Editor of Specification, Paul Groves asks whether there is still a place for exhibitions

If you are a regular passenger on the UK’s building and construction exhibition merry-go-round you might be forgiven for thinking your world has been shrinking over the last five years.

The industry’s main events are still pulling in exhibitors and visitors and yet not at the rate we have previously seen.

For example, when I first attended Ecobuild in 2012 the event pretty much filled out both the main halls at ExCel and the conference programme was largely played out in the upstairs seminar rooms. Fast forward to 2019 and this month’s Futurebuild took up just about half of one hall and the show floor was a mixture of traditional exhibition stands and seminar and workshop theatres

Do we have we too much choice and too few opportunities to venture out and explore these events.

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine

Extra space needed

Therefore, there is some irony in the news that the International Confex event production show is growing at such a rate it has taken the decision to move to London’s ExCel from Olympia to take advantage of the extra space available.

Indeed, the move to ExCel will provide the backdrop for the development of UK Events Week which will bring a dedicated focus for the UK’s meetings, events and exhibition industries which are worth an estimated £43bn annually to the UK economy.

Is everywhere the same?

Living close to the NEC Birmingham and having to negotiate the M42 motorway, I know that some industries still enjoy bumper events.

From dog shows, to food events, from camping and caravanning to marketing and digital media, exhibition halls around the UK continue to be jam-packed.

With another publishing hat I recently attended the LAMMA Show at NEC Birmingham – an event focused on agricultural machinery which packed out eight of the NEC’s halls and attracted visitors from around the UK and Europe and farther afield.

What about construction?

The UK construction industry is arguably far bigger than many of these others. It directly provides jobs for 337,000 people across 23,818 companies and has an annual turnover of £60.2billion. So, although the exhibition industry itself is expanding, the construction industry does not seem to be embracing the concept of the large national/international event with the same amount of enthusiasm.

The UK’s main events are still dwarfed by the major European exhibitions that fill out the massive spaces available in German and French cities. On the Continent the emphasis is still on big is best and exhibition space for manufacturers. Yet in the UK the main draw for visitors now appears to the more CPD-friendly conference and seminar.

So, have we fallen out love with the exhibition?

There is no simple answer, there rarely is.

The Future

It will be interesting to see the official, audited visitor numbers for Futurebuild 2019. For many of the exhibitors the emphasis appeared to be on the quality of visitors to their stand, rather than the quantity.

Whereas many of the seminars dotted throughout the event over the three days were very well-attended, the footfall around the exhibition stands did not seem as great.

The Futurebuild website puts the emphasis on the conference and seminars rather than the exhibitors - https://www.futurebuild.co.uk/welcome#/ - urging the industry to take advantage of the opportunity to come together to discuss the issues of the day and shape the future.

And UK Construction Week – taking place at NEC Birmingham on March 8-10 – is putting a strong emphasis on the events with the event in 2019 as well as the exhibition floor.

The value

Part of the problem might be that we have diluted the offering too much. There are now so many exhibitions, events, expos, conferences and seminars throughout the year, that we are bamboozled by the choice.

The industry may well have spread itself too thinly as regards exhibitions. You can now attend almost any niche, sector-focused event you want, in which case it is little wonder the so-called “big shows” are losing their appeal and having to find new attractions – such as seminars and CPD workshops – to get the visitors in.

There is a growing school of thought that we now have too much choice and too few opportunities to venture out and explore these events. In an age when time is so precious and we seemingly have to justify the decision to spend any time outside of our office, there is no doubt that face-to-face meetings, networking opportunities, sharing experience and being able to view products and understand more about services, is still as vitally important as it always was.

Yet as one Futurebuild exhibitor put it to me: “You can easily ignore 10 phone calls or emails from me, but if I get you on my stand for 20 minutes and show you our products and talk about what you need, then I’m confident we will start doing business.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine