Home TypeOpinions The cliches of the exhibition industry

The cliches of the exhibition industry

by EN

In his latest column for EN, guest editor Phil Soar casts his eye over industry cliches.

All industries have them – those statements and phrases which drip off the tongue and go unchallenged. You will have your favourites – here are a few of mine.

“The numbers are down but the quality is up”

Number one in the cliché league table. We all know what it means – which is: “We can’t deny that the hall was quieter, but we want to persuade you that the people in there were the best you could meet!” Well, statistically, the cliché is quite credible in that the missing visitors may have been on the margins and the core audience was still there. But have you ever seen an organiser ‘prove’ that the ‘quality was up’? And how exactly would they do that? In a nutshell, the sentence isn’t just a cliché, it is meaningless.

“Yes, I launched CPhI you know ”

At the last count, 35 have claimed this distinction – courtesy of Lisa Hannant

“Unprecedented, we are pivoting to digital, the future is hybrid”

The inescapable clichés of the pandemic – courtesy of Lisa Hannant and Mark Temple-Smith


Is there any investor or acquisition meeting when this dreadful cliché is not uttered, adds Hannant.

“We have consulted our exhibitors and they are all behind the move from venue A to venue B”

Really? Does anyone ever believe this? The real reason you moved was because venue B offered you a great deal on a tenancy for one or two years. And, being the event director, or the FD, you calculated that cutting next year’s venue cost meant you were more likely to get your bonus if you moved, because the sales figures are looking a bit flaky etc. I don’t need to catalogue the times such moves prove, shall we say, unfortunate.

Perhaps top of the list is London Book Fair moving to ExCeL from Olympia – and ExCeL was an excellent venue for the show. But somehow no one noticed that it was going to run adjacent to and at the same time as Professional Beauty, which has a massive consumer attendance and one which is almost entirely female (I don’t want EN to get into trouble over gender definitions and not being woke enough, so I will change that to ‘almost entirely attended by persons who self-identify as female.’) And the problem – no venue has hundreds of toilets, and the inevitable queues infuriated the very female-dominated world of self-opinionated literary agents and the like. I stress that the problem would have been identical if the shows had run alongside each other at Earl’s Court, Olympia or the NEC.

“The right show in the right place at the right time”

“Build it and they will come”

The most pernicious of all the clichés because of the damage it could do to the industry. “If only we had more venues we could put on more competitive shows and everyone would be better off.” No, they wouldn’t. Reed and UBM supported the building of ExCeL (to the tune of £31m if I remember rightly). ExCeL opened in 2000, the first major new venue since the NEC in 1976. And did the UK exhibition business dramatically expand?

No. In 2000, the total estimated sold square metres at recognised exhibitions was 3,731,120 (AEO/EVA numbers), the highest it had ever been. By 2005 that number had dropped to 3,357,103sqm and it has never returned to the 2000 number since.

So, and as far as we can judge, 2000 was the year which saw the largest number of square metres ever sold in the exhibition industry in the UK.

Just in case there is any misunderstanding, the opening of ExCeL had nothing to do with the later decline in overall square metres. There was no causality. It was entirely coincidental (except in as much that the capital investment was partly in response to an apparently rapidly growing demand). ExCeL was and is an excellent venue and its building had nothing whatsoever to do with the basic trend lines of sold square metres – those trends would have happened anyway. The point I am (somewhat tediously) making is that we happen, by sheer but fortuitous chance, to have a very pertinent real-life example which suggests that more venues and more space do not automatically lead to more shows and more revenues for our industry.

But we still hear the cries for more venues. I can only point out that the success of the industry, by and large, depends on the fact that there is relatively limited space in all markets, which allows the slot system to work and allows organisers and venues to make decent margins and invest in their products.

More venues and more shows will not automatically lead to greater success, any more than another 40 Football League clubs would increase the overall attendances every Saturday. Many of the costs of a 4,000-metre show are not very different from those of an 8,000-metre show – but the revenue is halved. The industry works because sectors generally recognise and support the existence of one or two major events in their industry – offering them four or five or six will not necessarily increase business and, I would posit, will quite likely reduce it.

I am sure everyone knows the supermarket shelf analogy. In any particular product range (let’s say cereals) there is an optimum number of options on display to maximise sales. A customer will buy something if presented with 20 options. But if presented with 50, that customer is more likely to walk away without making a purchase. At some point, the choice becomes too complex and results in no sale at all. The analogy with more trade shows in a sector is easy to see.

Even more important is the venues. As 2000 showed us only too clearly, we are not in a business where extra supply can be assumed to create extra demand. More venues put financial pressures on the ones which do exist, and which may lead to their demise. The closure of Earl’s Court was a direct result of the pressure of declining square metres. In the end, with the opening of ExCeL and the 02, one major venue was bound to go.

“Content is king”

Courtesy of Lisa Hannant. ”What kind of content? Lots of power point at our show? Reproducing free, readily available content and then expecting to charge for it? What do you actually mean – and how are we making it “King”?”

“No sales this week, but the pipeline is strong”

A fundamental truth of exhibitions – the sales staff can lie, but the sales graphs can’t.

There are four basic graphs – weekly sales, sales as % of turnover/budget, weekly cash and cash as a % of turnover/budget – all set against the same 52-week cycle for the past four or five years (this assumes annual shows of course). They really do tell you 90% of what you need to know about your shows.

If your sales team tells you that “enquiries are great, the pipeline is strong, things look good, don’t worry” – then start to worry. If the sales line goes flat (relative to the last 4 years) for more than a couple of weeks, then you are very likely to be in trouble. Don’t wait 10 weeks to sort it out. Sort it now.

What’s the best time to sort a problem on a show? The answer is always “last month”.

As Lisa Hannant comments: “But the pipeline is strong” and “the next month is crucial” are to be regularly, repetitively heard in all sales, marketing, content  – and in any meetings at all really.

“It’s only 20 minutes to ExCeL from central London”

The all-time blockbuster which will, indeed, happily come true when Crossrail opens (March 2022?) Maybe this is the trade show version of: “If you wish for the tooth fairy hard enough, one day she may come.”

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