Steve Barratt steps back from his role as chair of the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA) at the end of the year. He speaks to EN about his achievements and the challenges he faces as he bows out.
Steve Barratt established Early Action Group (EAG) in 1990, at the beginning of the last big recession. Having worked for a large exhibition contractor that strongly supported the industry trade body at that time, BECA, EAG also joined and supported the association.
However, with the demise of union control and power in the exhibition industry, it became apparent to Barratt and a key group of individuals that contractors and suppliers needed to have a dialogue with a different audience: venues and organisers.
A meeting of this group in 2002 saw the start of a new association that became the Association of Exhibition Contractors. After a number of years in opposing corners with slightly different agendas, the two associations commenced talks around merging to provide a single unified body to represent supplier and service companies to the wider events and exhibition market.
Instrumental in securing the merger in 2007, Barrett became chair, pushing the association to create a voice for contractors and service suppliers. Now, with Barrett stepping down as chair of ESSA at the end of the year, EN caught up with him to find out what has changed in his five-year tenure.
How has the relationship between venues, organisers and service suppliers been affected in recent months, bearing in mind that organisers and venues were almost entirely unwilling to make discounts?
I would say the relationship has never been stronger, we have never before had the amount of dialogue between the associations. I would agree that service suppliers have and continue to be squeezed on price but so have venues, and yes, even organisers. I think you would find that both are having to significantly discount their products. There is now enormous pressure on us all to deliver quality events in the UK and overseas.
How can organisers help today’s exhibition service supplier?
By the very nature of events we are in a creative industry. This cannot be solely bottom line-driven. The most creative and professionally delivered shows are the ones that enter into true partnerships with their suppliers and do not treat them as disposable commodities.
What are the key obstacles for suppliers and organisers to overcome?
For organisers, the power of Twitter. For suppliers, the constantly moving goalposts in relation to legislation and the need to standardise it.
Is transparency the key to success? Yes, but we all need to believe this and engage in it.
What are we doing much better than we used to?
We across the three trade associations communicate much better. This is no longer an industry run by the organiser it is now very much a three-way deal and we are still working at it.
Which goals has the industry failed to achieve in five years?
The EIA has, to my mind, not fulfilled its early promise as an umbrella association that would speak on behalf of the entire industry in the UK. I think it needs a good CEO who is able to speak knowledgeably for the Industry as a whole. Why should we let one of our main venues close without a fight from the people that earn a living from it?
We should not ignore the ground we have covered including a lengthy and very complex merger between two associations. We have just survived the worst recession in living memory where the survival of ESSA/AEV/AEO became priority because members needed the support. The recession has had a benefit, we have succeeded in providing highly cost-effective secretariat services to all three associations.
Which goals will it be failing to achieve in another five?
Voice and support for events in the UK. Whether it be national or regional government, or just the jobsworths that have crept into our industry, there is a danger that they will legislate us all out of business. We still need to focus on making it easier for customers to buy, and use this marketing channel without feeling, or being, ripped-off.
What innovations have most impressed you since taking the reins at ESSA?
I would say data is the main one, the way our industry captures it and uses it. ESSA has made some real changes in providing tangible member benefits, some very innovative as well as good basic services.