Watching exhibition spending

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The unexpected does happen. For once I can make reasonably coherent comments on information the Events Industry Alliance (EIA) and Association of Events Organisers has gleaned about the exhibition business in 2009, courtesy of  The Facts 2010 research undertaken by Vivid Interface. Basically, the figures point to a single, simple conclusion – that the exhibitions business in the UK experienced a decline in spend and attendance just short of 10 per cent in 2009 when compared with 2008. The only really reliable international comparative we have is from the USA, where our sister organisation published numbers showing an overall decline at exhibitions of 12.5 per cent in 2009. Elsewhere, anecdotal European experience also suggests a decline circa 10 per cent.We currently have around 500 events and exhibitions we can examine in detail –100 or so fewer than in 2008. This is disappointing, but must in part reflect shows and conferences that did not run in 2009 but which may well return in a stronger economy.Apples for applesWhen examining our statistics, it is essential to focus on like-for-like numbers and look at events which ran both in 2008 and 2009 and provide historically reliable information. This applies to nearly 300 of our events – but these encompass almost all of the largest events and, in my estimation, represent in excess of 85 per cent of all expenditure on exhibitions in the United Kingdom.The numbers here are consistent. Trade events showed a decline of 8.2 per cent in attendance when comparing 2009 with 2008. Consumer events fared better with a decline of just 2.9 per cent. Events which gave us details of the gross hall space they booked at exhibition centres showed that, on average, organisers booked 8.5 per cent less space in 2009 than in 2008 – and this corresponds with anecdotal evidence.  Net space was rather worse, showing a decline of 13.4 per cent. But it is interesting that the median size of show hardly moved – declining from 2707 net metres in 2008 to 2631m in 2009. This suggests strongly that the decline in net square metres sold was focused on a small number of larger shows, rather than being an across-the-board fall. The number of exhibiting companies fell by 9.2 per cent where we can make like-for-like comparisons, but again the median hardly moved (the “typical” show having 155 exhibitors in 2008 and 148 in 2009). Overall, therefore, the nearly 500 shows for which we have information suggest that the industry declined slightly less than 10 per cent in 2009 compared with 2008.An emerging trend?While this is hardly cause for celebration, we must put it in the context of the media world. The best figures we have for TV suggest that it lost 17 per cent of its revenues in 2009, while newspapers overall (averaging national and regional) lost 26 per cent. Magazines depended on sector, but business titles lost 35 per cent of their revenues. Advertising group, WPP projects the TV sector will lose 26 per cent of its revenues between 2008 and 2013, magazines 45 per cent and newspapers more than half.No one is suggesting trends of this dimension for exhibitions and events. Indeed, all the information we have from shows running in the first half of 2010 indicate attendances and revenues have, overall, stabilised.Apart from “We’re from the government and we’re here to help”, the most dangerous words in the English language are “This time it’s different” and “I think we’ve bottomed”. So I’m not going to use any of those phrases, particularly as the reduction in government spend over the next four years is not, as yet, allowing us to make reasonable predictions as to the effect on individual show sectors.But the real question we need to ask is: “Is the decline we have seen secular [i.e. permanent] or cyclical [i.e. the visitors and exhibitors will come back]”?The first of the two graphs displayed here shows the annual change in visitors to UK trade events since 1999. Each year the calculation is like-for-like (i.e. in 2005, the shows used are those which also ran in 2004 if annual, or 2003 if biennial). In a nutshell, visitor numbers have fallen every year since 1999 except for 2007, when there was a 1 per cent rise. This looks secular rather than cyclical. And though 2009 was not as bad as we had feared, when coupled with 2008 it is troubling. The second graph shows the total number of net square metres sold at recognised exhibitions in the UK since 1985. As can be seen, business peaked in 2000 and net square metres – a good proxy for revenues – have declined at an average rate of 4.6 per cent per annum since. There’s no sign of this fall stopping – even if 2009 proved to be rather more comfortable than feared.
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