Venue watch: retail therapy

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In the past 18 months two retail-oriented venues have launched in the UK, promising to shake-up the exhibition market. Glow at Bluewater, Kent and EventCity by Trafford Park, Manchester open the opportunity for organisers to host shows alongside retail destinations at the centre of their geographical region, albeit in very different ways. Glow, a brand new events space situated in the heart of Bluewater, has chalked up a mix of winners and problematic shows that either succeeded or were defeated by the exhibitors, content and marketing strategy adopted. However, while some organisers have chosen to pull out, others are actively expanding their brands at Glow, spying an opportunity in events that complement its visitor demographic. In contrast, EventCity’s physical separation from the Trafford Centre has allowed it to craft a distinct identity that’s proving beneficial. Access to the retail mall’s visitor base, along with its location and infrastructure, have been embraced by organisers, who claim both factors can drive strong attendance. The bigger challenge is whether EventCity can help generate sufficient demand for exhibitions in the North West region.EventCity This 28,000sqm events venue adjacent to the Trafford Park retail centre (pictured) has come a long way since opening as a storage warehouse in the 1990s. The facility’s biggest win since launching in April 2011 has been Clarion’s Caravan and Motorhome Show, which attracted 31,489 visitors in January, a 42 per cent rise against its previous edition. Other events have covered weddings, tattoos, railway models, travel, stitch and craft and even X Factor auditions. “We have surprised ourselves in terms of the number of events and their profile,” EventCity MD Andy Orr said. “What is great is 95 per cent of organisers are rebooking for two and three-year deals, which means we’re starting to put in anchor shows and building a calendar of key events.” Given that EventCity owner, the Peel Group, is new to the exhibition space Orr is the first to admit EventCity is a work in progress. The venue was caught out for instance when it underestimated its water tank and drainage capacity when hosting the Caravan and Motorhome Show. In addition, vehicle doors installed were not wide enough for mobile home exhibits, prompting an overnight dig to widen the access way. “There were a lot of challenges but we dealt with them efficiently,” Orr said. “We are building good relationships, so if there’s something we can do, we know it’s in everyone’s interest. We do a lot of follow up with exhibitors and use score sheets to gauge feedback.” Consumer shows have been most prolific, which isn’t surprising given the venue’s proximity to the Trafford Centre. Orr said the retail mall gives EventCity access to existing transport infrastructure, motorway and public transport links, as well as retail visitor promotion opportunities traditional exhibition venues don’t have. For example, every EventCity show gets time on poster and advertising sites at Trafford Park as well as Peel’s other leisure facilities including Salford City Stadium and Trafford Golf Centre. “That’s huge marketing coverage for anyone else to purchase, but at the same time we are masters of our own identity,” he said. “Exhibitors are telling us they’re making exceptional sales, and we believe that’s partly because of the free parking, allowing visitors to spend that money with exhibitors.” A strategic shift is to target the conference and live events market. In October, EventCity announced a multi-million pound plan to transform Hall 4 (5,800sqm) into a conference, meetings and dining space. The refurbished hall will be fully operational from January and includes onsite kitchens and catering, supplied under an exclusive deal with Olympia catering provider Smart Hospitality. It also features a production installation from Hawthorn Theatrical with zoned sound system, star cloth walls, cable dimming tools, pin spot lights and full rigging.  “We’ve only just touched the surface of that marketplace and it will be a big development area for us over the next 12-18 months,” Orr said. “It’s about intensifying the yield of the site.” Other investments include £200,000 of adjustable Wi-Fi available to organisers for free, and a new PA system to be implemented in coming months. Upgrade work has also stretched to Hall 3, a vast 16,000sqm space with average tenancy of about 10 per cent, and includes a separate entrance, toilets and drainage, noise and control inputs, heating and power options. “We are still evolving and have room to improve, so we can’t get complacent,” Orr continued. “What we’ve found so far is there’s a sweet spot for mid-sized shows of 4,000 or 5,000sqm here. We’re trying to increase occupancy for shows over 7,000sqm. With Hall 3 we can also partition the space and drop the size down.” Arguably, the biggest challenge for EventCity is to foster fresh events in the North West. At present, 40 per cent of its programme is new shows, while the remaining 60 per cent relocated from other venues or are relaunching in Manchester. “We have a huge population in our drive time of 8.5 million, and there’s scope for exhibitions in both Birmingham and Manchester,” Orr claimed, adding the North West had been starved of exhibitions. “We couldn’t survive by picking off shows from Manchester Central, the NEC or Liverpool; we have to generate our own market. We are bringing shows that have not been to Manchester on subjects like golf, classic cars and home and we’re looking at skiing and cycling profiles. We have to work hard to fulfil our potential.” ICHF is one of several organisers backing EventCity and held its first show there, Woman’s Weekly Live! The Creative Stitches and Hobbycrafts Show in September. Its MD David Bennett said staff were on-hand throughout the show and the venue “worked exceptionally well for our needs”. ICHF will run the show annually at EventCity and is also launching an edition of Cake International next March. Richard Milbourn held his first Northern Home Show at EventCity in June and returns for a second edition in 2013. “The Northern Home Show was one of the first events to be run at EventCity and any teething problems in converting the space to an exhibition hall were quickly sorted out with a new entrance hall and better road signage,” he said. “For our first show we required a flue for a fireplace exhibitor, which might pose a problem for some venues, but EventCity was keen to solve it by punching a hole through the wall and installing a 30-foot chimney.” Visitors need to make a conscious decision to cross the road to visit, which prevents time wasters being able to wander into the show, Milbourn claimed. “But there’s no doubt having the leisure and shopping destination next door gives visitors another reason to leave home.” Orr said EventCity recognises people are loathe to take risks, making the venue’s job harder. “We are looking at the deals we do and offering a split with no guarantees for the right shows,” he added. “We will share the risk with the organiser as we are that confident in our venue.”Glow, Bluewater The highly anticipated Glow events venue at Bluewater, Kent has had a tougher ride than its northern counterpart. Its radical new proposition – to situate an events venue in the middle of a retail mall – gained a quick footing with several organisers who saw it as an opportunity to launch new consumer shows and expand existing brands. Others however, remain skeptical of attracting the right types and quantities of visitors given the competition from department stores, food plazas and the plethora of retailers onsite. The 5,200sqm events opened its doors in November 2011 with an edition of Clarion’s Spirit of Christmas. Since then, it has hosted a diverse range of consumer shows and experience events with varying degrees of success, leaving organisers divided on whether the non-traditional location is feasible for their brands. Bluewater interim commercial director Simon Donaldson told EN the venue was committed to working with organisers to understand how to best utilise the space to their mutual benefit. “We want to bring feature-led events that are relevant to customers, but the experiential element is crucial,” he explained. “Shopping is a leisure pursuit and social activity and that’s what events are also about.” Glow has welcomed 600,000 visitors so far and hosted a dozen events including the experiential Christmas in New York, which attracted more than 350,000. More traditional consumer show highlights have been ICHF’s Creative Stitches and Hobbycrafts, and Mercury Events’ Wedding Fair and Baby and Toddler Show. More than 15 events are booked into the calendar, some of which are new brands, others repeats. “The key is that these events are based around niche groups and include bespoke areas that will work best at Glow,” Donaldson said. Other market sectors that will strike a chord with visitors to Bluewater include automotive, and house and gardens with a DIY element. “As a retail element, a show should align with what we do, not replicate the model already here,” Donaldson continued. “We are learning lessons on the way, and we will continue to work with organisers in the education process about how experiences work. It’s not just giving an organiser the keys to the door and wishing them luck. “The success of the event reflects on our reputation and brand, so on that basis we take it very seriously.” Having been in operation for 12 months, Bluewater is now seeing opportunities to broaden the types of events inside Glow. While the focus has been consumer-oriented to date, Donaldson argued that the venue could also host business-to-business events. “B2B wasn’t originally on our radar, but we have a venue that’s unique, we have the transport infrastructure and we’re a leisure destination, all of which adds up to a strong angle for these types of events,” he claimed. The venue has started discussions with trade fair organisers and is also looking to build a hotel onsite for which it has already received planning permission and secured a partner. “We have had B2B organisers ask us to advise them on experience and we can assist with pre-show, signage and experiential activity based on our retail experience.” In addition, more experiential live events are securing the space. Donaldson recognises Glow’s mixed successes and pointed out organisers in established venues don’t always get it right either. “We realise it can take three to five years to get fully established and we weren’t looking at our Glow business in terms of one year,” he said. “What we do have is a venue that’s part of an established destination in southeast England that we can help organisers to understand.” By working in partnership, he hopes to learn from organisers on the best ways to operate exhibitions while helping them understand the benefits of being situated in a retail environment. Another strength Bluewater offers is the multiple visitor promotion opportunities onsite. With 56 per cent of all shoppers visiting the mall 29 times every year, there is plenty of scope to reach those individuals through advertising and promotions onsite in advance of an event. “The first couple of years will be trial and error, but over time people will understand the place as an established venue with its own unique strengths and challenges,” Donaldson said. One organiser strongly backing Glow’s proposition is Mercury Events. The organiser was established earlier this year by MD Calum Taylor and former Clarion event director Matt Miller, and launched with a Wedding Fair in September, followed by a Baby and Toddler Show. The company will also run a Winter Wonderland live event for two months over the festive season. Miller, who oversaw Clarion’s first events at Bluewater, said the key to success at Glow is not about competing with retail, but adding a clear point of difference. “We are interested in consumer shows that are sustainable and profitable long-term. Glow is a new model which is significantly different from what we organisers are used to,” he said. The first key point is that exhibitors have to be absolutely relevant, Taylor explained. While Mercury’s shows have featured key department stores as exhibitors, the majority of stands are regional providers. “We see an opportunity in a particular catchment area which we know not all large-scale organisers won’t necessarily be able to adapt to,” he said. “For us, it’s about doing regional events with national event production values. We also know you can’t just take a show that works in The NEC or Earls Court and drop it into Glow. “In addition, our job is about crafting the right mix of exhibitors, not taking the easiest options. We also don’t grab attendees from the shopping mall to fill our aisles. We have to do the same job as every organiser to make our shows a dedicated visitor location in their own right. What Bluewater does give us is a way to make the visitor’s day a more memorable experience.” “There’s a customer unique opportunity that doesn’t exist in other venues,” Miller added. “After all, how many hidden gems are there for consumer organisers to launch in traditional venues?” Ultimately, the success of Glow will come down to organisers embracing its presence in the retail mall, rather than fighting it. In the meantime, Donaldson is placing his faith in Bluewater’s ability to work in partnership. “We’re not about being a landlord and tenant, our principle is partnership,” he concluded. “Our experience in retail is highly relevant and we want to share it.” This was first published in the November edition of EN. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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