The exhibition industry is an entrepreneur’s Eden. Anyone, whether they be a publishing company, trade association, corporate events organiser, SME or hobby enthusiast, can launch an exhibition and make it a success.
But how do you know when you’ve got a show worth launching? Who needs to be involved? Where and when do you hold it? And what financial considerations need to be addressed to transform your idea into reality?
Exhibition News set out to debate these questions and more at our second annual Race Day at Sandown Park on 19 September. We pulled together a lively panel of diverse individuals from the professional organiser, association and publishing fields to discuss launching an exhibition and respond to audience questions ranging from the pain points of show launching to its commercial possibilities.
According to panellist Justin Opie of IMP Events, the first thing to resolve is your appetite for risk. “If you’re a large organiser or corporate, you’re going to be more inclined to look for extension opportunities, satellite exhibitions or events that complement the markets you operate in already,” he said. “Geocloning, or replicating an existing exhibition brand in another territory, is extremely feasible for any international organiser with a global footprint.
“If you’re a much smaller organiser, you’re going to be more likely to take the plunge with a completely new brand in a new market. You’re doing it yourself, assuming your own overhead costs, and swallowing all the financial risk. Therefore you’re prepared to take much more of a gamble initially.”Germ of an idea
Knowing your idea is worth an exhibition is the first big leap. For every 10 people planning to launch a show, there are 10 different answers about the right ingredients needed to do it, Quartz Business Media’s Paul Michael commented. The consistent aim should be ensuring the industry is involved.
“You can’t do it against the odds,” Michael said. “Quite often, if you sit down and try to come up with ideas for new exhibitions, you don’t come up with anything. Often, a show launch comes out of a conversation, or someone mentions something that triggers an idea your gut tells you is right. That’s when you need to talk to the industry involved.”
This was the case for Eco Technology Show’s Nicola Gunstone, who was approached to help organise the first combined trade and consumer show on environmental technologies in Brighton.
She attributed its success to having strong ties with Brighton and Hove City Council, as well as the community’s reputation for green practices and products.
“It was the community that came to us. From a government standpoint, an event was also needed to grow Brighton’s environmental industry,” she explained. “We started off as a Brighton event but we’re now becoming more of a regional one. It’s because the market demand is there. I don’t think that demand was there two or three years ago. Having the community behind you is really important for any launch show.”
The first port of call is to go after the ‘bellwethers’ or ‘Roman emperors’ of your industry, Gunstone explained. A further way of securing their involvement is to form a strong advisory board including leaders from different industry sectors to gain a wider and more pertinent industry view.
“We then spoke to the market – cold calling and asking,” she said. “Although there are many things in the eco market, a lot are focused on the industrial side, while we’re quite domestic. We also do the one thing I’ve always said not to do, which is to combine consumer and trade. It’s possibly the scariest thing I’ve done, because you’ve got two markets, two business plans, two audiences to talk to. But in order to grow the environmental industries, you need to involve public/private sector and the consumer.”
Opie agreed the best way to firm up your proposition is by approaching key industry groups, a trade association, a couple of relevant media partners and high-profile potential exhibitors and see what that brings.
“If it gains traction and people are signing up – and it’s always commercially where you get that traction first – then you can bring those communities along with you,” he claimed. “Clearly it has to be a proposition that serves a need and therefore has visitor demand, but speed-to-market is often as important as a lengthy research programme.”
Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association’s (ADBA) Louise Wallace saw exhibitions as a way of attracting members, growing its own database and the nascent AD and biogas industries.
“We realised there wasn’t a trade show specific to the AD market and it also crosses many sectors, which meant there was lots of growth potential in terms of exhibitor and visitor profile,” she said. “We thought we had the knowledge of the industry and could deliver the content. We could also go to key stakeholders and partnerships to push forward the exhibition.”
Opie advised organisers to thoroughly investigate the competitive landscape before committing to a full launch. “We find spending time putting brochures together, creating a website and building an event profile before its launch helps you shape it and understand your proposition is different to the other exhibitions,” he said.
Fresh Montgomery’s Toby Wand put the emphasis on gauging potential visitor demand, claiming shows that fail listened to advertisers and suppliers too much.
“You have to talk to the potential audience and understand what’s changing for them and what they want out of the event,” he said.
“Spend twice as much time researching the market as you do exhibitors. The process really comes alive from the energy and excitement you get from potential visitors who say they’ll come if you stage it. You have to raise excitement, create a vibe around what you’re doing.
“You get people who won’t exhibit at first-time shows, and as an industry there have been lots of shows that haven’t worked for whatever reason, which means several companies are cautious about participating in exhibitions. In your first year you have to have that key client list, but it’s not a numbers game to start with.”Establishing parameters
Giving your show a chance to develop is one thing, but organisers do need to understand when their idea is great and when it’s average. A very definite way is by setting parameters. This could be a specific number of exhibitors on-board by a certain date. Wand warned potential launchers to watch out for huge gaps in the trade or consumer markets where there is an exhibition vacuum, because they are often there for a good reason.
“We work in the food, drink and hospitality industry and those industries are all about feel, touch, smell, face-to-face interaction and product innovation,” he said. “There are loads of launches happening because it is the environment where shows really resonate and exhibitors want to do more with them.
“Where you see a crowded marketplace, don’t just assume you shouldn’t go there. Look at where business is heavily reliant on face-to-face.”
Launching a show with your own money is a definite impetus to focusing on milestones, Gunstone claimed. “We had set monthly targets for the first two months that basically said if we don’t get buy-in, we don’t have a show,” she said.
“There’s a big difference between someone who says they’re interested in an idea, and those that sign on the dotted line and commit real money. In the first few months if we didn’t hit our targets, we couldn’t have gone ahead as we wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills.”
A more established or larger organiser should ensure their best people are on a launch, Opie continued. “The more talented the people, the closer to the coalface they should be,” he said.
“That’s why I think smaller organisers are on the whole more successful at launching new brands, because you’re taking people who are very passionate and clued-up on the market they’re going to serve.”
The first milestone for organisers large or small, new or established, is recouping the investment in time and initial costs on the show website, brochure, launch party or event, Opie said. This doesn’t have to cost much more than £20,000. Over the following three-month period, the focus should be on recruiting key stakeholders, media partners and associations, the top 10 exhibitors and building a prospects pipeline.
“You also need to have a venue onside that is going to be reasonably flexible with tenancy commitments,” Opie advised. “Once you commit to a tenancy, you’re in the high-risk phase because your costs are high – you have tenancy costs, the money is spent on initial marketing collateral and it’s all about sales then.
“You have to get into a good revenue position for your next milestone, which is when you fully commit your visitor marketing spend. You’ll need 25 per cent of your total budgeted revenue, so you need to be in a strong financial position at that point.”
Wallace’s team had just five months to deliver the first ADBA trade show and was unsure if it would achieve its final exhibitor target until four weeks before launch. To boost its financial position, the association embraced sales avenues outside stand sales.
“This included sponsorship and advertising, and looking at what paid-for content we could offer,” Wallace said. “That’s why we decided to launch a paid-for conference on the show floor. We thought it would attract a different standard of visitor, and we also charged an entry fee for our trade show. We did this as a way to leverage our own exhibitors to market on our behalf by offering free codes for entry. That also gave us the means to go outside our own database, which was relatively limited given how new we were.”
Wand however stressed milestones shouldn’t replace common sense and taking a dominant role in your chosen market. That’s not to say you should ignore understanding from a cashflow point of view where you need to be as a business on your launch.
“I remember discussing the launch of the Restaurant Show with Tim Etchells [Single Market Events MD], and what he did was get to know all the top chefs, all the restaurants and the trends,” he added. “I don’t think Tim had a benchmark of where he had to be at a given time, I think he got a feel for the industry and success found him.”
Financial considerations are nevertheless a huge part of any launch. The biggest is remaining cashflow-positive in order to have money available at the right time.
For Gunstone, one way to achieve this is by working with a venue on delaying deposit payments or breaking these down into more manageable chunks that suit the frequency and timeline of your show.
“Whenever you enter an agreement, whether it’s with venues or a supplier, you need to be completely honest about your cashflow,” she continued. “If you are, then venues and suppliers will help you grow because it’s in their best interests.”
“The beauty of launching in this market is that it’s a cash-positive business; that is until you start accounting for salary, overheads, nice cars and so on,” Opie added. “You have to strip those out and just focus on the basics.”Brand credibility
One concern raised by publishers and associations looking to enter the exhibition market is how you ensure the reputation of your brand if the show fails.
Michael said launches under a magazine masthead needed to be considered and anyone using an existing brand had an obligation to protect it. “Each show and market place is different and reputation will only get you so far,” he claimed. “I’m worried about my reputation of course and I don’t want to launch shows that are failures, so you have to be careful. But sometimes you come with the right idea and you should pursue it.”
As an example, Michael outlined a deep-sea diving exhibition Quartz tried and failed to launch. Despite initial interest in the idea, the lack of support from three key people forced the organiser to drop the idea. “Our reputation in the diving market is probably not brilliant, but as it’s a small part of what we’ve done, I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “If I did it in the chemical market, I’d have to be more careful as we have a big investment in that space. Launches there have to be a lot more considered. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
In Opie’s case, any partnership struck to launch existing event brands in the UK has to provide a level of autonomy to the organiser. Nevertheless, he recognised the need to stay true to the key messaging of that established brand.
While most of the panel discussion centred on how to get to the launch stage, a final question was how you know you’ve got longevity.
“If you have delivered the audience – volume and quality will vary market to market – and the exhibitor base is satisfied and pleased with the attendees you delivered, you will live to fight another day,” Opie said. “We will want to secure a lot of the exhibitor re-sign during the two or more days of the show. You’ll know how successful year two will be by the end of day two and whether you’re going to double in size, if it’s going to be a lot of hard work, or of it’s time to call it a day.”
Wallace’s show gains advance knowledge of numbers as visitors pay to attend, but she was still nervous come day one. “We can’t offer the numbers, but we can offer quality and our exhibitors said they never had so many people at their stands,” she said. “We also offered a discounted rate on rebooking and immediately did a survey afterwards to capture quotes and testimonials for our site. You have to prepare for selling next year’s show before you actually launch.”
Michael recommended achieving a 60 per cent rebook rate onsite, and sitting down with exhibitors to ensure they met the right visitors even after the show.
Wand believed success can be measured in advance of launch, although admitted consumer events are harder to gauge due to walk-ups. For him, organisers must plan where they want to be in three years’ time. “If you have a very successful launch, a lot of those doubters in year one will come on-board and you can usually double in size in year two,” he said. “It’s then a question of whether you want to create three smaller events and if they’d be more profitable than actually holding one massive annual one.”
All agreed there was still plenty of room for more shows, even if they weren’t all in the UK. Quartz for example, is placing more emphasis on geocloning existing event brands such as Chemspec in overseas markets. What is key is making sure your show offers the right value proposition.
“Providing content post-show is just as important and you have to trade that to your exhibitor, and tell them how you and they can benefit after the show,” Michael said.
“There are so many events you can attend now, and people have less and less budget and time, so you have to give them as much as possible,” Wallace concluded. “It could be conference programmes, meet-the-buyer sessions or networking events – offer as much as you can to make it worth their while.”
Toby Wand MD, Fresh MontgomeryToby has been in the exhibition and publishing world since the late 1980s. He worked for Emap Communications on trade and consumer shows for education and technology through to period homes, before becoming involved in the hospitality market in 2003 to help launch Taste of London with Brand Events. Toby joined Fresh RM in 2005 and became MD of the new-look Fresh Montgomery in 2012.Justin OpieDirector, IMP EventsJustin spent five years at Blenheim Group, largely on trade shows in the technology space, before a three-year stint on the board of Imark Communications, which was acquired by VNU exhibitions (now Incisive Media). In 2003 he launched IMP Events with Graeme Howe and Clive Ellings and has since sold trade shows in the risk management, technology, marketing and retail sectors including E Commerce Expo and Ad:Tech. Nicola GunstoneCommercial director, Eco Technology ShowNicola has 22 years in events with 11 years senior management experience within companies ranging from global commercial corporations to start-ups and not for profits. She held portfolio director roles at Reed Exhibitions and IIR Conferences Australia, along with regional responsibility in Asia-Pacific and Europe. Nicola launched The Eco Technology Show in Brighton in June and is a partner in corporate agency Regis Events.Louise WallaceCommercial director, The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA)Louise has been with ADBA since its inception three years ago and is responsible for the delivery of sales and marketing activities. This involves organising all events including UK AD & Biogas, its annual trade show and conference. ADBA launched its first show in 2010 with 2,400sqm. The event is looking to fill 5,500sqm in 2013 for its fourth edition. Louise was new to the events industry when she joined. Paul MichaelMD, Quartz Business MediaPaul has worked in the exhibition and trade publishing sector for the last 40 years. Some of Quartz’s key brands include the International Materials Handling Exhibition, Chemspec Europe and USA and the Latin American Coatings Show. Paul is vice-chair of the AEO and is actively expanding Quartz’s portfolio of events outside the UK into India, Mexico, Dubai, Turkey and the US.This was first published in the November edition of EN. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org