Home TypeFeatures It was 100 years ago today…

It was 100 years ago today…

by EN

EN guest editor Phil Soar looks back at the story of the Association of Event Organisers, and shares how its battles with the Government have endured since its beginnings. 

Image: British Industries Fair, Creative Commons Licence.

You probably don’t remember 1921. Bread cost 4d a loaf (that’s old pennies) – the price has gone up a mere 80 times since. The average house cost £320 – that’s gone up 700 times in a century. The average wage was £2 a week – that’s risen 350 times.

Spurs won the FA Cup in a thunderstorm. The game was played at Stamford Bridge and their captain, Arthur Grimsdell, carried the Cup down to Fulham Broadway Station and took it home to Watford on the train. It might have been the last time Spurs won at Stamford Bridge (confession: I am Spurs Official Historian). Australia beat England eight times in Ashes test matches in a year. The very first beauty contest was held in Atlantic City and the government forced dentists to register; before 1921 anyone could call themselves a dentist. The Irish Free State finally gained independence.

The largest exhibition by far in the UK was the BIF (British Industries Fair), which filled the whole of Crystal Palace in Sydenham (it recurs in the story below).

Why am I telling you all this?

Because on 30 June 1921 the Association of Exhibition Organisers was formed – although it started out as ‘The Trade Exhibition Organisers Association’.

This was the first time that any group of people or businesses involved in exhibitions ever got together to work for our industry.

There were just nine people present and their shows were:

  • The Drapery and Clothing Exhibition
  • The London Fair and Market Food Exhibition
  • The Printing Exhibition
  • The Shipping Exhibition
  • The Building Trades Exhibition (renamed in 1974)
  • The Rubber Exhibition
  • The Shoe and Leather Fair
  • The Confectioners and Bakers Exhibition
  • The Brewers and Allied Trades Exhibition

Of those shows only one, the Building Trades Exhibition, survived the subsequent decades and it later became known as InterBuild. And only one of the nine attendees represented a company which is still a member today – Hugh Greville Montgomery of the company of the same name.

So, what caused to form the AEO 100 Years Ago? Well, it was to mount an attack on the government. The Board of Trade had been aggressively poaching exhibitors from their nine events and persuading them to go into the BIF instead. Just three years later the same problem arose again in spades, with the AEO fighting hard and unsuccessfully to stop the government swamping them with Wembley’s massive 1924 Empire Exhibition. As far as can be told, the attempts to influence the government failed, perhaps setting the tone for the next century.

There is little excitement to be had in plotting the history of the AEO in subsequent years. As early as 1925 the main topic on the agenda was already excessive electricity charges at Olympia (a theme which continued for decades and probably still does). The name was changed to AEO in January 1929. Indeed, it was in 1929 that the AEO came out very aggressively in favour of plans to build a new hall at Earl’s Court – basically to put pressure on Olympia’s prices (echoes of Reed and UBM’s support for ExCeL in the 1990s are sonorous here). This lengthy campaign continued through the depression, not coming to fruition until 1937 when Earl’s Court was opened.

The depression took its toll, as did increased union activity. There was even a proposal to disband the AEO in November 1936, which was only just defeated.

The ongoing disputes with the unions came to a head in 1938, when there was a threatened strike of painters, electricians, and carpenters over demarcation. A shop steward of the painters’ union had spotted an innocent exhibitor touching up the paintwork on his own stand and the union threatened to bring the whole event to a halt. This remained a permanent headache for perhaps the next 50 years – and some of the Pathé newsreels we will show at the 100th Anniversary Celebrations on 10 December cover exactly these annual disputes.

The AEO began to have annual lunches with some occasional awards in the early 1990s, often coinciding with Confex. At the same time, the AEO changed its focus. Previously it had tended to be a body which focused on negotiating with venues and contractors, but now it recognised that it had to look outwards rather than inwards, and the four or five major players created an Exhibition Marketing Group. It would be satisfying to say that this initiative had a major effect on how trade shows were perceived (confession: I sat on this group), but I fear that what it really did was to show us just how difficult it was going to be to get any traction for wider recognition (particularly within government) for our industry.

It was in 2000 that the AEO Awards in its current form began with recognition of suppliers and venues. Melville/GES have won most Supplier Awards (five) since and ExCeL have won most Venue Awards (six). Two years later the AEO Awards began to incorporate Best Trade Show and Best Consumer Show with various subcategories. EMAP and its successor (i2i) have won most Best Trade Show Awards (four) and Media10 most Best Consumer Show Awards (five) – 2021 will be the 20th time that these Awards have been contested. The AEO Awards have consistently attracted over 1,000 attendees from throughout the industry – the zenith being as many 1,390 in Earl’s Court 2 in 2008 (Rob Brydon handed out the trophies)

We have arranged a Centenary Celebration of the AEO to be held at (and in conjunction with) the NEC on Friday 10 December. This will start at 1pm in The Vox, so that anyone coming from London can travel out and back in the same day. We will have a photo parade of the last 100 years, a look back at 1921 and themed features (1920s dress for instance). Given the pandemic, we have not been as ambitious as perhaps we would have liked (ticket prices are almost at a give-away level) but we will try to make it a real celebration of those 100 years. Apart from the usual awards, there will be five or six ‘Centurion Awards’ – recognising the most notable stories of the last 100 years. So, if you would like to know which is the venue, or organiser, or supplier, or trade show of the Last 100 Years – then please look on the AEO Website for details.

Philip Soar and Simon Parker are Co- Chairman of the AEO Events Committee.

The AEO Centenary Celebration, the AEO 2021 Awards and the NEC Christmas Party will be held at The Vox, NEC, on 10 December 2021.

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