Bringing business to the North

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EventCity in Manchester has opened for exhibition business, offering over 25,000sqm to organisers in the heart of the Trafford Park retail district. According to owner, The Peel Group, the venue will address the need for more dedicated exhibition space in the North. But a more nagging question is whether it will increase exhibition business to the region. The larger problem, some suggest, is that exhibitions are not being properly positioned by organisers in the North in the first place.PositioningAccording to Phil Soar, 24 of the top 200 UK-based exhibitions are held in the North of England – 12 in Harrogate, seven at the Yorkshire Exhibition Centre (YEC), and five in Manchester. Notably, only one has turnover over £1 million and is in the Top 100.The more telling factor is that the majority have been run by London-based organisers looking for an affiliate event in the North, Soar said. The few exceptions are craft shows, events from Manchester-based organiser Moorfield Media, and the Manchester Furniture Show.  “Generally the Northern show has been treated as an add-on, or an afterthought, and usually placed in the other half of the year from a London/Birmingham event – even though this may mean less than ideal timing,” Soar said. “For at least 30 years, London organisers have had spasms of saying ‘let’s launch a Northern one’ and spending time and resource to do exactly that. History also says the tide then turns when times grow a little harder and the organiser retreats back to London or The NEC.”According to The Peel Group director Mike Butterworth, venue competition in the northwest was poor. But for Soar, the addition of EventCity in Trafford Park isn’t filling a hole in venue demand. Moorfield Media MD Thom Hetherington pointed out the northwest – and the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds M62 axis – has the greatest population density in the UK outside the South East with 20 million people within two hours of Manchester and 10 million within one hour. “This huge audience has high levels of spend on every single consumer leisure activity, but as most organisers will acknowledge they are significantly underrepresented at ‘national’ events in London and even in exhibitions held in the Midlands,” he said. Soar highlights the ‘once bitten twice shy’ approach some London-based organisers have had towards the region, as well as the lack of dedicated northern companies to take advantage of market gaps, Hetherington said. He also believed issues with pricing and availability of venue tenancies played some part. “London organisers are not necessarily chomping at the bit to launch shows in the region, but in our own experience many leading organisers have tried and failed to get acceptable tenancies for events in their preferred northern venues over the last 18 months,” he said. It is also crucial the industry takes a wider and lateral view of what exhibitions could be doing in the North. This should be based on key statistics such as catchment, audience numbers, spend on leisure and cultural activities and competing events – whether this be sports, festivals or other exhibitions, Hetherington said. “It is possibly disingenuous, indeed dangerous, to define a potential exhibition market purely on the basis of what is or isn’t already there. Consumer/visitors do not compartmentalise things in such a way,” he added. London-based organiser Upper Street is one of the first to strike up talks with EventCity. Its MD Paul Byrom saw value in existing retail traffic. It is now conducting research into extending existing event brands as well as new consumer shows. “There’s nothing to indicate people in the area aren’t going to be show goers,” Byrom said. “The EventCity team is engaging, willing to talk sensibly and has the ability to utilise existing retail footfall, which makes it easier to take the risk as an organiser.” Added competition?Although the market isn’t as large as the South-East or Birmingham, Byrom agreed the absence of significant events in Yorkshire could be because the right opportunity hadn’t yet been pushed. “It is inevitable shows already running in [Manchester] Central will look at Trafford Park and will seek better tenancy offers,” Soar continued. “This is bound to put pressure on Central – who cannot sensibly argue that there is a queue of organisers desperate to fill any vacated slot. “If events move from Central to Trafford Park, then Central is likely to try to launch me-too events in the vacated slots. This is unlikely to make either event more viable.”The likely outcome was a rearrangement of events in Lancashire, almost inevitably to the detriment of Central, Soar claimed. “The new site will not add dramatically to the percentage of exhibition spend in that county,” he concluded.  
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