Events adapt to prove their worth

When economic indicators point to tougher times the events industry has to adapt.

General consensus is that the events business is often one of the
last to feel the fallout from economic uncertainty. But once the impact
breaks, the size and style of events can change dramatically.

The truth is, the impact is rarely straightforward or entirely
predictable. The temptation for many companies across the board is to
cut marketing budgets and to view events as ‘non-essential’. Forecasts
certainly point to continuing uncertain times, but a competing view
runs that, for many organisations, events are actually one of the last
things to go.

Companies often continue to view exhibiting at their sector’s core
trade shows or maintaining a profile at industry conferences as
essential. Indeed, the theory goes, such companies will look at all
avenues to reduce expenditure on events before they quit the event
itself. So exhibitors may look to reduce space or to cut back on extras
such as hospitality; likewise conferences may well take on more of a
business emphasis. But quitting the live event network is way down the
list for many.

Exhibitors may reduce space and conferences may be less ‘lavish’,
but at the same time there are also companies that want to send a
message of confidence and success. Maintaining profile and sustaining
events activity to the same level can send a signal of ‘business as
usual’ or maybe even individual growth.

Evidence through the mid-part of 2008 points to a mixed impact.
Even allowing for the reticence of business to ‘talk up’ the ‘R’ word,
there are examples of events and sectors adapting to make the best of
the tough times.

Behind the downbeat forecasts and talk of downturns and recessions,
there are still event success stories. There are also many companies
looking to the future; exhibitors looking for an innovative route
forward or organisers adapting content to add value in a way that makes
the event as crucial as ever.

The British International Motor Show achieved a 14 per cent
increase in visitor numbers at this summer’s staging, rising to a
472,000 total. Amid the combined pressures of rising fuel costs,
multiple threats to disposable income and all-round pressure on
consumer finances, the show has managed to persuade an additional
57,000 people to leave their homes to contemplate new cars.

Exhibitor Honda quotes a 17 per cent increase in leads and Peugeot
a one-third increase in customer contact compared with the 2006 show.

Organisers put the success down to content: “The success of this
year’s Motor Show can be attributed not only to the quality of the
global debuts and the support of such a fantastic collection of motor
manufacturers, but also to the wide range of interactive attractions
and family-friendly features,” says show marketing director Kirsty
Perkinson.

In another sector under pressure, Autumn Fair Birmingham also has
good news surrounding its September staging. At a time when retail
shows might be expected to reflect retail gloom, the show presents a
positive picture with figures three months prior to opening standing at
’90 per cent sold’, with 80 per cent re-booked from last year and
significant numbers of new exhibitors also joining the party.

Explaining the dynamic driving the figures, Autumn Fair group
director Louise Young pinpoints a sector looking further ahead than
short-term problems. “The current economic climate means that Christmas
and the early part of 2009 will be all about providing unique products
and greater choice to entice consumers. This year’s Autumn Fair is
bursting with major brands and new products.”

So the show that provides the platform for Christmas retail works
hard to be the place where those retailers can unlock the future.
Product themes, or ‘trails’, such as ‘ethical’ and ’Creative Britain’
are designed to highlight what are considered to be the ‘most likely’
buying trends. Alongside 2,000 exhibitors, the show’s seminar programme
addresses the real issues of trading in difficult times.

It’s as though the show becomes an even more important source of
information and advice, with retail minds more focused than in less
pressured times.

“Only here will buyers find the new ranges, which will be the
ultimate best-sellers for Christmas,” continues Young, who promises
retailer buyers ‘the chance to take advantage of half a million
innovative ideas and products that will put them one step ahead of
their competitors’.

On the floor the stakes may seem higher and the show’s quest is to remain vital to the sector calendar.

Emphasis on value is greater than ever and companies conscious of
how their events activity is perceived become even more aware.

Cutting back on the ‘frills’ to reflect more cost-conscious times
makes the style and tone of events differ to match the tone of the
moment.

Gemma Brown, events director of London venue Vinopolis, close to
the City and its finance business, noticed a change in the style of
many events earlier this year.

“People still have budgets there,” she said, “it’s just about how
and when money is released. They are perhaps being more careful about
how they spend and those events have a more work-focused theme rather
than being socially-focused. We have to be flexible and adaptable to
different timescales.”

Recent national media coverage of a British Gas staff conference,
staged around the time of 35 per cent rises in consumer bills, took the
predictable ‘junket’ angle that besets the conference scene when times
are tough.

Certainly any public-facing organisation is likely to be more sensitive than ever to such accusations.

So just as value-for-money and a serious business approach become
the conference order of the day, opportunity presents for suppliers
that can match the outlook.

Another maxim of tougher times is the need to be ready to maximise
the upturn, and that those who continue marketing strongly through
those times are best placed when upturn arrives. The principle is one
that applies just as much to conference suppliers as to their
customers.

Ruaridh Macdonald, business development director of Macdonald
Hotels and Resorts, sums up the approach: “With the uncertainties of
the current economic climate, I believe there has never been a better
time to invest in your business to see you through.

“An important part of Macdonald Hotels and Resorts’ strategy to
survive the economic downturn, is to take full advantage of sales
opportunities in all of our key operating markets, generating a more
focused sales culture.”

The company’s strategy includes the re-launch of its conference and
meetings product, ‘Meetings@’, which emphasises customer service,
consistency and value.

Another venue, Whittlebury Hall Management Training Centre, Hotel
and Spa in Northamptonshire has sought to ‘add real value to its
current offerings’ rather than cut costs.

Cathy Harrison, marketing and public relations manager comments:
“Where lowering prices may, in the short term, provide a solution to
decreasing sales and booking figures, entering into cost cutting price
wars with competitors will in fact undersell a product and inevitably
have a long term damaging effect on the value of a brand; which is
often difficult to recover.

“Adding real, relevant value and providing clients with beneficial
extras in addition to your standard packages and services, will help
maintain and protect a brand, while at the same time increasing the
attractiveness of the business and successfully retaining and
generating new clients.”

So, there are plenty of good examples highlighting the ability of
the exhibition and conference scenes to reflect both good times and
not-so-good.

While there may be plenty of gloomy indicators out there, many in
the events industry continue to look for opportunity. If times are
tough there remains, it seems, scope for those able to adapt their
content or service and to stay relevant. Testing times call for
ingenuity; and that’s deep in the lifeblood of the live events
business.

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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