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OK, everyone, it’s time to tell the truth

by EN

In his latest article, EN guest editor Phil Soar suggests that a trade show organiser’s greatest skill is to be a trade show organiser…

Pandemics are not new. And stupid behaviour is not new either. During the plague in Florence in the 17th Century public health inspectors found a large group of teenagers partying in a square. The inspectors went to a nearby graveyard, took the body of a young woman who had just died, and threw it into the middle of the group, shouting: “She wanted to dance too.”

For the exhibition industry the body in our public square was the question: “Will and when will trade shows recover?” I spend much of my time talking to Private Equity and other investors. That phrase was to be heard constantly.

And though we should be aware of generalising from the specific, in September and October the signs are very good. The bellwether was two of the country’s largest eight events running simultaneously at the NEC – Hyve’s Autumn Fair and Nineteen Events The Safety and Security Series and Emergency Services Show. Both laid those fears largely to rest. Julie Driscoll’s Autumn Fair not only looked very good but was extremely busy. The Safety and Security Series almost doubled its attendance from 2019. And the NEC coped superbly with vaccination certificates and testing. Inside the halls, one would almost not have known that the last 18 months existed. I am not being complacent – I know there could be new variants, there could be crises ahead, and not every country is behaving in the same way. Travelling to Italy and France last week, it is clear that they are being much stricter over Covid passes than Boris Johnson and his chums are here.

Have we answered the question: ‘will they recover?’

And I am conscious that one of our industry faults is clichés about “It’s going well” without anyone being prepared to stick their necks out and give real numbers – so I will. The companies (not just CloserStill) of which I am chairman have run eight events in the UK since the beginning of September. The average attendance was 8% up compared with the last time these shows ran. The re-sign averaged 114% (probably the best indicator as it shows how pleased exhibitors are about the events). But as I am the one who frets about how numbers are presented – I will analyse them in a different way. As long as the sample is large enough, medians are usually a better guide (as an example, most people have an IQ lower than 100 and most people are shorter than average height etc. – if anyone is not sure why, just ask).

Our median re-sign was 96% (we had two re-signs of north of 136%) and our median attendance was 8% lower than the last time the shows ran. I regard these numbers as very satisfactory – and I am hearing similar positive noises from most people in the industry I talk to.

What trade shows really are, and really are not

Which brings me back to what Trade Shows really are, why they appear to be recovering well, and the pre-eminent, heart stopping cliché of 2020 – pivot to digital. And this is perhaps the time for some of us in the business to step forward.

I have interviewed a lot of people for senior jobs in the last few years. I naturally ask: “What new ideas do you have for the company and the exhibition space?” If the candidate has done her/his research, then they will more often than not talk about the tremendous scope for using our databases to generate all sorts of sales, to take control of the marketplace; well, all sorts of things.

And in my three decades in the business, I have listened an incalculable number of times to the argument: “We have all these contacts, we can be the spider at the centre of a web of an industry of interactions and revenues etc. We can be all things to all men.” That noise never goes away, it comes back like the cicadas, and in the last two years it has part morphed into “pivot-to-digital”.

We are all frightened to turn down The Beatles

We are all reluctant, even frightened, to show scepticism. We do not want to be the Decca director who turned down the Beatles, or the AT&T executive who said there would be no market for mobile telephones in 1987. We don’t want to make the wrong call on all this and look foolish as we miss out on tectonic shifts in the trade show plates.

So, maybe time to express a view. I think that good trade show companies are very good at creating and putting on good trade shows (the same is true for consumer shows). It is a particular, often underestimated, and little understood skill. It takes time to learn it, until it becomes like muscle-memory.

And our customers – exhibitors, sponsors, and visitors – recognise that. But what they all see is the company which puts on the annual trade show for their industry.

The show may last just two or three days, but it takes us 12 months to sell it, plan it, and persuade the visitors (any diversion from that into “new” initiatives must risk diluting the main event). Our customers do not look at us and see a wonderful multi-media sparkling super-group which can provide them with a vast array of other services. It is not how they think of us. When they want other things – then they go to the experts in those areas – advertising agencies, web specialists etc, publishers, media buyers.

Lloyds Bank may be a reasonable analogy

There are analogies. In about 2000 Lloyds Bank made a strategic decision that they had a large, loyal customer base and it would make sense for the bank to be a “one-stop-financial-shop”. They bought a number of businesses – Scottish Widows and Clerical Medical to provide insurance services, pension planning, life assurance etc. They invested in mortgage services and stakes in estate agents. The logic was clear – their customers could service all their financial and home needs in one place and would be happy to do so. It didn’t work out that way. By and large their customers preferred to buy their insurance elsewhere, to plan their pensions privately, to go to another building society for their mortgages. Instinctively, the customers did not want all their eggs in one basket. This does not mean that Lloyds’ initiative was in any way foolish. It clearly had a strong logic behind it. But it failed to recognise that its customers saw it first and foremost as a bank – and generally not somewhere to rely on for all those things. Lloyds paid £7bn for Scottish Widows and eventually sold it for £660m.

Lloyds were not widely criticised for this – and rightly so. Their underlying thinking seemed intelligent and well thought through – until reality showed that it wasn’t.

Trade show companies are, at heart, trade show companies

In my guts, and having observed for three decades, I really think that trade show companies are trade show companies. It is what we do well. There are many, many other organisations which can do all those other things better than us – and I believe, by and large, our exhibitors and visitors (if they think about it all) think just that.

I am not for one minute suggesting there are not exceptions – and here are two from my own experience.

At Blenheim we had a wonderful magazine and show company called The Bobbin. It was based in South Carolina and had started life as a small magazine and community group exchanging information on garment manufacturing machines among small local businesses. It gradually grew and by the 1990s had added on a superb exhibition held in Atlanta, Georgia. But all its services were integrated. It had a staff of 25, almost all of whom had been with the business for decades. They knew their customers; they produced the magazine and newsletters. They really were the spider at the centre of their industry’s web. It was an almost perfect asset, though after Blenheim was sold the South Carolina office was closed down and all the staff left.

The other is CloserStill’s E-learning portfolio. Now E-learning – in its nature – lends itself to digital, to webinars, to a constant stream of communication both from the centre to the extremities and from one part of the community to another. It grew up as a community in the days when companies did not have “Learning Vice Presidents”. It lends itself to weekly or monthly educational webinars and chat rooms. Gradually it grew into a more formal structure which began to launch conferences and then exhibitions for the community to attend. And here is an interesting element – although these groups naturally communicate and learn online, they responded to face to face conferences and then trade shows with enormous enthusiasm. Yes, they could get what they wanted online – but they really valued face to face contact, talking to vendors, having three days in Las Vegas or Orlando to be with their peers.

Yes, of course there are many examples where a particular trade show hub can be far more, can embrace other media forms, and can embed itself in a community. But experience suggests that it tends to start the other way round – and the trade show comes later, not first.

So, I do not in any way dismiss pivot-to-digital or all the other things which a particular show group might achieve. I remain a very interested observer.

But by and large what we do is put on the trade show. This is our skill, and that skill is appreciated. But it does not mean that our customers are easily convinced that because we can put on a trade show then we can do many other things as well.

In the final reckoning, trade show organisers are just that, trade show organisers.

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