Taking a show to a new venue can be a terrifying decision. Will the audience come with you? Will exhibitors buy into the move? The latest EN Roundtable tackled these questions, and many more…
Jo Burton, Senior Operations Manager, Telegraph Events
Laura Cole, Director, LC Events
Mark Eddy, Group Commercial Director, GES
Chris Hartley, Managing Director, NAEC Stoneleigh
Nicola Macdonald, Exhibition News, Editor
Clare McAndrew, Head of Exhibitions, Story Events
Emma Onuma, Marketing Manager, GES
Kylie Peavoy, Sales Director, GES
Alexander Rushton, Freelance Event Director
Mike Seaman, Managing Director, Raccoon Events
Will Sorrell, Managing Director, Designjunction
On 14 August, a diverse group of event professionals joins EN editor Nicola Macdonald at K West Hotel in London for the latest EN Roundtable. This month, the discussion centres around the challenges, benefits and unforeseen results of moving an event to a new venue.
The roundtable kicks off with Will Sorrell, MD of Designjunction, a peripatetic event that moves to a different London location each year.
“We actually don’t go into conventional venues,” he says. “The idea of the show was that the kind of cutting-edge contemporary design we present shouldn’t be in a trade show environment, so we take over challenging industrial spaces, and they are challenging. Being a nomadic show keeps it fresh, so the business has something to say every year.
“There’s a lot of competition in the market, not only in the UK but in Europe as well. With this rotating program people never really know what they’re going to discover when they visit, so it brings back both the trade and consumer visitors.”
Part and parcel of moving an event is knowing your audience, and knowing that your visitors and exhibitors will follow you. The conversation moves to the recently rebranded Telegraph Ski & Snowboard Festival, which moved from Earl’s Court to Battersea Evolution when the former closed. Burton tells the group that the move to Battersea was largely to do with the venue’s outdoor space and that the audience demographic for the event was already predominantly south west.
Macdonald asks how much the group would look at the existing audience demographics and industries around a venue before moving an event and, from a venue point of view, whether this was an area they researched.
“I think every venue has this, to attract events from other venues and exhibitions.” comments Hartley. “It’s tough because typically if an exhibition is doing well in a venue – and the audience is attending, the satisfaction levels are there and the price is right – it’s pretty tough to prise a trade show out of one venue to another.
“Consumer shows are slightly different because it tends to be a little bit more regional. There might be a great show in Manchester or down in London. It doesn’t mean to say that they shouldn’t consider the Midlands. In terms of attracting organisers it’s incumbent on the venue to not just try and sell its exhibition halls and its space but actually talk about the strengths of the region.”
McAndrew points out that the peripatetic nature of her event became a unique selling point.
“Visitors were coming to see the venue in action running an event as well as the suppliers that were there,” she says. “To be honest, it was successful for us, visitors and numbers-wise until we moved it out of the main buying area and we discovered that is the City. A lot of our city buyers don’t go anywhere else, so when we tried to move it even to the West End we lost all our City buyers.
“However, when we have it in the City, all the other buyers still come to it, so we carried on moving it but it meant that we have to keep it within the City, which obviously has its challenges with the amount of venues that can fit an exhibition.”
McAndrew and her colleagues ultimately decided to stop moving the show, and to give it a home – at least for now – at Banking Hall.
If you move an event, says Seaman, the most important thing is knowing whether your audience will follow.
“It’s knowing which part of your audience is discretionary,” he argues. “Who are the guys that will come regardless of where you are, be that country location or around the country? We moved an event from Dubai to Istanbul, and we thought that the majority of people – because they flew in – would keep going because it’s just a different airport destination.
“Actually, we lost a significant portion of our key buyers because we didn’t do that research in advance. I think that’s the key point that I would suggest; if you are going to move venues, really drill into your audience.”
Beyond the show
Rushton points out that an equally important aspect of a venue move is the effect it will have on the satellite events that spring up around any trade show.
“You’ve got to be aware of what goes on around your event, which maybe we don’t organise ourselves,” he says. “Be it dinners, drinks, receptions your client hosts or fringe conferences which go alongside, it’s making sure that your new location can accommodate them as well.
“You’re not just looking for your needs. It’s about the supporting structure and being aware, for us in the healthcare sector, it’s a very, very busy market. It could be perceived as very easy for someone to pick up what they do with us and take it to a competitor if it suited their needs better. You need to make sure you’re bringing them on a journey.”
McAndrew asks Seaman if visitors to the event he moved from Dubai to Istanbul ever gave feedback as to why they didn’t follow the show to its new location.
“It’s always very non-committal,” he says. “We did a post-event evaluation and a couple of years later we ended up moving it back to Dubai and then it still died. All the reasons we left Dubai were actually correct.
“First of all, what you have to have is a real concept. If you’ve got a really strong concept and a really strong group of people around it you can run it in a bus stop and people will come. If you hold true to what your event is and what the values are then it’ll be fine.
“Moving to a new venue, just don’t take it lightly. It’s that commuter belt of people that are regulars and their trip. If they’ve got a regular trip then they become quite familiar with it and they do it and if you move it they just start to question the decision. Whereas instead of saying, ‘well I’m going to Dubai in December for this event’, it becomes, ‘actually I’ve got something else on now’. You don’t become the automatic choice if you weren’t already automatic choice.”
McAndrew: We actually decided to start keeping it in the same venue, just because we ran out of options in the City and actually our visitor numbers didn’t change at all. They just had the same pattern of growth that they had when we moved it around. As you were saying content is really, really important. As long as you’ve got the content the people want and need they will come.”
Hartley brings up the ‘holy grail’ of visitor: the pre-registered non-attendee, the audience of visitors that don’t engage. Could the right venue tap into this tantalising visitor demographic?
“As show organisers, do you do research what the right location or venue should be with the audience that isn’t necessarily attending the event, and which you want to?” he asks.
McAndrew: “We have held focus groups with those people, but we actually found that actually, the reason why they weren’t coming is that there wasn’t strong enough marketing being put out to them. That was what we need to fix rather than the venue.”
“I think we’ve been quite guilty of blaming the venue for the shortcomings of an event and moving it in haste,” adds Burton. “‘It’s obviously because they don’t want to come here’, whereas actually it’s shortcomings with regards to communications, or not setting enough stands, or not enough content. You could move it anywhere and they’re still not going to come, because that’s where your failing is, not your venue alone. We’re guilty of blaming venues sometimes because it is an easy option rather than looking at yourself and saying, ‘this isn’t working for internal reasons’.”
Seaman: It’s about leading the market or being market-led. You could do all the research in the world and they’ll tell you all sorts of different things. If your proposition isn’t clear in the first place, then you’ll be getting all kinds of confused feedback back.
“If you’ve got a really clearly defined product like you guys [indicating Sorrell and McAndrew] have, they know your premise is that you’re a peripatetic event; you’re going to go wherever and it just is part of what you are.”
Sorrell: “We’ve got a very specific audience of London-based architecture practice, there’s such high density of architectural practices in London. We’re working on an assumption, that seems to work, which is as long as they can get there within in 20 minutes [they’ll come to the show]. Because they’re architects, they work 12 hours a day at least, so to get them out of the office is a challenge.
“We’ve been very successful in marketing – I can say that as it’s one part of the business that I don’t touch as much – the marketing has been amazing and that’s been how we’ve survived moving so many times.”
The bottom line
Cole asks if there has to be more flexibility in terms of budget when dealing with peripatetic events.
“When I move an event from an established exhibition venue to a venue that isn’t used to hosting events, it could be a dry hire and they give you nothing at all,” she says. “You’re having to find the suppliers to make sure you’ve got bins in the place or toilets, do you find that a challenge as well when you’re having to move to these different venues?”
McAndrew: “Yes, we do. The amount we spend on venue does fluctuate but we have a certain amount of sponsorship that we have to reach so that the amount we spend doesn’t go up. Maybe the amount we spend on the venue goes up, but then the amount we spend on catering goes down ( we cater our events as well).”
Seaman: “I think that’s the same with the standard exhibition venue to be honest, because different venues give you different stuff. Some are going to require to you to use your own contractors, some do bits and pieces, some give you their own carpets, some don’t.
“This is all stuff that, if you’re an up and coming event director, you’ve probably don’t have a clue because if it’s the first time you’ve moved. You really need a decent operations person to drill down and say, ‘this is the difference. You’re paying x and x in terms of venue tenancy fee, but these are the hidden costs that you don’t see and there are loads of them’.”
Hartley: “From a venue side there shouldn’t be hidden costs, because that’s one of the reasons that events might move venue, if you’ve just hit them with a £1,500 security bill which you knew was coming and which you haven’t told them about.
“Venues need to be aware that it’s not good for business to hide those costs because it damages a relationship, and events move for small reasons like that as well.”
Macdonald: “Will, do you work with the same suppliers as your event moves around?”
Sorrell: “Wherever possible yes, Some of our venues are being a bit hard on our suppliers. I mean when you get good people you want to hold on to them as much as possible.”
Eddy: “Suppliers are pretty much an open book, by our nature we go everywhere, some are more specialist in certain areas than others, and I think it’s making sure that you get a decent crop of suppliers to talk to, get their reasons why they think they could add value and are you going to get as much out of them as you would hope to? It’s building up that relationship.
“I think it’s fun to look at new venues, we do outdoor venues we do stuff inside, and actually we’re always learning. Just because we’re a large company doesn’t mean to say were not learning, we’re always very interested in saying, ‘that would be a good idea, how are we going to resolve that?’ I think if we can be inclusive in the conversation, you’d get an awful lot more out of it.”
McAndrew: “I think having a relationship with our suppliers is absolutely key to moving venues. you’re already moving the venue which is a big risk, you’ve got to trust the suppliers you’ve got can do the job and they can do it to the standard that you expect. We keep our suppliers really in the loop from the very start.”
Jo Burton: “I think operationally it’s understanding what your suppliers can do. I think we’re quite guilty of going and saying, “We’re in ExCeL, we need shell scheme, we know who we’re going to.” Then when we go to a more boutique or niche venue we tend to go elsewhere, and it’s actually potentially speaking to those schell scheme providers who we just see as shell scheme providers and actually saying, ‘What can you guys do? What can we make fit into this space that’s not shell scheme, but what can we come up with, and what could work you with you to provide packages for our exhibitors that they want that’s not shell scheme, rather than going to a probably more expensive production company. Just having that rhetoric and conversation going on.”
Out of London
The conversation inevitably turns to the London/UK venue divide, and the fact that London-based organisers can be wary of moving events out of the capital.
Onuma, who previously worked at Upper Street Events, recalls moving the Cycle Show from London to the NEC.
“We lost quite a handful of huge exhibitors and a significant number of visitors as well,” she says. “The show took a hit but then the next year it went back again, visitor numbers increased by 30 per cent the next year, because we just had to change the marketing to make it more regional and sweet talk the exhibitor back. And it continued to grow from there.”
McAndrew: “That goes back to your point about we blame the venue and the location, but actually could it be the marketing?”
When it comes to moving out of London, adds Seaman, it’s not just about changing the mindset of the organiser, it’s also about changing the mindset of the clients: “You’re trying to convince people that they’re wrong and that’s always hard.”
Eddy: “From your experience, when you’ve got your international exhibitors, is the cache of London far stronger, with all the additional elements? It’s a destination.”
Seaman: “Stick an event in Vegas or stick an event in New York and you know where everyone’s going to go. If your event is a destination, that does make it more attractive. You are going to probably take a hit in your first year, but commit to it. Treat it like a launch and assume that you’re going to take a dip in numbers, but then assume that you’re going to grow, because that’s just how these things work.”
Macdonald: “I would assume if you’re London-based organiser and you have a show in London you might say that the majority of the visitors are in the south east, but is it because that’s where you are? That’s where you’re going out and meeting people in person and making relationships.”
Seaman: “London isn’t the UK. It’s a microcosm. You can have an event in London and be outside of an hour’s travel time from somewhere else in London. I’m not knocking the London venues because there aren’t many places where you have seven million people within a short train ride of your venue, you can’t knock that especially in B2B. But if you’re looking at consumer shows it does not always have to be London.”
The right conversations
Macdonald wonders if moving venue would be a more seamless experience if more conversations were taking place, for instance between ops and suppliers.
Eddy: “From a supplier point of view I’m not sure we’re as involved in the earlier stages, and whether that’s because at the end of the day we’re all independent businesses and we’ve all got to look after our own best interests, but at the same time I think it would be interesting if we did get together and an organiser said ‘we’re thinking of doing this’, especially if we’re an established supplier.
“We’d certainly be open to having more advanced conversations earlier on to help throw ideas on the table.”
Seaman: “It’s actually my big takeaway from this. These decisions tend to be made in isolation and they tend to be made in an office in London somewhere. You make it with the data you have to hand and actually you probably need to ask more people who have a broader skill set and more experience.”
McAndrew: “Because we don’t hold our exhibitions in exhibition venues we have to get the supplier on board straight away because the have to tell us if it’s going to work. They’ll really our partner, and it works really well.”
Burton: “I think there’s a slight fear with us if we’re looking to move venue that we let the cat out of the bag, because obviously quite hush-hush to start with and the more people you tell, it’s a very small industry. If it gets back to the venue you’re having conversations before you’re ready to.”
Eddy: “With some clients we have to sign NDAs, and we’re all adults so if it’s hush-hush we can keep it to a very strict number of people. But I take your point that it’s a bit of a leap of faith.