Home TypeNews Phil Soar: Why are we ashamed of the word exhibition?

Phil Soar: Why are we ashamed of the word exhibition?

by EN

EN guest editor Phil Soar muses on nomenclature. Let’s boldly reclaim exhibitions, he says

I was sitting quietly in Florida when the age-old chestnut about why an American game like Baseball insists on calling their final the World Series and why the premier yachting prize is called America’s Cup came up. Proof of American vanity, ignorance, chauvinism and vulgarity said my democratic friends. Which got me to thinking about the problems of nomenclature.

First, Baseball. It has long been believed that the World Series title was bestowed by the paper New York World in 1903 . But this isn’t true. The equipment manufacturer Spaulding called baseball playoffs Championship of the World as early as the 1880s – and they wanted teams from the UK and Australia to compete. Baseball was very popular in the UK at the time. Derby County’s football ground was called The Baseball Ground because the club played it as often as soccer.

The America’s Cup was named because the first yacht ever to win the race in 1851 was called “America”.
Acronyms are a headache. The ‘three Rs’ so beloved of headteachers are nothing of the sort – only one of the three begins with an R, which gives one limited confidence in the teaching profession.

Recent winners of the CBE are to be congratulated – but they command nothing, British is surely long gone with a trade border between England and NI (and Scotland likely to defect soon), and we don’t appear to have an Empire anymore either (farewell Barbados).

But my thinking was about our own industry. We have the AEO (Association of Event Organisers), AEV (Association of Event Venues), ESSA (Event Services and Suppliers) and the rather strange EIA (Events Industry Alliance) which is an amalgam of the three. Google EIA and see what you find…It is the repetition of the word ‘event’ which troubles me.

I appear to write for Exhibition News, not Event News

Last time I looked, I write these weekly articles for Exhibition News, never Event News. If you look through the alphabet soup of other seemingly comparable organisations, then the options are largely indistinguishable from one other. Conference News gives 14 relevant groups (and we know there are at least a dozen more) and they all have ‘meetings’ or ‘events’ in their title. MPI (Meetings Professionals International) has 17,000 members (the AEO has 86 and AEV 44).

Herein lies a major problem. The words ‘meetings’ and ‘events’ are synonymous. In the UK how could an outsider (or the DCMS) distinguish between the Meetings Industry Association (MIA) with 850 members and the Association of Event Organisers? How can we represent our industry effectively when our names are indistinguishable from numerous other organisations? But no one else uses the word ‘exhibitions’.

The words meeting and events are surely synonymous

The word ‘exhibition’ is completely absent in all of the many associations named in the Mash publications. There are a couple of worldwide groups which mention the word – IAEE for instance, but only as Events and Exhibitions, and UFI refers to ‘exhibitions’ in its sub-text, but not as part of its title.

For 90% of its 100 years of existence, the AEO was known as the Association of Exhibition Organisers. During Trevor Foley’s reign it was decided to change Exhibition to Event in the hope of attracting a wider group of members – maybe conference organisers, festival organisers etc. I don’t remember there being much discussion about the proposal, but the AEO has fewer members today than it did then.

At the same time, the Events Industry Alliance was born, being a combination of venues, suppliers and organisers. The idea was not a bad one, but in practice it has been hard to get traction. During the 19 months of Covid hiatus, how often did you hear the EIA voice? While from the organisers’ point of view there is great synergy with suppliers and venues, this does not apply in the same way to the other two – who have a wide range of other clients (inevitably the case as the number of square metres sold by exhibitions has been in decline since 2000).

Why are we ashamed of the word exhibition?

Covid also showed the AEO to be struggling with another issue around nomenclature. It represents (mainly) trade show organisers, but also a number of consumer show groups. In terms of turnover, trade shows are circa 74% of our industry, consumer 26%. But when representations were being made to government, the AEO was not able to make the distinction. It was obliged to represent a trade show with 5,000 visitors alongside a consumer behemoth such as Ideal Home or Comic-Con. At that moment, the obvious differences were not helpful.

In many ways it is a good thing that the likes of Glastonbury have never become members – or the confusion and lack of comprehension would have been worse. Talk to a government minister about events and they instantly ask: “Like Glastonbury you mean?”

Time to rethink the names of our associations

So now for my heretical and possibly unpopular conclusion. It’s time to go back to the word ‘exhibition’ in both the AEO and EIA.

Trevor’s attempt to expand the membership never gained real traction – and not for lack of trying. We should praise the efforts of the AEO staff who have tried to follow this route.

But after a decade we are still primarily a group of broadly the same exhibition companies – just look round the AEO Board. Many of us do other things – conferences, one-to-ones, festivals like Car Fest – but we are at heart exhibition companies. Even this phrase has its problems – in most major markets ‘trade shows’ and ‘Messen’ are more common and ‘exhibition’ is a generic. My personal view is that the term ‘trade show’ is more comprehensible and would position us rather better with government and the business community.

I believe we are weakened by not having trade in our titles. I would certainly make a pitch for Association of Trade and Consumer Exhibition Organisers (ATCEO) as being a better title for the AEO – primarily because it gets ‘trade’ into the title.
The word event can mean so many things to so many people – if you organise events you can be a member of a truly alphabet soup of options – SISO, UFI, MPI, EMA, PCMA, ICCA, ILEA, ASEA, EIC, IAEE, MIA, NACE, IAPCO, SEMA, ESPA, AMP – I’ll stop there. There are plenty more and I might even have made some of them up (I haven’t).

So we should reclaim the title ‘exhibition’ or decide to change the titles completely. This seems to me a clear lesson from Covid. I haven’t pitched this to my colleagues on the AEO Board, but I will. Time to at least reclaim the almost unique name which better represents who we are and what we do. EN

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