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
‘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
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
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
‘Audits cut out doubt,’ claims Ian Allchild, managing director of Avenue
Exhibitions. ‘Although exhibitors aren’t fools, wild claims are easily
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
‘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
‘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
‘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.’