Verifying exhibition audiences

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For many years, the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) insisted members have at least one show audited by the ABC in order to retain membership. This year, it decided to offer an alternative – the Audience Verification Scheme (AVS).AVS is a reporting mechanism aimed at validating an organiser’s total attendance figures for an exhibition. Members will submit their visitor list, which the AEO will keep on file and use to check the accuracy of base figures. Members are charged £200 per show submitted to AVS. “During the recession, members were saying auditing was costing them more than the AEO membership fee – so it was basically doubling the cost and becoming a problem,” AEO CEO Austen Hawkins said. Typically, a BPA or ABC audit costs £1,500-£3,000 depending on the scale of the show.The potential challenge is that AVS is largely self-audited. It also only focuses on total footfall – whether this includes pre-registered visitors, stand staff, students or paying attendees. According to Hawkins, the association will conduct spot checks on various shows to ensure reported figures are correct. It is now looking to appoint an outsourced agency to manage AVS data.“If a show has more than 10 per cent variance on the previous year, we will double check for example,” Hawkins said. “Or if another organiser claims their competitor is lying, and they’re willing to pay for it, we’ll do a full audit of the show.” If the claim turns out to be true, the organiser being scrutinised will be forced to pay the full cost of the audit. Hawkins pointed out the AEO was the only trade association in the media space to insist members undertake independent auditing of one show (of at least 1,500sqm net space) for the past 15 years. “We understand it is a difficult time financially. AVS is simply checking how many people attended. That’s not a bad thing – we’re retaining a check-and-balance scheme, so in troubled times there is another option,” he said.Making the switchSome organisers have chosen to drop ABC auditing in favour of AVS such as William Reed, Clarion and VOS Media. However, several remain committed to ABC including Ocean Media, Emap and Haymarket. VOS Media employed ABC auditing while it was under DMG ownership, but a management buyout last year prompted a review of the process. Although the organiser is still auditing its Ski and Snowboard Show, it will switch all events to AVS once its AEO membership is approved, its MD Damian Norman said.“It makes sense, given so many of our competitors are now using the service,” he said. Norman defended the AVS as a way to retain transparency across the industry while remaining committed to the principles of third-party auditing. “Regardless of whether your show numbers are up or down, auditing provides a level of credibility around how many people you say come to your show. People that don’t audit can claim whatever figure they like. “The AVS will make people think twice about putting massively false claims about attendance out to the market. There are enough people who have a vested interest and won’t let the standard slide.” Another reason behind VOS’ decision to drop ABC auditing was the cost. Norman estimated AVS would save the company £6000-£8000 annually. “It’s a lot of money when you consider sponsorship, stand space and ticket sales are down in this industry,” he said. “I’d like everyone to use the AEO format and be a member – it gives us an industry standard and a voice. In times of recession, our biggest concern has to be getting people to shows.”When it countsThere are plenty of reasons why auditing remains an important element of the exhibition industry’s toolkit. Verified visitor figures can be critical in a competitive market where other organisers don’t subscribe to a verification scheme, for instance. Additionally, auditing can establish a launch show, or verify how successful a newly co-located or re-located show has been. As an example, Norman pointed to VOS’ Outdoors Show, which is being co-located after nine years at The NEC with the London International Boat Show and its inaugural London Bike Show this year. The obstacle, several organisers say, is that exhibitors rarely ask for the information as a pre-requisite of buying show space.   “I think we [organisers] are more voyeuristic and obsessed about auditing than exhibitors are. Exhibitors only become involved when the numbers for a show are down – then they are curious about it,” Norman said. AEO’s Hawkins put such lack of interest down to the exhibition industry being the only media sector where people largely buy space direct, rather than through agencies. “It is those preferred buyers who use ABC auditing all the time as part of the buying currency. Therefore, there’s a reason to invest,” he claimed. “But most exhibitors don’t ask about audits of a show – our members have been doing it because they thought it was the right thing to do. “So we asked ourselves ‘why are we insisting?’ and decided to let organisers make their own choices. With AVS, they must be factual and truthful.” For market research agency Vivid Interface, organisers who choose not to audit are missing the broader branding and sales benefits. “The industry has got its thinking wrong around auditing,” Vivid MD Geoffrey Dixon claimed. “You should be proactively communicating the audited data to those people buying your products as a way of demonstrating the value of your product.”Reed Exhibitions continues to use ABC auditing. Its marketing director, Alison Berends, said there were no plans to switch to AVS. “Auditing is there to give confidence to customers and to ensure consistency and transparency so for us using a recognised audit bureau like ABC is important,” she said.  Ocean Media Group MD James Brooks-Ward, agreed an audit provides honest information to its clients, as well as us a unique selling proposition against competitors that don’t. The challenge during the economic downturn was measuring shows year-on-year. “Visitor numbers should be measured against 2007 figures not the previous years as there was a general drop of circa 20 per cent in 2009 and most against that will be up in 2010,” Brooks-Ward said. “Numbers are, of course, important especially for our consumer shows. They are, however, only one measure of success since the true value of an event’s productivity is the business conducted. Our own general measure is that at least 60 per cent of exhibitors return for new shows and 80 per cent for established events.”At a crossroadsWhile the AEO has shifted the spotlight off auditing in the UK, it’s the opposite globally. International association body UFI, now requires all members to provide audited confirmation of at least one exhibition to retain membership. According to president and CEO of exhibition auditor BPA Worldwide, Glenn Hansen, an innate fear of auditing continues to pervade the market. Organisers are yet to realise the benefits of being able to prove the quality of visitors to potential new clients, especially when trying to attract business from abroad. “Without the strong demand from exhibitors and no requirements, organisers are not proactive about auditing,” Hansen said. “It’s not limited to a specific region of the world. The problem even exists within exhibition organisations and associations who may be providing registration numbers instead of verified data.”Broader considerationsVivid’s Dixon hit back at suggestions exhibitors weren’t interested in third-party measurements and claimed its market surveys highlighted a desire for more evidence from organisers to demonstrate a show’s value. At the same time, the rise of digital communication throws down a fresh challenge to media organisations to provide tangible statistics and ROI on all products. “Many people find it easier to invest in the digital sphere because you at least get a tangible click-through which is measurable and presentable,” Dixon explained. “What exhibitors want is evidence of what is taking place at the show. An audit is just the technical term and way of achieving this.“People increasingly want information that enables them to justify an investment in media spend.” The way forward was to look at the  value of a brand across multiple touch points. “You could have separate shows that are geographically or sector focused, plus conferences, industry events and digital media,” Dixon said. “How do you put that forward and measure the value of all of that when you’re trying to sell it? That’s where brand auditing comes in. “We are in a more complex business environment and to communicate and relate to the audience, it’s important to have an audit of your total brand impact.”Although AVS is gaining industry support, AEO’s Hawkins expected other large UK-based organisers would similarly stay with the ABC.“The ABC is a renowned standard. ABC gives us more detail and as more of us look to working with media planners and buyers, we will need it,” he said.
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