FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Bright or cloudy skies?

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Three exhibition industry personalities share their thoughts on whether the good times are back, or if we're facing more turbulent times. John SharkeyChief executive, Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre They are definitely not over and, in my opinion, there will never be a full traditional recovery as we know it for a long, long time – if ever. There are however, outstanding opportunities created by these times and there are business models, shows and companies doing really well. The common trait is that all are highly relevant to their audiences. These events answer in simple and clear terms the question: “Why should I be there and what value do I get that makes me want to choose to be there?” When also mixed with nostalgia or strong media exposure, this provides further routes to success. I don’t believe anything is ever really new – it just comes in and out of fashion, maybe with a new format or relevance to a current generation. Should we be surprised? Not when you see film producers doing re-makes of old classics such as Arthur, Footloose and True Grit because they know they will get a new and returning audience. Equally, shows spun from television platforms that provide an immediate and directly reachable audience base have worked well. However, their longer-term longevity may be brought into question. Other events are extremely good at exploiting commercial opportunity and sponsor involvement. What they have done is get as good as other market sectors which have been doing this well for some time. They can demonstrate execution and activation value but they also encourage creativity through their commercial partner networks on a win/win basis – all of this with the aim of building sustainable and growing income lines rather than getting a cheque and sending over an audience figure. There are still storms ahead on the horizon of our fragile economy. Tax rises also have their effect on hip pockets. Nevertheless, I still believe being relevant and valuable will overcome these challenges and allow the events market to survive and indeed thrive in the longer term. Alan SheridanManaging director, RTD Systems (Octanorm) It would be fantastic to say the UK exhibition industry was firing on all cylinders. Undoubtedly, there has been a gradual improvement with 2010 slightly better than 2009. 2011 is ahead of 2010, but the autumn will expose the extent of any true growth. The sad truth is the “feel good” factor is missing at the moment. Everyone works month-to-month not year-to-year; trends are hard to spot and exploit. Certain sectors remain strong despite the recession: Oil, gas,pharmaceutical and defence. Big budgets equal big venues. In the real world, exhibitors are looking for real value, which in turn limits creativity. If a show is booked it tends to use the previous year’s stand or occupy a smaller space. There seems to be little appetite to speculate to accumulate. Growth areas include events mixing experience with social media – if you attend a show you want to come away impressed and tell your friends. Some events are already catering for this demand with links to visitor smartphones. The better the memory, the greater the chance of returning next year. This is difficult when budgets are limited. Consumer confidence has also been knocked. If you spend, you spend wisely for future benefit. This makes shows like Grand Designs as successful as ever, a great day out and an experience. In addition, many traditional exhibition sectors are struggling because of technology. Decision makers cannot afford to spend time out of the office so they surf the net for information, or worse still they send more junior staff members to shows who report back their understanding of the exhibitor’s offering, reducing the benefit for everyone. The exhibitor wants to meet decision makers not messengers. I see 2012 as a bright light on the horizon. The Olympics will benefit larger contractors while the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will make the UK proud. There are better times ahead but only for progressive shows. Doug EmslieManaging director, Tarsus The answer to this question is a bit like reading a legal letter: On one hand yes and on the other hand no. It depends on what sectors and geographies you are exposed to and the maturity of the show. Our US business has seen a strong recovery. Both our medical events and our clothing shows have performed extremely well. Doctors have been aggressively investing in education and looking for new areas to expand their practices. We now have 23 education programmes in America and are looking at more. Last year revenues grew 16 per cent and in the first half of 2011 revenues are up a further 10 per cent. The discount clothing sector has proven to have elements of counter-cyclicality – people still need clothes but they want to buy them at cheaper price points. Overall revenues over the past 18 months have grown at an average of 10 per cent per show. In the emerging markets, especially the Middle and Far East, the markets never went into recession; they slowed, but quickly returned tohealthy growth rates.Our biggest show, the Dubai Airshow, continues to grow well as airlines like Emirates expand. Dubai airport is now the third largest in the world (by passenger traffic) and with Emirates completing its existing order book, it will be the largest airport in the world in the next three years. Our Chinese business has accelerated in the past six months by growing up from six per cent last year to over 20 per cent this year. In contrast, Europe was later into the recession and will be the last out. We saw our sales in France begin to decline in April 2009 and we are currently seeing them stabilising. Revenues in 2010 declined 12 per cent and in the first half of 2011 revenues were down five per cent. The French economy is just returning to growth now and exhibitions tend to lag nine months behind GDP, so we should see a return to growth for our events portfolio in France next year. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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