It’s been a rocky few years for sustainable construction event Ecobuild, but are new independent owners Futurebuild Events beginning to change its fortunes?
When Futurebuild Events staged a management buyout of Ecobuild from UBM in late 2016, it’s fair to say the sustainable construction show was in decline.
There were several reasons for this, Futurebuild MD Martin Hurn tells EN. “It’s an interesting one,” he says. “The majority of the decline came when the government pulled the incentives. If you look back to the 2011 show, 30-40 per cent of it was renewable energy – solar, heat pumps, biomass boilers etc. – but they were heavily subsidised by the government so the install market was huge.
“You as a homeowner could fit them on your home for almost nothing. There was a huge amount of international investment coming over. But then the government completely cut the subsidies, and so that market then fell apart.”
Hurn, along with many of the current Futurebuild team, worked on Ecobuild when the show was with UBM, and felt there was a potential renaissance in the show’s future.
The 2017 show was technically run by Futurebuild, but under a service agreement with UBM, so the March 2018 event was the first time the new organiser could spread its wings and enact some fundamental changes.
“We did the standard things, like set up steering groups, but we also took the decision to work with fewer partners, but in a more meaningful way,” says Hurn. “I think leaving UBM gave us that independence back; we didn’t have in-house magazines. A lot of the media brands and the associations were more willing to work with us and to work with us a lot more closely.
“I think that came across in the content programme as well. The conference programme used to be run by the Building magazine editorial team, and I think that frustrated some people in the industry. What we said is that we want to do the complete opposite. We handed over sessions of our conference to the key industry groups, and really did quite a lot of surveys and feedback through steering groups to understand what people wanted.”
The changes made an impact. The 2018 show saw a five per cent increase in visitors and the strongest exhibitor rebook in five years. The level of seniority among visitors also increased, with more senior figures perhaps curious to see first hand how the show was changing under new management.
One might have thought, however, that even with a newly independent team at the helm it might be difficult persuading exhibitors to part with their hard-earned cash.
“We started out thinking that,” admits Hurn,” But people really embraced the fact that we’d gone back independent. I think there was a lot of love for [previous owners] IBE when they ran the event before, and we said we’d focus on customer care, which from our research we found that people thought had been lost.
“We went out and tried to win back a lot of the lapsed brands and had a lot of success with that. People wanted the brands back, the big brands but also the small, quirky innovations. We worked with people like Innovate UK – who fund a lot of the UK startups – and created a pavilion.
“We could be really agile in our approach. We could almost go to the exhibitors and say ‘what would bring you back?’ and then develop propositions.”
Ecobuild 2018, continues Hurn, was arguably a return to the show’s roots. In place of glamorous celebrity hosts, the event’s conference was chaired by highly regarded industry professionals. Rather than attempting to compete with other construction trade shows in terms of content, the Futurebuild Events team decided to try and find topics that only Ecobuild could do.
“That’s where the sustainable development goals came in,” elaborates Hurn. “They are really important to UK construction and also that wider sense of climate change. We always wanted to tackle the big macro issues and then show how they are relevant to UK construction.”
Like many trade events, the seminars and conference sessions at Ecobuild were CPD-accredited. Unlike many trade construction conference, says Hurn, all sessions were free to attend.
“I personally think the conference that we put on is better than most of the paid-for conferences in our industry,” he tells EN. “The conference had more than 3,000 people attend it over three days. We put on so much content; I think we had nine seminars as well as the central conference.”
While 2018 saw some significant changes to the Ecobuild format under the stewardship of Futurebuild Events, that was nothing compared to the changes coming to the show in 2019 and beyond…
A bright future
“We’re bringing back the Futurebuild brand,” reveals Hurn. “Futurebuild ran alongside Ecobuild for many years. When IBE launched the show in 2005 it was one of four events: Futurebuild, Ecobuild, Regenex and Cityscape. And then, as sustainability became increasingly popular, the other brands dropped off and phased out.
“What we want to do is retain the Ecobuild brand at the centre of the event but it will be a curated exhibition. That will sit within Futurebuild, which will be the overarching event brand. It enables us to focus on things like future materials and innovation, but also we can start to champion the wider construction issues that maybe aren’t sustainability related: procurement, Brexit, legislation etc.
“As an example, Grenfell is so high-profile, and it has highlighted a lot of the flaws in UK construction; not only product testing but also legislation and how we govern and the quality of building. We had to cover that, but it didn’t probably fit in an Ecobuild sustainability conference.
“We know there’s a massive skills gap onsite in terms of builders and plumbers, but also we play in the specifier sort of market – architects, engineers, contractors – and there’s also a massive skills gap and diversity issues. Now we can start to focus on all of that.”
When Ecobuild was bought by UBM in 2011 – for a reported £51m – the organising giant had big plans for the show, including the potential launch of Ecobuild China and other geoclones. Why the show was ultimately unable to fulfil that potential is perhaps still unclear, but what is clear is that Hurn and his team at Futurebuild events have given Ecobuild a new lease of life and, EN hopes, a bright, successful future.