartmell first reached out to exhibitors for feedback they, as is common at trade shows, weren’t hugely fond of the show’s student visitors.
“At first – not necessarily experienced in exhibitions – I said we’d just not let students in,” she explains. “But then we decided that students really need events like this, and that if they want to come, then they can work at the show.”
And so the student volunteer programme was born. Students studying event management at Leeds Beckett and Huddersfield universities can apply to work as volunteers at the show.
The students go through an interview process, and they have to revise everything on the event website, memorising the timings of sessions and elements of the floor plan.
They then come onsite for a day’s training and work on set up and show day.
“It means we get really committed students,” Cartmell tells EN. “They really get excited about it. They know the show and come back year-on-year. And it’s good for us to get reliable staff; we know that we can trust them.”
“Quite a lot of the students have got jobs or placements as a result of volunteering at the show. It’s really rewarding to think we’ve contributed to that in some way. We say to the exhibitors: these guys have really worked hard to be here.
They’re definitely interested in events, so if you have internships or jobs then these are the people to give them to.”
As EN departs Leeds to return to the mean streets of southwest London, we reflect that more trade shows could afford to take the risks that CHS has taken – sacrificing stand space for character, giving exhibitors the VIP treatment, seeing students as a solution, not a problem – because it sure seems to be working.