Katherine Crowther, community co-ordinator at event management course provider The Event Academy, says the exhibition industry’s ‘recruitment issue’ may not be all it seems.
The latest event industry trend report from Event Academy was published in April 2019 and holds a surprise for the events industry – revealing that exhibitions is one of the top sectors respondents are choosing to work in.
On the face of it, it shouldn’t be surprising. After all, exhibition management is one of the largest sectors in the UK events industry, with exhibitions helping develop the UK as a recognised base for international exhibitions and trade.
Exhibitions are also financially successful, contributing around £12bn to the UK economy, whilst as recently as this time last year, UFI’s Global Exhibition Barometer showed that 92 per cent of UK exhibition companies surveyed expected their turnover to increase in the second half of 2018.
But if turnover is reportedly increasing, exhibitions are contributing more than ever to the UK economy, and event managers are reported to be actively moving into exhibition management roles, why are exhibition companies perceiving problems in recruitment and retention of their employees?
According to Event Academy’s report, working in the corporate sector takes the top spot because, as we know, business is the business when it comes to event management. But close on its tail, and alongside weddings, venues, charity and party events, working in exhibitions features as a chosen career path.
In itself, this shouldn’t be surprising, after all UFI confirms that, “the exhibition industry offers a variety of job opportunities. With over 680,000 people employed full-time, and thousands more who are part time, the exhibitions industry is thriving with a vast number of career opportunities.”
This experience is mirrored by Andrew Morris, a director of the Business Design Centre, London and chairman of Event Academy. He reflects that, along with conference events, exhibitions create, “the greatest opportunities for students coming through to be part of this industry.” Opportunities in the exhibitions sector are wide and varied thanks to the fact that the exhibition industry involves two specific sectors: B2B and B2C. In Andrew’s experience, “the action, in terms of opportunity, actually lies in the world of business to business shows.”
This specific focus on the business arm of exhibitions naturally complements the fact that corporate events are at number one, and possibly reveals working in exhibitions as a natural alternative to corporate events for those who want to work across events with a business side, rather than focus on the business side of events within the corporate world.
Yet it’s recognised within the industry that recruiting and retaining event talent to work in exhibitions specifically has become problematic in recent times. UFI acknowledges one possible reason for this: lack of awareness of exhibition management as a career path, as “the exhibition industry is still not very well known among students and almost never mentioned as a potential career path.”
With the implication here that educators generally, and event educators specifically, have a role in promoting exhibitions as a career option for potential new event talent, there’s a clear reason why there’s a difference between what the industry is experiencing and what the Event Academy report shows: with Andrew Morris at the helm, Event Academy is proactive in not only making would-be event professionals aware of exhibition events, but also in supporting students with gaining the skills and experience to be ‘work-ready’ for the specific demands of exhibition roles.
Train to retain
For their part, employers in the exhibitions sector too have the power to ameliorate the situation of recruitment and retention in the face of Brexit. A recent report conducted using Glassdoor data identified that, “employee satisfaction can be a source of competitive advantage in challenging, uncertain times.” The study found that, “when it comes to investing in employee satisfaction, the benefits outweigh the costs involved.”
Those exhibition companies which are balancing uncertainty with solid investment in their employees could be instrumental in turning around recruitment and retention problems. Such strategies of investing in employees rather than cutting budgets ‘just in case’ could already be filtering into the exhibition industry, which may also explain the difference between the report findings and the experiences of exhibition companies during this cautious time.
For the exhibitions industry particularly, investing in staff training in areas of destination knowledge, health and safety, design and technology, social marketing could improve retention despite industry uncertainty, as employers perceive value in their own roles and purpose, and remain in the role. This investment-in-staff strategy should also result in the additional benefit of clients and exhibition attendees perceiving excellent value for money because staff have these in-demand skills.
One option for reduced cost, but high returns when it comes to improved retention, is for exhibition management companies to offer sector, regional and global exchange opportunities for event planner employees. This method doesn’t reduce the numbers of staff available (ideal in a cautious budget phase) but can greatly enhance individual and team knowledge of best practice and new ways of working. It also allows individuals to experience leadership when passing on new knowledge and techniques, in turn promoting greater skill-building and employee satisfaction.
What is positive about all this is that although there seems to be a mismatch between what the exhibitions industry is experiencing in finding and retaining employees and what the Event Academy report shows, the reality is that the report offers the latest findings in 2019.
As a barometer of what’s changing in the world of exhibition events, it could be good news that the talent is there and waiting to come into the industry, but the onus is on the industry to make the most of the special talents offered by Gen-Z and the positive impact of investing in employee satisfaction.