The venue partnership

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We all know the exhibition market has matured, becoming both more global and professional. We also know show brands are changing shape to better entertain and add value to the exhibitor and visitor, that industries are being forced to react to economic hardship, and that new technology is opening up broader ways of communication and influencing perceptions of the face-to-face medium.  Just as the show model and organisers adapt, so too should the venues that house and support them. So how successful are organisers and venues in communicating and understanding each other, and are venues accommodating the needs of today’s exhibitions well enough? In a bid to gauge the state of the venue/organiser relationship, Exhibition News commissioned a fresh research project that asked organisers to not only rate the services provided by their venues, but also outline their concerns and wishlists. One of the cornerstones of our approach was whether venues are looked at as mere spaces in which organisers provide all the intelligence, or if the two are working increasingly in partnership. A key question was how the partnership between venue and organiser is defined and rated in action, and what organisers would like that relationship to be. We also wanted to understand what services venues were providing and to what standard, as well as evaluate current views on key issues such as venue space and choice, pricing, flexibility, brand protection and market research and development.  To achieve this, we asked analysis firm Vivid Interface to conduct a quantitative and qualitative survey of organisers, looking at a host of venue considerations. In all, 72 senior individuals from the organiser community responded to the quantitative survey, which was followed with a further 11 in-depth interviews. The survey was conducted during August-September 2012. At a top-line level, venues came out well. According to Vivid Interface MD Geoffrey Dixon, the results indicate that while organisers have frustrations, the relationship between them and the facility hosting their show meets with a good degree of satisfaction. “Notwithstanding this, organisers overwhelmingly feel that venues must recognise they are in the business of contributing to the delivery of a great customer experience and while some are felt to be getting there, others have lessons to learn and the customer expectation does not stand still,” he commented.  “The organisers are clear that the long-term resilience and sustainability of the events business depends on providing rewarding experiences to customers. In turn, they demand venues must understand the components of a quality customer experience and deliver it.  “Overall, organisers want to work in partnership with venues but recognise there is a clear line dividing them. It has been wonderful to listen to organisers praise some venues and both senior and more junior staff. There are also examples however of venue management stuck in a different and bygone age.” Rankings To set some parameters around the research, respondents were asked both general questions relating to their venue relationships, as well as to rate three venues they have used or evaluated from the following list: Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Alexandra Palace, Business Design Centre, Earls Court, Excel London, Harrogate International Centre, Manchester Central, The NEC, Olympia, Ricoh, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), The International Centre Telford and Wembley. Not surprisingly, the spread of venues used by respondents tended to concentrate around the larger venues. However, other facilities mentioned as being utilised for exhibitions included ACC Liverpool, Glow at Bluewater, Stoneleigh Park, Sandown Park, Royal Highland Centre, plus showgrounds, hotels and conference centres. The survey asked organisers to rate venues from the above list for visitor experience for trade and consumer events, then for exhibitors and organisers of both. Overall, Excel topped the list for best experience, gaining its strongest score for exhibitor experience at 28 per cent followed by organiser experience at 26 per cent (Figure 1). Of the organisers who have actually used the venue or evaluated it, 43 per cent claimed it offered the best experience for exhibitors. Excel was marginally ahead of the second-highest rated venue, The NEC. Excel and The NEC had almost identical ratings overall when compared on best experience for trade visitors at 25 and 23 per cent respectively, followed by Earls Court (13 per cent). Rounding out the top five for experience across all categories was Earls Court, Olympia and the SECC. According to responses, the majority of organisers (79 per cent) will look at two or three venues typically when launching a show, or when an event contract is out to tender. Ten per cent said they review four, and three per cent just one. In terms of how organisers review the choice of venue for their exhibition, 34 per cent said they review annually, and 46 per cent every couple of years. Eighteen per cent only review if the show is likely to become venue-bound. When asked for their preferred choice of venue partner to launch an exhibition in from the list, the NEC and Olympia both topped with 21 per cent of votes, followed by Excel (18 per cent), Earls Court (8 per cent) and Harrogate (5 per cent, Figure 2).  Core services Being in the face-to-face business, respondents were unsurprisingly driven by customer service in their dealings with venues, with many saying staff support, responsiveness, cooperativeness, flexibility, competencies, a willingness to engage and an affinity with the events business were key to their relationship. “Larger venues tend to deliver a better customer experience than some of the smaller venues that have been commented on,” Dixon said in response to the survey. “Excel in particular receives praise for the quality of experience it delivers at all levels. However, this praise tends not to extend to the provision of Wi-Fi and in many cases good and affordable coffee. “Organisers place great value in the relationships they are able to establish with venues and Earls Court and Olympia stands out above all others in receiving praise for management and staff at all levels and in having a proactive and ‘can-do’ attitude. An organiser using Earls Court or Olympia will know that if the answer is no, it is because it just cannot be done but feels real comfort in knowing that the team will have done everything in their power to help them achieve their goals.” When asked to rate venue performance at a service level, organisers were unified in the belief that venues have to deliver a quality visitor experience. “The kind of thing venues are not moving on is their agreements with catering services and in-hall Internet services,” one respondent said. “I have to say I want to provide all of my visitors with free coffee and water and I can’t do that at £2.50 a cup of coffee. We should establish what is right for the visitor as an industry.” The most important factors when rating a venue reflected this focus on visitor and exhibitor experience and was led by location, followed by easy access to deliveries and transport, access to Wi-Fi, range of catering facilities onsite and cleanliness (Figure 3). Of lesser importance was visitor promotion marketing and industry market research support.Overall, Excel came out on top in most categories with the exception of location, which was led by Earls Court. The NEC also received the best score for access for deliveries and transport, storage and organiser facilities. Across the board, Wi-Fi offerings were notable for their poor performance against the importance of such services. When asked for suggestions on other services vital in choosing or working with a venue, organisers listed hotels and amenities, venue account management, venue facilities and access and transport as key. Cost considerations The next question asked to organisers was if venue hire costs had risen over the last two to three years, and whether these were comparable to other costs or higher. Across all respondents, 28 per cent said venue costs had increased greater than other costs, while 48 per cent said costs had increased but were relative. Just nine per cent claimed costs had decreased at all and 13 per cent said costs remained the same. The report found organisers using larger venues were more likely to have experienced a cost increase greater than any other organising cost. Leading the list of all areas where prices had increased was the hall renting fee, followed by electricity, catering and car parking. The potential loss of Earls Court in the next two to three years had a huge impact on how organisers perceived pricing as shows currently residing in the venue juggled to find new homes. Over the next 18 months, 64 per cent of organisers expect to experience an increase in venue costs, with one quarter of these believing rises will be higher against other organising costs. When looked at by the venues organisers work with or have experience of, Olympia is expected by 38 per cent of organisers to increase venue rental costs at a greater level than other organising costs, against 30 per cent of organisers who believed Excel will raise its prices. “It will be fascinating to see exactly what happens if and when Earls Court closes because the gloves will be off and people will be jostling,” one organiser said. “The best relationships will come out strongest and the ownership protection programme will come right to the fore then because there are bound to be instances where people get pissed off by it and feel hard done by.” Another respondent claimed they could often only ‘negotiate’ for the first year when the venue is striving to secure new business. “Shows usually seek continuity in a chosen venue, so the venue owner has the organiser over a barrel and can often name the price and terms for each year of tenancy with little negotiation,” the organiser stated. Dixon emphasised the concern that space rental costs in London may rise because of the reduction in available event space in London. “The concern is that this could have a negative impact upon event development and sustainability and the concerns of organisers must be heard on this,” he said. Alongside costs, an important theme from the research was the need for venues to offer flexibility in pricing arrangements. While respecting the need for venues to make profits, adaptable pricing models and tiered pricing structures across different spaces and timeframes were all highly prized by organisers.  As many pointed out, often there can be a need for an event space that can produce no financial return at all to the organiser but is important in the quality of the experience delivered. One respondent said the current gross charging model didn’t work, while another called for some way to put the flexibility back into relationships. “Organisers clearly understand and respect the need for venues to make profits but feel they must offer more flexible pricing models and tiered pricing structures that recognise that in developing a quality customer experience, not all space utilised by the event can deliver the same financial return,” Dixon explained. Brand protection One of the core areas Exhibition News was interested in delving into was the security organisers feel in terms of brand protection from a venue. According to the survey, 85 per cent believe profile protection offered to them by their venue was either very or quite important in their choice of facility, while 20 per cent felt it was neither important nor unimportant. The good news is 75 per cent found their choice of venue to provide adequate brand protection, even though 82 per cent said the way venues help organisers protect their brands hasn’t changed in recent years. Not surprisingly, Excel and The NEC, the UK’s two largest and most populated venues, came out as being the most rigorous for applying profile protection. Those who weren’t getting adequate profile protection felt this was because the venue either did not fully understand the organiser’s profile, or because of commercial considerations. One organiser blamed the issue on venues expecting the organiser to police policy, when they felt the venue should take initial responsibility. “Scale is felt to be a significant influencer in profile protection. More than one organiser stated that they feel there is a significant difference in weight between companies such as UBM and the organiser of one or two events when it came down to how a profile was interpreted and whether protection was available at all,” Dixon said. Improving the partnership The concept of ‘partnership’ between a venue and organiser is highly subjective, but the term has nevertheless become increasingly important on both sides. To meet this demand, venues have launched different types of services and support in a bid to demonstrate their events expertise, logistics and marketing knowledge and ability to work with an organiser. Of those organisers surveyed for the report, 44 per cent agreed exhibition venue managers were working alongside them to meet their business goals and 90 per cent believed exhibition venue management was generally helpful in their business aims. Despite this, 46 per cent claimed venues could do more to improve the partnership between them and organisers. Suggestions ranged from more practical considerations, such as actual discounting or leniency on pricing when a show is launching or struggling and being more upfront about costs in the initial stages, to helping to more proactively identify market opportunities while showing discretion in discussing business ideas. As was previously mentioned, pricing flexibility is an area ripe for improvement, while several said venues would benefit from a better understanding of the nature and needs of an exhibition organiser and its exhibitors. “Venues need to realise that their profit margins can determine not just whether a show thrives, but in this day and age, survives,” one respondent noted. Another organiser pointed out larger venues were multi-functional and while some efforts were being made, they weren’t getting close enough to  their client understand their business and truly add value. “Give us more flexibility in catering in venues and involve organisers in tailoring the catering offering dependent on show,” a third individual asked. “Allow organisers more freedom in putting on features that haven’t been done before – we are in the entertainment business and should encourage creativity. That will enhance the visitor experience and make them want to come back year after year. “Churning out the same event year-on-year leads to apathy and declining visitor numbers. We need venues to embrace this and work with organisers more to achieve this without the usual red tape. The first answer from venues is usually ‘no’ and it takes a lot of persuasion from us to achieve what we want.” On the whole however, organisers had good things to say about the teams they deal with across different venues, highlighting the importance of relationship and sharing intelligence in the short and long-term. Earls Court and Olympia Venues was noted for its ability to work through problems in partnership with organisers, while its central marketing team was praised for its can-do attitude. “They’ve come to us to say we’ve got these ideas, which is fantastic,” one organiser said. “They have a group of people genuinely on the same page as us.” Across the venues listed in the survey, Olympia received the top score for being the most enjoyable venue to work with, closely followed by Earls Court (Figure 4). The team at Earls Court also came up trumps for being part of the organiser’s events team, while Excel was praised for understanding the events business, led by CEO Kevin Murphy.  “You know it is industry people who maybe have worked on the other side of the fence but know what organisers want,” one of the venue’s supporters stated. “Venue support is key to a successful event,” another organiser claimed. “They should be there to make your life easier and help your event to grow and be successful as it is in their interests. It is not just about rates and facilities but a good client relationship and understanding of our business.”Conclusion What’s clear is the incredible importance organisers place on the level of customer service from their venue. “In essence we have a venue to organiser relationship that works most of the time but there is room for improvement,” Dixon commented. “The key requirements for venues is to recognise that they have a big responsibility in delivering a customer experience that matches customer needs and retail destinations like Westfield and Bluewater are used as points of aspiration. With an average visitor dwell time averaging six hours for show visitors it is easy to understand why.” Venues that can reflect the nature of events through more flexible arrangements while delivering good old customer service will be the ones who truly find partnership with their organiser counterparts. This was first published in the October edition of EN. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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