The cost of exhibiting is on the rise so getting it right and getting
value for money has never been so crucial. Louise Bishop reports
Is money spent putting a small part of your company into a large
building in order for people to walk past it money well spent? No one
denies that exhibiting is an expensive and troublesome business but it
is also a big business that attracted 10.28 million visitors to 691
exhibitions last year.
There is a lot more to exhibitions in cost and value terms than just the
number of square metres you buy. The real cost includes payment for
space, a shell scheme (a basic stand), lighting, furniture, overnight
stays, design and staffing. Indirect costs include the expense of having
staff out of the office and, perhaps greatest of all, the cost of not
achieving all that you want to and wasting your money altogether.
Gillian Cartwright, author of Making the Most of Trade Exhibitions, puts
it this way: ‘The major problem with exhibitions is that companies
invest money without sitting down and thinking what they want to get in
return. It is a case of setting measurable marketing objectives. Often
they find it hard at the end to work out if it has been cost effective
BT’s Colin Wise, who manages the personal customer exhibition schedule,
agrees: ‘The crucial question is: do we at any show meet our objectives?
If not we challenge ourselves as to why. It’s not just selling the kit.
The key thing is meeting customers face to face not cost per response.’
‘Budgeting is a difficult area,’ continues Cartwright. ‘A lot of
companies are guilty of looking at what they spent last year and adding
10%. The problem with that is if you got it wrong the first time, you
are never really sure if what you are investing in the exhibition is
money spent wisely.’
Thinking only about cost per square metre can be misleading. The average
price of a trade exhibition stand is between pounds 200-£250 for space
only and pounds 230- pounds 280 for a shell scheme. But the real expense
of a show is what the company chooses to add to those basic costs. The
amount of money you need to invest to attract attention can vary also.
The audience for a trade exhibition or conference is narrower and easier
to get to but for a large consumer show, a big outside advertising
budget may be necessary.
The consensus is that exhibiting is getting more expensive. Inflationary
pressures on the industry come from an increased demand for exhibitions
- last year 10.28 million visitors trampled through 691 exhibitions -
but no corresponding increase in the amount of exhibition space
available. David Pegler, UK managing director of exhibition organiser
Blenheim, says: ‘The key inflationary pressure on us is the price we
have to pay for the hall rentals. For instance, the NEC has increased
its tariff by approximately 10%-12% a year. Our prices haven’t gone up
in proportion to that. We try instead to buy more efficiently.’
The AA is one organisation that took a hard look at its exhibitions
policy in the recession, when attendances fell and consumers began to
keep a tighter grip on their cheque books. Costs, it agrees, are
continuing to rise.
‘We now have a two-banded approach,’ says exhibition co-ordinator Paul
Clark. ‘We still take part in the national and main regional motor
shows, and in the Ideal Home Show, which is the UK’s biggest consumer
event. At those events we’ll spend pounds 400-£600 a square metre, which
is quite good, although we expect some of the components such as
graphics to be re-usable.
‘For other shows we now have a formula based on the revenue we expect to
get through new members. This can mean taking space in less popular
parts of the hall, using pop-up displays, relying more on our internal
resources - or not taking part at all.
‘You can’t just keep turning up at an exhibition because the competition
will be there. The decisions now are far more strategic, and as a result
we have more confidence in our exhibitions programme.’
Even IBM needs to watch its costs. Steve Kirkwood, team leader events
logistics for the UK, says: ‘We are going towards bigger shows. There
will be rationalisation on a European basis. We are looking to get
better value for money. As decisions are made more and more at a
worldwide and European level we may well abandon some of the smaller
niche shows.’ For such a large player to be planning any kind of
reduction will be a worry to the exhibitions industry as a whole.
But Howard Burbidge, sales and marketing director of conference
organiser Conference and Incentive Travel Partnership, feels that the
economic pressures are getting worse.
‘The rates have been hardening in the past three or four months,’ he
says. ‘There is a significant upward trend in business and the venues
are saying that the prices of the past four years are now history. They
are not offering any kinds of rebates or discounts and they are very
firm on their prices - if you can find the space in the first place.’
Some of the extra costs incurred by the organisers inevitably get passed
on to the customer, who has to be even more sure what they are getting
out of an exhibition.
Kirkwood bemoans the practice of a show changing its audience targeting
without letting the exhibitor know, which he claims has happened to IBM
For his part, Colin Wise of BT is unhappy about how tightly some
organisers are controlling the exhibiting environment. To be the
shining, big-spending light in a low-grade environment almost defeats
the purpose. ‘As an exhibitor, one has to be very, very careful.
Organisers send out ad blurb which sometimes makes outrageous claims
about attendance. You must investigate,’ says Wise.
Stephen Batiste, chairman of events marketing company Commercial
Presentations Group, says: ‘It is a powerful sales and marketing medium
but it is not treated as such. People are aware that simply being there
is not enough. They end up getting loaded down, but not necessarily
loaded down with results. People’s critical faculties seem to be focused
entirely on how many square metres they are buying and not the show as a
brand experience. If you were able to take all of the logos off a stand
at an average exhibition and swap them around I don’t think it would
make any difference - and it should.
‘Even the major exhibitions companies took a hit during the recession.
It is slowly starting to come out of that but the initial hit restrained
the general costs.
‘There seems to be an increasing need to achieve but I don’t think
people are clear about how to do it. An exhibition is the most
interactive environment possible. People are quite happy to spend a
phenomenal amount of money on electronic interactivity that isn’t really
interactive, but they are not prepared to think as cleverly about real
interactivity and how one could draw a person into the experience of the
brand in a way they will remember.’
Pegler at Blenheim comments that increasing costs make value for money
all the more crucial. ‘Getting the right size of stand is important,’ he
says. ‘There is no point selling space of 200 square metres when 20 is
all that is really needed. You have to be responsible and look at long-
term business. If someone comes and has a bad experience, spends money
and doesn’t get a return on it you have to start from square one the
Batiste, whose company specialises in customising events away from the
main drag of an exhibition hall, challenges the effectiveness of the
medium. ‘The exhibition as a way of presenting a brand is becoming less
satisfactory - it is expensive and difficult to quantify.’
The least logical place for a company to try out their own brand is in
the midst of the maximum competitiveness they can find,’ he says.
For those who cannot afford consultancy, there are indirect benefits as
well as indirect costs in exhibiting. ‘Companies might count the number
of enquiries they receive at a show but there are other ways in which
exhibitions benefit companies which aren’t taken into account,’ says
Cartwright. ‘You can’t put a financial measure on customer relations.’
However, putting a financial measure on time spent exhibiting is
becoming more important as prices go up. Richard John of exhibition
consultancy ECS says: ‘A 100 square metre stand costing around pounds
30,000 in visible costs is an investment of pounds 10,000 a day or
pounds 1000 for every hour the show is open and that is before you have
included the thousands of pounds of hidden costs. Explaining these
figures to a sales team could make them think twice about extended lunch
breaks.’ The equation between actual cost, hidden cost and value for
money needs to be worked out before the show and not after.