EXHIBITIONS: Official audit? It’s as easy as ABC

Once the preserve of the press, TV and radio, the ABC audit is now coveted by trade and consumer show organisers. Cathy Bond asks why so many are keen to achieve this stamp of integrity

Once the preserve of the press, TV and radio, the ABC audit is now

coveted by trade and consumer show organisers. Cathy Bond asks why so

many are keen to achieve this stamp of integrity



It’s the final day of the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, and the box

office staff are exhausted. They have just processed more than half a

million people over 26 days - but that’s nothing. The question is, can

they win the media world’s stamp of integrity: an ABC audit?



Tickets, which were until this year just pieces of paper to be gathered

in and ticked off at the organiser’s leisure, were suddenly being

counted, checked, bundled, totalled and re-checked against takings.

Exhibitors accustomed to daily feedback about visitor levels discovered

that figures were suddenly, temporarily, confidential.



Then ABC swung into action in the final stage of a rigorous auditing

procedure, devised and honed over the years at trade shows to prevent

head counts being distorted by even a single visitorless ticket.



At the London Motor Show in November, P&O Events had struggled through a

similar process with the ticket stubs of some 425,000 visitors, so that

it could wave the ABC logo at prospective exhibitors and sponsors.



Blenheim Group’s Computer Shopper event was put through the mill, too.



They are the first of a growing band of consumer shows lining up

alongside all competing media, from television to radio and press, with

irrefutable proof that what they say about the audiences they reach is

the truth.



‘It was a nightmare to administer, although our own methods had also

been pretty strict,’ admits Nick James, group show director at Ideal

Home’s organiser, DMG. ‘Next year, with the auditing framework in place,

it should be easier.’



Austen Hawkins of ABC, who co-ordinated the new consumer audit, says:

‘We overhauled the trade audit system a few years ago and the number of

shows taking part has jumped from less than 30 to nearly 130, with more

taking part every week.’



Why are more exhibition organisers keen to fly the banner of an official

audit? Is there a whiff of bad practice out there, and why has it taken

the industry so long to take the plunge?



Caroline Moore, of Earls Court Olympia, points out that it takes courage

for organisers to admit that visitor levels may have gone down. ‘The

quality of the audience could have improved because of better

targeting,’ she says, ‘but a drop in attendance is still a difficult

message to put over. In the long term, however, accurate data is in the

best interests of the exhibitions industry, and shows that, alongside

other forms of media, it can hold its own.’



ABC and the body which originally spawned it, The Incorporated Society

of British Advertisers (ISBA), together with the Association of

Exhibition Organisers (AEO), believe this is a natural progression.

First of all, ABC updated trade show auditing to suit both organisers

and exhibitors, based on working party discussions involving both sides.



Next, it moved on to the burgeoning consumer event sector using the same

process, the only difference being that no common consumer audit had

existed before, although versions were available through a variety of

companies.



The AEO already makes trade show auditing a condition of membership.It

is likely that a similar demand for consumer events will follow once the

industry reaches agreement on how the process should be carried out.



According to ABC, a system has been broadly agreed by the working party.

But there is vociferous objection from Blenheim, which insists that

there is no common method to analyse separately the increasing number of

consumer exhibitions combining two shows under one roof, such as the

biennial International Motor Show and autumn Ideal Home Exhibition at

the NEC.



It is possible that ABC’s system will need to be fine-tuned yet again.

But Hawkins points out: ‘We are here to listen to what the exhibition

industry wants, not to dictate to it.’



Widespread scepticism about claimed visitor levels has dogged the

exhibitions sector in recent years, as it surfs on a wave of new show

launches. Consumer events fire the imagination. Event organisers have

discovered how to turn interactive entertainment into not only hard cash

at the gate, but also happy, curious punters delivered to the FMCG

brands which come to set out their stalls.



‘They’re all falling over themselves to launch new shows,’ says Bob

Monk, who takes charge of the exhibition activities of LG Electronics,

manufacturer of the Goldstar brand.



‘Logically, it means fewer and fewer people at each one. But in my

experience we’ve been told an entirely different story about attendance

levels by show organisers, the organisers of competing shows and

independent auditors. Who do you believe? It’s got to be the independent

team.’



‘Audits cut out doubt,’ claims Ian Allchild, managing director of Avenue

Exhibitions. ‘Although exhibitors aren’t fools, wild claims are easily

found out.’



Until ABC took matters in hand, current and potential exhibitors had to

trust the organiser’s word on attendance levels at consumer exhibitions

or learn from experience, unless the event was audited externally, which

was uncommon. And as competition to entertain a voracious public grew,

so did suspicion about some of the claims being made.



BBC Haymarket Exhibitions, for example, used to tot up its figures

internally, according to marketing director Sarah Horrell. Although

clients were perfectly happy, there came a time two years ago when the

company realised it would have to ‘bite the bullet’ and get it done

independently.



‘Even though many competitors were quoting unrealistic figures, we had

BBC in our name and so we had to be very BBC about it: whiter than

white.’



‘As a system, it outlaws the cowboys who are falsifying figures, which

is easy and tempting for them to do,’ says Mark Saunders, show director

for the London Motor Show. ‘But the pressure really doesn’t seem to be

coming from exhibitors. It’s more the exhibition industry looking at

ways of making sure they provide accurate information on the size of

events. As with any marketing medium, you need good hard facts behind

you.’



‘It really doesn’t matter to me,’ says John Addison, exhibitions co-

ordinator for up-market furniture manufacturer Hulsta. ‘What I believe

in is the business that we do at the show.’ Anglian Windows’ Julia

Murray, however, points out that as the company tries hard to carry out

a good deal of research of its own at exhibitions, ‘it would be nice to

marry the two’.



Show organisers are chasing the prestigious blue-chip FMCG brands which

make an exhibition hall look good, particularly those that have the

funds and funk to put on a bit of theatre, and not just parade the

product range. They reason that hard-headed marketers will want numbers

to crunch in order to justify what can be a very expensive outlay, and

that those figures should be squeaky clean.



‘Companies want to be able to measure their participation and what they

get from it,’ says Mike Whibley, managing director of Reed Exhibitions,

which stages almost exclusively trade shows. ‘They want more feedback.

We’ve always audited attendance, and qualified the audiences too, with

research carried out at the show.’



‘Data is knowledge,’ says Hawkins. ‘The more data you provide, the

better sales prospects become. In this, exhibitions are competing with

all other media.’



Unfortunately, visitors to consumer shows cannot be pigeon-holed as

neatly as those to a trade event. This is chiefly because business

people tend to register in advance, and, at the very least, will be

asked to complete a questionnaire logging details about job title,

business and location. Some registration forms delve much deeper,

uncovering precise responsibility and corporate spending power.



Even more information is yielded if exhibitors can buy into an

electronic system which uses lightpens to read visitors’ badges. This

tracks the moves of identifiable business customers, because

participating stands are able to swipe information.



But the family piling into the Children’s BBC Big Bash, or Ideal Home

Exhibition, need do no more than buy a ticket or indicate that they have

arrived. ‘The audit can split attendance into, for example, adult and

child, full-price, discount, voucher and complimentary tickets, no more

than that,’ says Hawkins. No event organiser is going to infuriate

consumers intent on having a good time by demanding that a lengthy

registration card is filled out.



‘We are setting up additional research departments to provide better

information on the quality of visitors,’ says Clive Ellings, marketing

director of Blenheim. ‘We want to improve the quality of information,

finding out what visitors do at the shows and their areas of interest.

Exhibitions are a form of direct marketing, so we need those techniques.

That means segmenting the audience.’



Qualitative research carried out on site, with both audiences and

exhibitors, is fuel for organisers keen to demonstrate that shows are

being marketed properly and are delivering a high-quality target market.

It helps with the organiser’s own marketing of the show and is handed

out selectively to exhibitors, too. ‘The audit provides an essential

benchmark,’ says Reg Best, exhibitions consultant to ISBA. ‘Show

organisers can take it from there.’



‘At the moment, trade show organisers feed back the information I need.

But I assume that I’d only have to ask if I wanted more,’ says Yvonne

West, who heads up Sainsbury’s voucher operation. Pundits at consumer

shows have less muscle, however. Qualitative research is normally

carried out by a reputable independent source, but as Anglia’s Murray

says: ‘The organisers tell you only what they want you to know. The

information isn’t bad, but it’s all tied in with marketing hype.’



It is easy to see why the benchmark factor is pushed hard by ABC, which

wants to make sure that the divide between audited figures and pure

research is not blurred. ‘Audits set the point from which research

figures can be grossed up,’ Hawkins points out, ‘but the audit is pure fact.’



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