Show by association: UK trade association exhibitions

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Exhibitions are a powerful way for industry associations to expand their services to members while staying right in the heart of their community. But according to new research undertaken by analysis group SEER, more than 80 per cent of UK trade associations still haven’t considered organising their own show. With a strong, entrepreneurial base of professional organisers dominating the UK and international markets, it’s perhaps not surprising. Associations that do choose to go down the road of owning their own show need to find a real niche, build a strong events management skill set, and thoroughly research their market to ensure they have a distinct value proposition that can flourish. Exhibition News spoke with five associations from very different walks of life to understand what motivated them to launch their own shows, how they feel about partnering and lessons learned along the way. The whole supply chain The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) has 1,600 members and was established in 1899. It runs one show, the HTA National Plant Show, a two-day annual trade exhibition aimed at plant retailers, which is entering its fourth edition next year. HTA director Tim Briercliffe said the launch was a response to the broadening focus of flagship industry show, Glee, organised by i2i Events. “Over the years, Glee was working less and less for growers and plant suppliers and wasn’t meeting our needs; it wasn’t the right time of year, it was expensive, and it had become more of a platform for European growers who were largely competitors of our members,” he explained. The National Plant Show was created on the premise that it only focus on UK exhibitors selling plants. The local industry also wanted an annual event at the end of June, which is what HTA delivers at Stoneleigh Park. The association restricts exhibitors to one or two 5m x 2m stands in a pre-determined position. This year, 100 exhibitors participated, up 25 per cent year-on-year. “We are a no-frills event. Our members had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve and we have been able to turn this into a successful exhibition, while also growing our membership,” Briercliffe said. To ensure everything runs efficiently, the HTA has a dedicated events division of three staff. Event director Sam Gunston said building events knowledge was a critical first step and urged the team to attend shows nationally and internationally. “The complexity involved in managing an exhibition has been an eye opener,” she said. “Because the members wanted the show, we told them they had to help promote it and make it successful by getting buyers to come. We don’t have the marketing budget of a professional organiser, so we had to use exhibitors to market the show themselves.” The HTA also established a steering group of exhibitors. “This helps them feel more involved compared with a big professional organiser telling them what to do,” Briercliffe said. Launching its own show hasn’t stopped the HTA from working with Glee on the non-plant sector of the market either. It wasn’t all smooth sailing however. In its first year, the HTA faced a rival show launch by Clarion Events called Garden Expo, also planned for June. The pair agreed to co-locate and were working under a joint contract when Clarion pulled the plug. “What it proved to us was that we had sussed out the real show need and we ended up with a good outcome at the end of the day,” Briercliffe said. To stay relevant, the HTA surveys exhibitors and visitors each year. “Although we aren’t a professional organiser, we can’t make a loss, so our job is to try and keep the show meeting all the objectives but still work financially,” Briercliffe continued. “We’re still on the growth side of the curve and getting it established.” Gunston added the National Plant Show had a strong customer base but would like more people through the door. This year’s show attracted 1,500 attendees, 30 per cent of which ordered with new suppliers. Briercliffe’s advice for any association looking to launch an exhibition itself or in conjunction with a partner is to make sure members are “screaming for it”. A major advantage the HTA had was that its membership includes both the exhibitor base and the buyers, representing the whole supply chain. “We were asked by members for several years and kept resisting because although we had exhibitors lined up, we weren’t confident that visitors would come,” he said. “What tipped us over was buyers saying they also needed this show.” International domination The Federation of European Screen Printers Association (FESPA) is a global federation of 37 national associations for the screen, digital and textile printing communities and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. In the last decade, the group has become a well-known international exhibition organiser, running up to five shows per year across three continents. These are supported by a variety of online initiatives, international summits and conferences.  FESPA UK MD Neil Felton said the decision to control its own exhibition was made by the board in 2002. “We ran one big show every four years but felt the third-party organiser we were working with was not delivering a truly vibrant event, while the financial return for the association, given the show’s powerful international standing, was minimal,” he explained. Since then, FESPA’s in-house team has grown from three to 26 members of staff divided into six departments, four of which are specifically tasked with delivering exhibitions and events. “Central to the successful shift in the business is the team we have built, a team whose core skills are in running large international exhibitions,” Felton said. One of the unique challenges faced by any association is that its shareholders are the industry, always adding extra pressure to represent the market being served. “The main benefit though is that we are closer to the market and can identify trends and capitalise on them,” Felton said. “A case in point was our board’s decision to launch FESPA Digital in 2006, which now attracts over 350 exhibitors filling in excess of 38,000sqm.” In addition, FESPA’s next flagship European show, to be held at Excel London on 25-29 June 2013, will feature two additional halls due to exhibitor demand. The trade show last took place in Munich in 2010. With a strong international mandate, ensuring the show brand covers the global interests of the screen printing industry is paramount to its future. To achieve this, the association launched FESPA Brasil, a new website platform, and plans to launch at least two new exhibitions in different continents by the end of the year. “Our international visitors come from more than 120 countries and can represent up to 60 per cent of our audience,” Felton said. “As the leading show in our market we are seen as the international launchpad for a fast evolving sector. The peripatetic nature of our European show lends itself well to delivering an increasingly international visitor and exhibitor base.” The strength of an association-led exhibition is its built-in support and knowledge of the market, Felton claimed. Although there could be benefits by partnering with a third-party organiser, FESPA would scrutinise any partnership very carefully to protect the integrity of its brand and future financial security, he said. Felton recommended other associations looking to branch into exhibitions to tap into the knowledge of members for content and format. “The next challenge is how to deliver the show,” he said. “There are two clear paths: Either find the third-party organiser you can trust and work with, or take the bolder and more risky route and build a professional team. “FESPA’s success is a clear example of how the latter path can reap large rewards and we would be willing to share our experiences with other associations.”Staying true to its roots It’s the direct ties into the industry that also keeps equestrian, pet product and country clothing trade show, BETA International, fresh after more than 30 years. The exhibition was launched in December 1979 by a voluntary committee before falling under the remit of Equestrian Management Consultants (EMC) in 1981, a separate limited company and wholly-owned commercial arm of the association. BETA was held at Sandown Park until 1995, when it moved to The NEC in Birmingham. EMC has since expanded to offer a consultancy and support service for other equestrian events such as the Trailblazers Series, which takes place throughout the UK, culminating in the championships at Stoneleigh Park. “EMC strives to ensure every single exhibitor and visitor receives the same support and consideration, regardless of whether they are a BETA member or not,” commercial manager Claire Thomas told EN. “Making the correct commercial decisions can be challenging, too, especially in these tough economic times. However, despite increasing costs to ourselves, the committee took the decision to support members by freezing stand rates for 2008, 2009 and 2010.” Diversification has been the seed for the show’s development over the past three years as exhibitors and visitors started to explore new markets while still remaining faithful to their core sector, Thomas explained. “We always listen to our exhibitors and visitors and have tailored our show accordingly,” she continued. “A new country fashion category, for example, is to be introduced to the BETA International Innovation Awards in response to the growing country clothing sector. In 2010, these exhibitors filled 805sqm and in 2011 this increased to 1,182sqm and 1,310sqm this year.” But even though BETA International is evolving, it seeks to remain true to its equestrian roots, Thomas said. “We wish to continue doing what we do well, which is delivering a high-quality show that evolves in line with changing trends in the industry,” she said. BETA International also prides itself on its feel-good factor and customer service, which Thomas added was important to reflect in the marketing and communications mix. “Traditional values should continue to sit at the heart of every exhibition, no matter how contemporary its ethos. It’s important to remember it is the people who make a show.”Reacting to technology advancement Mach is quite possibly the UK’s oldest running trade show, launched 100 years ago by the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA). According to sales manager Adrian Sell, the key to its success is it being organised by the industry, for the industry.  The biennial show took up 20,000sqm at The NEC and showcased more than 5,000 tonnes of machinery at its last edition in April. More recently, Mach has been co-located with a host of complementary expos organised by third-party organiser DFA Media. “Other UK shows don’t have such a live working element,” Sell claimed. “Our board and our members respond to the needs of where the industry is going and we are at the forefront of any new technology. “Manufacturing technology is continually advancing and as we are in the industry, we can read that and respond very quickly. This is the reason why we’ve not worked with other third-party organisers. We feel we can develop from the front as our members are living and breathing it every day.” Like other associations, the MTA established an exhibitor committee for Mach and maintains a day-to-day events team. The biggest challenge is to keep developing the show’s technology focus in response to market demand. To do this, the team is constantly revising and adding to its technology zones. The quality of visitors is also becoming more and more important, Sell said. This year’s Mach attracted 21,600 visitors, up 3,000 on 2010. “That increase in attendance is a good thing, but the emphasis is on the quality of visitor and being very targeted in our marketing approach,” Sell said. “What’s most important is that we target the right type of visitor with more specific areas of the show. In recent years, this has made us much more focused on targeted marketing.” An industry in its infancy In complete contrast is the AD and Biogas expo, which debuted in July 2010 at The NEC. The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA) was less then six months old when it made the decision to step into the world of exhibitions and gave itself just seven months from concept to launch in order to fit into a gap between related events. “We were looking for ways to improve the profile of the membership base and grow the industry itself, as it was in its infancy,” commercial director Louise Wallace said. “It was important we raise the profile of the association, so we put on a conference initially. We then realised the industry needed a bigger kickstart, which is why we decided to launch our own trade show.” The sustainability and renewable energy sector is awash with established and burgeoning events stretching from Bioenergy to Futuresource, RWM and All-Energy, but none had the focus on the nascent AD and biogas market needed for the association to grow, Wallace said. “We could see there was a broad range of different people interested in this sector, but they didn’t have their own event to engage in,” she continued. “We only had from January to July to organise our first show but we felt the industry would be hindered by not having an exhibition that year.” The association’s best decision was bringing in the right staff for sales and marketing with experience in events communication, Wallace said. In its early days, the expo also relied heavily on the NEC’s Managed Services team for operational support. The AD and Biogas expo has since grown from 2,400sqm in its first year with 74 exhibitors and 1,300 visitors, to 200 exhibitors and 2,400 attendees this year, and expects to fill 5,500sqm in 2013. “As an association, we’re great facilitators of industry knowledge and fostering relationships, partnerships, communicating well with association stakeholders and our membership and we know how to sell to our audience,” Wallace claimed. “Where our expertise was missing was in operational issues, health and safety, managing contractors and show production. It made sense to work with NEC’s Managed Services for a fee without giving all our profits to a third-party organiser. “Many trade associations don’t look at the whole business case for a trade show and the potential revenues it could deliver. They see shows as too difficult or time consuming. But if you can retain the profits, you can put them back into the association and develop the industry. “Having the show pushes development of the industry and allows us to address key issues and create opportunities. We can pull in our knowledge from other areas such as policy, lobbying and other communications and bring those skills into the event.” Wallace agreed it was hard work running exhibitions, but felt the effort was worth it. “We are a young association and competing with larger organisers now and doing it quite successfully,” she added.Future evolution Much like their professional counterparts, associations organising their own shows recognise the importance of evolving to meet the changing needs of their audience and exhibitor base. FESPA’s Felton said long-term success will come down to better business-led content, a much deeper understanding of the market, the ability to embrace change and an event that can be seen to actively strengthen the market it serves.  “In many ways, strong associations are ideally placed to deliver these exhibitions,” he claimed. “In FESPA’s case not only are we delivering strong events, but we have managed to reinvest in excess of €3m back into the printing industry in the last seven years.” For the team at BETA International, exhibitions should strive to deliver a well-rounded programme including seminars, demonstrations and special features that inform, inspire and educate visitors. “Events need to reward and celebrate innovative new products and designs, and make sure that the entire proceedings are underpinned with exceptional customer service,” BETA’s Thomas said. “They need to go that extra mile to ensure both visitors and exhibitors enjoy a positive experience, offering discounted travel, free parking and transport from hotels to halls. And they should embrace the latest technology to make attending a show as easy as possible.” AD and Biogas’ Wallace said associations have to keep their eye on the show’s broader business case. “It’s not just a large revenue stream, but also a way to develop your industry,” she said. “The marketplace is always changing and we have to be receptive to that. Our show won’t ever compete with the large shows like RWM, but every visitor we get is a quality visitor. You don’t want to lose what makes your event unique. “You have to also offer everything under one roof, and that could be different things year-on-year.” This feature was first published in the September edition of Exhibition News. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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