Home TypeFeatures What a difference a decade makes

What a difference a decade makes

by EN

In her latest feature, EN guest editor Ruth Carter talks to chairman of the CloserStill Group, Phil Soar, about conclusions can be drawn by looking at the main organisers and shows in the events industry over the past 10 years.

For an industry that loves to quote data (number of exhibitors, meterage sold, attendee volume, rebook percentages, yoy increase; the list is endless) we are actually rather lacking in hard factual data about the industry itself, the main players and the key shows.

If the adage of ‘the best way to predict the future is to look at the past’ is actually true, then understanding the trends of the last 10 years is a hugely valuable roadmap for understanding the direction our industry may be taking.

It will come as no surprise that the exception to the rule is Phil Soar, chairman of the CloserStill Group who is a zealot when it comes to diving deeply into the numbers to see what conclusions can be drawn. The insight into visitor numbers, the changing landscape of ownership and his staggering view of the utilisation of venue availability makes this worth reading to the end.

A table showing the biggest 30 events in the UK in 2010 by turnover

Phil, in a recent article for EN, you and I spoke about the changes you are predicting over the next 10 years. But what has happened over the last 10 years that has helped you come to those conclusions?

There has been a surprising amount of change over the past 10 years. Almost half of the biggest UK shows that were around in 2010 (those in yellow in the table) no longer exist. Of those 13, three have been absorbed into other events and the two Caravan (plus camping and boating) events were lost when the National Caravan Council (NCC) chose to run their own events.

And of those 30 top shows in 2010, barely one third – 11 in fact – are still run by the same organiser.

What about visitors?

Visitor attendees at our Top 30 events have fallen by some 40%. Although this is largely the result of losing four big public shows.

And are the same companies dominating the industry?

This is by far the most striking of all the changes. Of the “Big Six” organisers on the list in 2010, no fewer than 3 are no longer there and this will rise to four out of six if Informa/UBM do complete the planned disposal of their UK assets.

What does your table tell us?

At the end of 2010, I published for EN a list of the 200 largest exhibitions in the UK by revenues (not by square metres). This table shows our largest 30 Exhibitions in 2010 by organiser revenues. The stress is on revenues; this is not a list of the largest events by square metres (that was probably IOG Saltex) nor by visitors (that was The Motor Show).

Far more information was available in 2010 than today though, as soon after the 2009 financial crisis, most organisers stopped auditing their events. In 2009, ABC audited over 150 events for the AEO, including almost all the larger ones, and this information was publicly available. In 2019, ABC audited only 17, of which just one (World Travel Market) was in the Top 30.

What happened to bring this about?

Three of the five largest groups said they would probably have to withdraw from the AEO if a condition of membership was auditing – the reason was cost, not principle. As a result, the quality of information and research into the industry has simply gone quickly backwards in the last decade.

Organisers do not give turnover figures for individual events. In the past, net square metre numbers for trade shows allowed a reasonable guess at turnover, but we can no longer access even this. The last year in which we could report absolutely reliable net square metres for the largest 100 events was as long ago as 2008.

Similarly, visitor numbers are no longer generally available. The right-hand column in the table gives the latest visitor number that was published for events which still exist – but many numbers are no more recent than 2015 or 2016. Some events do publish a ‘number’ on their websites – examples here are ICE and the London Book Fair – but they are rounded numbers and it is often unclear whether they are “visitors” or “attendees” (i.e. a count of everyone in the hall).

As an industry we remain stubbornly reluctant to provide information about our apparently very successful businesses.

So, what are we looking at today which is very different?

The Top 30 in the UK has changed dramatically. Clarion’s DSEi is now likely to be the largest UK event by turnover (though biennial), taking over from the Spring Fair. There are a large number of new shows in any Top 30 list which we might prepare for 2021 or 2022: the two NCC Shows, the Furniture Show (Clarion), the CloserStill shows that didn’t even exist in 2010 (Cloud DataCentre, London Vet, Pharmacy), Reed’s Comecon and others.

I estimate that of the companies who were in the Top 30 in 2010, only 15 will still be hold that position, assuming we run a full programme in 2022 (and there are one or two others which might be on the edge). That is a stunning change in what is regarded as a slow cycle industry.

What has happened to Visitor Numbers?

The Top 30 attracted 2,393,000 visitors in 2010, according to ABC and other data (and at that time I regard the information on the larger shows as very reliable).

The 19 events which survived in 2019 (including the two NCC Caravan shows as successors to their displaced events) attracted almost exactly half that number (1,269,000) on the last occasion for which there is any public data.

Of course, there will be new replacement shows in the Top 30, but none of these have a massive attendance and most are trade events. The decline of around 50% is almost entirely a function of losing The Motor Show, The London Boat Show, Clothes Show Live and Top Gear, which accounted for nearly one million visitors among them. This is a critical understanding as this statistic does not really inform any understanding of how our industry is changing. The loss of the Motor Show alone in 2010 resulted in a 7% drop in visitor numbers to all shows in the UK, but had no effect on the success of any other event.

What is the most significant change?

For me, the most interesting effect is probably the dramatic change in ownership. In 2010, the landscape was much as it had been for some time with EMAP, Reed, Clarion and UBM each had four of the top 30 events.

But by 2021, two of the three biggest UK players will have dropped out of the rankings altogether and Informa/UBM (assuming they manage to sell their remaining UK portfolio) will have dropped from five events to zero. EMAP are no longer a player. Their events having either disappeared or gone to ITE/Hyve. The other two big players in 2010 which are no longer in the rankings are DMGT and Haymarket.

So where are we today?

In 2021, if we were able to prepare such a list, Hyve would definitely be the biggest UK player with at least five of the Top 30. Reed would still have four. Newcomer CloserStill would probably be on four, none of which existed in 2009, though, at this stage, these are not the bigger events. Clarion and Media10 would have three apiece.

Not all Top 30 shows are equal. The three biggest still, DSEi, Spring Fair and WTM, have all seen the £30 million turnover mark. Which makes them some five or six times bigger than a show at number 29 or 30.

So predictions for 2030?

I try to avoid predictions, particularly about the future.

There were 17 different companies who had a show in the Top 30 in 2010. I would be prepared to bet that no more than five of those 17 will be shown as owning any event in the Top 30 in 2030.

The rapid changes in the world’s financial markets and the way capital is now deployed (SPACs, PE, VC et al) seems to me to make further acquisition and consolidation inevitable – and not through the classic publicly quoted companies (Blenheim, EMAP, Reed, UBM, Tarsus etc) that have been so familiar.

Visitor numbers to UK exhibitions have been falling steadily since 2000. There are a number of different analyses but they all point to a drop of in the region of 20% -25% in the period. Counter intuitively perhaps, this is not a major issue for most events or our business. The decline has largely been in the bigger consumer events (though not entirely) and we are not seeing any dramatic effect on what might be called a typical trade show.

And venues?

As for venues, the raw trend lines have been crystal clear for three decades. In 1990, there were approximately 225,000 gross square metres in the UK’s recognised exhibition venues. Multiplied by 365 that gives around 82m available ‘square metre days’ per annum.

Gross square metres taken by recognised exhibitions was circa 6m. So assuming an average tenancy lasting five days, the industry ‘needed’ some 30m ‘square metre days’. This gives a theoretical utilisation of 37%.

By 2001, with the opening of ExCeL and the expansion of the NEC, those numbers had increased dramatically to 146m available ‘square metre days’ and a need for 36m – a theoretical utilisation of 25%. Of course, available space grew far faster than demand.

Even after the closure of Earl’s Court, the current ‘available square metre days’ is circa 120m and the demand is now circa 26m: a utilisation of circa 22%.

Now a mass of caveats. Venues are used for a lot of other things and utilisation figures ignore the fact that there are periods when they will never be heavily used, such as August and Christmas.

But the broad thrust is clear. After the unfortunately timed expansion of venue space in 2000/1, the actual supply-demand ratio for traditional events has been steadily falling. We may be fortunate and find that this has stabilised, but the closure of the Trafford Park venue is perhaps a straw in the wind.

ExCeL are expanding further and if one believes in the basic laws of economics (supply and demand etc) then it is hard not to see further closures of smaller venues.

Overall, my tentative conclusion is that there will be less space available in 2030, and the big three will have higher percentage of it.

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