Agricultural societies are investing in their event infrastructure and eyeing the weekday business market. Mike Trudeau looks at why.
The UK exhibition market is fleshing itself out. As we see the launches of increasingly vertical and niche shows, and the proliferation of a philosophy of orbital shows and 365-days-a-year engagement with exhibitors, perhaps it’s of no surprise that regional venues are perking their ears up and beginning to invest in infrastructure to lasso themselves into expo business.
As the organiser of a small exhibition or peripheral show complementing your larger central event, you could do worse than look to regional Agricultural Societies and their accompanying venues. Although indoor exhibition space tends to be on the small side, there is plenty of outdoor ground. Perhaps more appealing is the fact that profits made by the venues go towards a wholesome and historic cause: Maintaining and improving local agricultural industries.
Stepping into the outdoors
The day-out or day-in-the-country aspect is a soft factor that you underestimate at your own risk. Look at the success of Harrogate: It’s practically an exhibition town.
Organisers, exhibitors and visitors alike loyally flock to events there year after year, not in small part because of the community and relaxed village atmosphere of the place.
Trinity Park Events (pictured) is the trading arm of the Suffolk Agricultural Association, a registered charity whose objectives are to further knowledge about agriculture and its importance to local and national economies. Trinity Park Events organises the Suffolk Show, a two-day event which attracts between 80,000 and 90,000 visitors each year.
“The Suffolk showground, the show itself and the educational initiatives have been at the heart of the Suffolk community for 180 years,” said Christine Bond, commercial manager of Trinity Park Events. “There is a very strong sense of community involvement with the showground and activities taking place at Trinity Park, which contribute to our profile and reputation locally.
“Recognising this, the Suffolk Agricultural Association invested £3m in a new events centre some five years ago to add an additional asset to the estate and enhance facilities in the area.”
Although the exhibition space is only 1,000sqm, Bond claims the centre is the largest purpose-built venue in Suffolk. “It complements the showground itself by enabling consumer and business-to-business events to use both indoor and outdoor space.”
Trinity Park is not the only charity-backed venue looking to expand its events revenue. The Royal Highland Centre outside Edinburgh is on the receiving end of £30m investment by the Royal Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS).
“The Royal Highland Centre is run as a separate commercial organisation with its own board of directors and management team,” said venue director Archie Glendinning. “However, being part of the RHASS has its benefits, not least of which is hosting the organisation’s flagship event, the Royal Highland Show, which attracts in the region of 190,000 people over four days.”
That kind of visitor count is up there with the biggest exhibitions in the UK.
“The Royal Highland Centre is the commercial arm of RHASS and therefore has business targets to achieve to ensure the long-term viability and success of the charity,” continued Glendinning.
“Our £30m master plan to develop and improve our conference and exhibition facilities has been carefully considered to not only enhance The Royal Highland Centre’s contribution to the economy – estimated at around £250m – but also to support farming and food business through the creation of a Scottish Centre of Excellence and an agricultural business hub, all of which encompass the Society’s founding objectives.”
According to Nick Vincent, chief executive of Three Counties Showground, the future may lie in weekday business to supplement the Showground’s weekend leisure events.
“Like all charities, there’s a need for commercial income to support the charitable objectives,” he told EN. “We need to be proactive and seek out opportunities. We must also make sure that we deliver both our charitable and commercial objectives with equal attention to professionalism and customer service.”
The commercial function is there to support the Society’s ability to deliver its charitable objectives, so it’s vital resources are put into both activities, Vincent said.
“It is essential to grow the commercial function, as we hope to do with the building of the new Three Counties Centre,” he continued.
“Given its history, the current business is largely domestic weekend business, much of which uses the whole Showground. Moving forward, we would like to develop the commercial weekday market and put facilities in place to support that initiative. The commercial arm of the business currently generates £1m, and we would like to see that grow to £1.5m.
“Advantages include ethics, integrity and no large profits for shareholders. It’s also about longevity – we have been operating for a long time and will be around for a long time to come.”
Vincent admitted the market is increasingly competitive and customers are demanding and expecting improved facilities and services. “Once the expanded Three Counties Centre is up and running in Malvern, we will be investing a further quarter of a million in upgrading our existing exhibition space.”
Challenging market conditions
Although being tied to an agricultural charity has its advantages, it is not without its challenges. These can stem from the decision-making process of the charity, the size of the organisation or the specificity of its niche.
“The challenges of being a social enterprise are those of any commercial business: We are competing in a very competitive marketplace where customers are searching for value for money and professional service,” said Bond. “We have to deliver this at the most competitive rate possible. As a standalone venue we do not benefit from the economies of mass marketing that some other venues and hotel groups enjoy.”
The increasingly competitive UK events venue market itself is not especially welcoming to newcomers, and agricultural venues are leaning on their strengths to promote themselves and draw business.
“The UK events industry is retrenching following years of significant growth. Clearly within this context only the very best venues committed to delivering great customer service will benefit most,” said Glendinning.
“Being linked to the charity helps us to promote the events that are about agriculture but not so much the normal run-of-the-mill types,” said Jane Guise, MD of the Bath and West Showground. “I’m not sure many people are connected to agriculture as a charity. There is not a great deal of public sympathy. It’s not a heart-strings kind of charity.”
Bath and West made the headlines earlier this year when it announced plans to double its exhibition space from 10,000 to 20,000sqm.
“The main challenge is that charities are by their very nature risk-averse. You have to be careful not to rock the boat by doing anything that would be seen as avoidable risk,” Guise said.
A viable alternative
Despite this, agricultural associations, their venues and event subsidiaries are increasing their offering to organisers. By bringing in more business, they hope to fill empty weekday slots and channel more revenue to the charity.
Although the indoor exhibition spaces of most of these venues is small by international industry standards, the venues could work well for small-catchment, low-margin shows that stand on their own, complement a larger national-level event or act to spread a brand as a UK geoclone.
If done correctly, the organiser could take advantage of the fact that revenues generated would go to a charity to help improve an event’s image as socially-responsible.
If nothing else, exhibitors and visitors may be tempted by the rural setting and the feel of a day or two in the country. No buses or traffic to negotiate, just open space, the smell of wet grass and an atmosphere that lets you clear your head and get down to business.
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