Mike Trudeau investigates the consequences of increased regional venue space on the UK exhibition market.
It’s a discussion that comes up every year: The UK already has too much venue space, and this leads to a weakened exhibitor experience, which undermines the reputation of exhibitions as
The argument goes like this: More venue space reduces the demand for venues and gives the power of selection to organisers. To attract business from organisers, venues have to reduce their tenancy rates. However, the money has to come from somewhere and this could mean costs are passed to exhibitors in the form of electrics pricing and so on.
The exhibitor, seeing the cost of exhibiting going up, begins to expect a lot more return on investment to justify the expense, or at least a lot more content to add value. Not only does this put pressure on organisers to do more with their budgets – and where will they get the money for that? – but it can make exhibitors lose faith in exhibitions as an effective marketing tool.
Despite this argument, in the last year we’ve seen new venue space popping up around the UK like mushrooms after rain. The Harrogate International Centre, The Bluewater Events Venue in Kent, Manchester’s EventCity, ACC Liverpool’s recent announcement of an 8,100sqm new exhibition space, the 10,000sqm planned for the Bath and West Showgrounds – one can’t help but feel like that someone somewhere knows something.
If there is already too much space, are these venues piling into an already-overloaded and sinking ship? After all, shows are becoming smaller and more specialised, and the sum of each isolated vertical’s floor space might not add up to the mammoth horizontal shows of old. Could venues like ACC Liverpool be building smaller halls (2,700sqm in Liverpool’s case) in anticipation of this trend? And if so, what does this mean for the larger sheds?
To find our answer, we first must determine if the argument is even valid. Have rates really been going up? According to EN’s venue sources, rates have not been rising definitively. Instead, what we are seeing is an increased diversity in pricing options and extras.
According to the owners of the new venues and venues-to-be, the result will not be rock-bottom rates, but better offers. While the principle of supply and demand is central to economics, competition is one of the chief tenets of capitalism: Make people compete for business and their products will a) diversify and b) get better.
CEO of the Royal Bath and West of England Society Jane Guise said the new 10,000sqm exhibition space at the showgrounds will target growing regional business, rather than steal it from the cities or other regional venues.
“We are doing it because we have several very large events with significant requirements for space,” she said. “We regard ourselves as a special place in a rural area and not particularly in competition with the urban sites.”
The project is still in its early stages. At time of writing the showground master plan had been approved but the council had not yet given official planning permission. However, Guise said the venue has received more booking enquiries than in previous years.
In March, ACC Liverpool secured £40m in funding to create an 8,100sqm exhibition venue after 18 months of planning.
“There are a number of reasons to open a new venue space,” GM of the venue’s attached Echo Arena Tim Banfield said. “Business for ACC Liverpool has been successful in the first three years of our operation. We have had double what we originally envisaged in the plan. A lot of events that have come here have grown and we want to ensure that if they grow, we grow to maintain their business.
“If you think about our core business, we haven’t served the exhibition industry as such.”
According to Banfield, there was only one standalone exhibition in Liverpool last year and the venue’s bread and butter comes from conferences and entertainment events like concerts and performances. Now, Banfield hopes Liverpool will be able to offer UK exhibition organisers what they want while gaining access to the European and international markets where the city’s capacity has previously been limited. The ACC also hopes to tap into new territory.
“Not only does this allow us to expand our core business, but it allows the exhibition industry to expand into the Merseyside and Liverpool areas, because at the moment it isn’t a market you can enter,” he claimed. “I think the regional exhibition market has come through the recession very strongly and the venues are being more welcoming to new entrants to the market.
“The national market is dominated by bigger players so with more space available in the UK there is more opportunity for new entrepreneurs and existing ones to enter new markets.”
Banfield doesn’t believe the new venue will steal anyone’s business. “If the organisers come here, especially on the consumer side, it will be by adding to their portfolios around the UK instead of moving them,” he said. “We are looking to enter new markets, not existing ones.
“It’s a good thing for the visitor ultimately because we will have to keep upping our game in terms of service. In the history of new venues that come into the marketplace, I think service and value for money has improved over the years.”
Although it already boasts sizeable exhibition space, Harrogate International Centre (HIC) is another regional facility expanding its bricks-and-mortar offering and will open up 3,300sqm of combined space in autumn. According to head of sales and marketing Alison Griffin, it expects to grow along with its clients and compete for business with big urban venues.
“The decision was prompted by client feedback,” said Griffin. “We have some of the longest-running shows in terms of trade shows and some of those wanted to expand. We primarily wanted to enable our venue to be used in a flexible capacity.”
HIC has been running events since the 1950s, so this is also an opportunity to update the offering. “We are very mindful of the competition so in our service and relationship with our clients is where we aim to add value,” Griffin said.
“We work hard to target other venues’ business, but we do that with an element of creative flair and we have a strength in combining our sales and marketing very closely together. We have to fight harder for the business there is and hope that the UK will grow out of the recession so sectors start to grow again.”
Griffin said the industry needed to help cement broader appeal for exhibitions with exhibitors looking to spend marketing budgets on reaching out to existing and potential customers.
“We have to find a way to make sure exhibitions are deemed relevant as an effective social tool,” she added.
In a way, Bath and Harrogate are very similar. Both market themselves as a rural alternative to the cities. The friendlier more laid-back country feel is according to Griffin “quintessentially English”, which appeals not only to people in the UK looking for a business trip that is also a break, but also to people considering visiting or exhibiting at a UK show from abroad.
“There is very much a sense of heart about Harrogate that appeals to buyers,” Griffin claimed. “It’s quite hard to tangibly put across, but when people come here they feel it’s their home for the duration of the event.”
Big boys: An offer they can’t refuse
According to Excel London sales manager Jeremy Rees, the challenge to remain competitive as an exhibition venue is not to lower prices but to improve your offering.
“What you are trying to do is create more value for everyone,” he said. “Concentrate not on charging less but on creating a better product.”
Rees claimed an exhibition organiser is more concerned with the venue being the right one than getting a good deal. After all, skimping on a half-rate venue could mean the difference between a sustained success and a failed show.
“Price is an incidental amount compared to the revenue that could be generated by the show,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a discussion about price. You should put together an offer that will allow organisers to give their exhibitors the best possible experience.
“This might mean that the exhibitor spends more money but they also get more return on their investment.” Rees added that creating the right products for customers will make face-to-face a more effective way of doing business and thereby create more demand as exhibiting budgets increase.
Even with shows getting smaller on a national scale, large venues like Excel can position themselves for international business and increase the quality and variety of offering to maintain UK business and appeal to business from abroad. Excel’s most recent answer to this is the launch of the International Convention Centre including auditorium, banqueting hall and conference suite.
“This is the first time London is competing on an international stage with a venue that can host international exhibitions and events,” Rees said. “People want to come to London but previously we didn’t have the venue. When international shows move to London they get quite a substantial increase in visitors.”
The big picture
The most optimistic view, and that maintained by the Association of Event Venues head Chris Skeith, is that the amount of venue space in the UK is a direct result of much wider demand than was generated by the traditional exhibition market. More event innovation is also providing new and exciting ways to engage with people face-to-face.
According to Skeith, the new space cropping up is a good sign, not a harbinger of plummeting rates.
“More diverse venue space allows more innovation, a variety of live events that appeal to a wider customer base and ultimately a stronger industry,” he claimed. “Organisers with large shows in a large venue may look to extend their reach by developing regional variants which will support the development of regional venues. Or, the regional venues may provide opportunities for organisers to launch and grow a show prior to moving it to one of the larger venues.”
Opening a new venue is not done on a whim, Skeith continued.
“Investors are looking for a return on their investment so there must be good economic drivers for regional venues,” he said. “It seems logical, therefore, to suggest venues are opening where there is a local customer base to be served and are exploiting opportunities where a significant audience is already in that area.
“We will have more events across the country. These events will require more support services, contractors and suppliers to deliver them, they will encourage more people to engage in face-to-face events and this can only be a good thing for everyone involved in this industry.”
Instead of plunging tenancy rates and soaring exhibiting costs, we are seeing growth in the regional exhibition market. Some venues are setting their sights on European and international shows, while others are looking to provide more welcoming, flexible conditions.
Perhaps after the economic gauntlet of the last two years, we in the exhibition industry should see the increase in offering as a stage for business growth and innovation.
Caption: Tim Banfield.
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