Phil Soar: Don’t confuse me with the facts

In his latest column for Exhibition News, Phil Soar says effective measurement of the industry could soon be a thing of the past. 

There are probably not many of us who will mourn the loss of graphs, statistics and useful information about our industry.

But that is where we are. The original EVA analysis of exhibitions was called “The Facts”. But as far as our industry was concerned, it would have been better named “Don’t Try to Confuse Me With The Facts.”  This was indeed what one Blenheim director said to me when I pointed out what the numbers were saying about his business.

So, as a funereal requiem, I will offer up what could well be the last ever numerical analysis of the history of the exhibition industry in the United Kingdom.

There are three graphs with this article. I have been producing variations on this theme for EN for two decades now.

They are very straightforward.

One is the best estimate of total square metres sold to exhibitors at recognised UK events since 1985. (This generally covered all recognised venues with an indoor area of at least 2,000 gross square metres).

The second is the same for visitors at recognised UK events in that period.

And the third is data from IPSOS MORI which measures “Public Optimism about the Economy for the next 12 Months” – if 60% are positive and 40% negative then the score on the graph would be +20% etc.

We can only use the information which exists

The information we use largely comes from “The Facts,” produced by EVA from 1985 to circa 2008, from the AEO’s own research, from ABC and, in recent years, from the SASiE report. The SASiE report is the only source of reliable industry information of late, but it does not produce absolute numbers. What it does is gives year on year comparisons, so there needs to be a degree of interpretation to incorporate SASiE into the previous reports.

Since AEO members gave up auditing in 2009, and rarely publish visitor numbers nowadays, it is literally impossible to calculate exact total visitors, and indeed square metres, across the industry. Hence we have to use anecdotal information and what SASiE can generate to make reasonable guesses.

After 2019 we hit an information brick wall – and it is still there

This was all very well until 2019 – after which we hit a brick wall. There is no benefit to making guesses for 2020, 2021 and 2022 – and perhaps not for 2023 either. An attempt by SASiE to report in 2024 can only realistically work off a like-for-like base of 2023. Given that only a limited number of shows now publish visitor numbers, and that venues may supply gross square metres but not net, it is hard to see how we will have enough information in 2023 to create a new baseline. I have to accept that the chains of information we have traditionally used are probably irretrievably broken.

The after effects of the pandemic will also harm any attempts to gather information. While events throughout Europe are generally coming back well (with odd reports of 100%+ attendances and size), it is likely that most are still in the 70-85% range (Informa suggested they hoped to run at 76% of 2019 in 2022 and that would be a very reliable statistic). As a result, most companies are reluctant to release any genuine numbers – they naturally fear that they will not return to 2019, or not do so for some time, and our companies have always been reluctant to release any stats which showed a declining attendance.

I don’t propose to try to explain what we see in the graphs in any great detail, but a few observations.

The fall in visitors after 2007 is not what it seems

The apparently dramatic fall in visitor numbers after around 2007 is not quite what it seems. It largely reflects the decline and eventual closure of a small number of large consumer events – in particular the Motor Show (which attracted as many as 978,000 twenty years earlier) and the London Boat Show. After the recession of 2008-2010, visitor numbers at trade shows were increasing at a very pleasing rate, until they were hit by the brick wall of Brexit in 2016, the resulting rapid decline in GDP growth and, more importantly, loss of confidence.

In terms of square metres sold – which is a good proxy for revenues – it is clear that 2000 was the industry peak. I have never been able to decide why that particular year should have been so – ExCeL did not open until November 2000 so that explanation doesn’t work. Maybe there was a massive surge of “The Show of the Millennium” psychology. But, interestingly, if we regard 2000 as something of a freak, then from 1998 to 2016 the exhibition industry stayed reasonably stable (declining only 4% in total square metres if our numbers are to be accepted).

From 1998 to 2016 total square metres remained very stable

It is also not surprising that the visitor numbers, which are gathered separately, also peaked in 2000.

As with visitors, the effect on square metres of the Brexit vote in 2016 seems clear, with a sudden reversal in the upward trend line (this was not the case in mainland Europe, hence the UK was an outlier).

This where the IPSOS MORI graph helps. They interview random samples of citizens and businesses who are asked whether they think the economy will improve or decline in the next 12 months. And the point on the graph is the balance of these answers. In other words, if 60% are positive and 40% negative then the point on the graph will be +20%.


The graph is reasonably clear – the minus 60% figure in 2009 indicates the financial recession. The sudden apparent surge to +20% in 2021 is an artifice because the question is “Do you think the economy will improve from where we are today in the next 12 months?” Given the economic collapse via Covid-19 in 2020, then a belief in some rebound in 2021 was logical.

The most recent figure of some 67% is almost the worst the survey has ever recorded – and we are yet to feel the full effects of inflation, energy prices and tax increases.

How wider economic stats are reflected in exhibition performance

What is striking from our point of view is, of course, the dramatic decline in confidence from 2016 onwards – this made the UK an outlier given that the rest of the world remained positive. The reason – one has to assume – was Brexit.

There are a collection of other economic statistics which reinforce these trends.

The Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis examines trends for the majority of countries in the world. Every country was affected by the pandemic of course, so we can only judge the UK’s performance by comparing it to others. When comparing with the three months before Covid-19, UK exports have fallen by 15.7% in the most recent three month period. This is in stark contrast to the global average – which is an increase of 8.2% – or France (+9.2%) or Germany (+9.9%).

More startling is that the UK is now the only developed country in the world where goods exports are below their average for 2010.

These are general longer trends in the UK economy. But it is six years now since the Brexit vote, and we can clearly see the long term economic negative effect of that self-induced decision to reduce trade (on the other reasons for that vote, I decline to comment).

So, can we see these trends in numbers we can analyse?

Does this affect us one might ask? Of course it does. Confidence in the future is central to buying houses, or cars, or booking holidays. All of this is vital (at one or two removes maybe) to our ability to grow trade and consumer events. There isn’t an automatic straight line relationship. But over a period of time (such as 2016 to 2020) one can see the trend lines very clearly in our square metres and visitors. We are at the “variable” end of the economy. Any advertising agency will tell you that in confident times, when GDP is rising at perhaps 3% a year, then the effect on marketing budgets is dramatic. They don’t grow at 3% – but at 10% and 15% as the marginal extra profitability is poured back into promoting and marketing products and services. This is when exhibitions benefit disproportionately.

In case you don’t follow these things, from 1978 to 2008 productivity in the UK (in effect the rate at which overall wealth is increasing) grew at an average of 2.2% per annum. Between 2009 and 2021 it has grown at just 0.4% a year – in effect not at all. Compare those statistics with the graphs which accompany this article – and see if there is a correlation.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it

I doubt very much that we will ever look at any of these graphs again, and, to be fair, the industry seems to trip along quite nicely without them. It has been a truism in almost all industries that one needs fact, facts, facts, information, information, information. As one of our accountancy firms keeps parroting: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Well it appears that we cannot measure the exhibition industry.

And perhaps trade shows and exhibitions are again the exception. Not only do we not measure it, we don’t seem to shed many tears for that omission. So, sadly, it appears it might be goodbye to all that.


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