Exhibitions go hi-tech

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The Independent Online
THE National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham last week launched its own television station - NEC TV - broadcasting through 250 screens across the entire complex. Financed by advertising revenue from exhibitors, it provides information on local travel and weather conditions and broadcasts international news. The channel is based in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, and transmitted to the NEC via the latest ISDN links. It is just one of many examples of how exhibitions and conferences are changing their operations by using new technology.

All exhibitors at the NEC can now be connected via ISDN lines, enabling each to operate interactive display systems, making stands more attractive to potential clients. Only a few of the exhibitors at the current event - the Cruft's dog show - are making use of this facility, but it is regarded as essential to companies in certain trade sectors, such as computing and hotels.

NEC's parent body, the International Conference Centre (ICC), has also been fully wired up. Conference organisers expect to be able to televise even the smallest fringe meeting and to broadcast speakers from around the world by video conferencing. One recent event run by a carpet manufacturer featured contributions from managers in its Australian offices. Many conference organisers have computer terminals around their events where delegates can log questions, requests and complaints by e-mail, making conferences more responsive and flexible.

Richard Shelton, public relations manager of ICC and NEC, says: "There is an increase in these kinds of requirements as conferences and exhibitions become increasingly interactive. It is not just enough to present a product. You need to involve people coming through conferences. This requires ISDN cabling and Internet connections. Exhibitors demand their own high-technology presentation areas on stands. They are much more sophisticated today."

The more global character of conferences and exhibitions today is a key factor behind the drive to new technology. Many trade associations now operate on an international basis and members expect events to be sophisticated. In some sectors, such as computing, it is important to attract key speakers, even if it means they make their contributions via a video-conference link. Booking systems, too, call on the latest technology. Organisers promote forthcoming conferences via the Internet, and enquiries and reservations are made by e-mail, which is also used to send "flyers" to potential customers.

Globalisation is also reflected in the conference organisation sector itself, where British firms have been the target of takeovers by United States agencies keen to gain a foothold in Europe. They believe Europe's relative tardiness in recognising the potential created by new technology will give US businesses a competitive advantage here, while drawing on some developments in Britain that out-pace those of America.

However, while the latest technology has its uses, it also has its drawbacks. Lindy Bird, managing director of Cadogan International Conferences, says: "Presentations that use anything less than computer-aided technology look old fashioned now. Some speakers still use overhead projectors. I can't believe that. Computer-aided presentations are very flexible and react much quicker to market conditions. Last year I held an event on global markets on the day the Asian financial markets went to hell. One speaker showed a slide he had done the week before, and one he did on the way over that day, to compare the two. You have to respond more quickly now.

"But our delegates come for information. Video-conferencing is great, but there is nothing like being able to press the flesh, and that is what our delegates come for."