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Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Cold comfort for halls in Britain: Peter Cotterell examines the advantages and drawbacks of exhibiting in the UK

A SURVEY carried out by the National Exhibitors Association (NEA) in 1988 indicated that of the UK venues, the NEC in Birmingham was the exhibitors' favourite. Much praised were its modern purpose-built halls, ease of access and its ability to attract visitors by plane, train or car from a large catchment area.

Less liked were the lack of things to do after hours and the allegedly monopolistic business practices of its owners, Birmingham City Council, over the supply of services.

London fared worse. On top of the grumbles about monopolies at P & O's Earls Court and Olympia were complaints about 'dreadful food', 'appalling traffic jams' and 'shabby mausoleums'.

Five years on things have improved a little. P & 0 have built the highly regarded Earls Court 2. Exhibitors are finding that simply defying the monopolies is highly effective and, following action by the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, a welcome change in the law looks like helping further.

Some of the improvements at the NEC and Earls Court Olympia have doubtless been fuelled by increased competition. In London excellent new halls have been built at Wembley, though transport and accommodation still remain a problem.

New halls at Telford are challenging the NEC with low prices, a better range of accommodation and things to do and, it is said, a more customer-friendly attitude. Other modern regional centres have also been carving a niche, like Glasgow's SECC.

All this is good news for UK exhibitors at UK shows looking for UK buyers. But the business world is changing as more and more companies look to their exhibitions as a way of making contact with buyers from overseas, and particularly the EC. In this sense, many feel UK events in UK venues do not deliver, although there are still a few notable exceptions.

Consequently, and doubtless helped by the recession, the last two years have seen the rapid acceleration of what for many UK hall-owners is an alarming drift of exhibitors to international events such as those at the Parc des Expositions in Paris, Ifema in Madrid, and Fiera di Milano and Lingotto Fiere in Italy.

The real centre of Europe, both geographically and for exhibitions, is Germany, where major cities have concentrated on events as a way of generating both export business and income from high spending business visitors.

Apart from the NEC our exhibition venues are not on the same scale as those in other parts of Europe. As a quick snapshot, all the covered exhibition space in the UK, including the NEC, could be fitted into the halls at Hanover and there would still be room to spare.

The visitor figures published by some of the largest UK organisers are often highly creative. Blenheim Exhibitions, organisers of conference industry show Confex, are currently claiming that '7125 professional event buyers from all over Europe' attended the 1992 presentation of their show. A recent analysis of the visitor list for the event showed that the figure was 5,400 with many attending to sell rather than buy.

And we are perceived by many overseas exhibitors as expensive and exploitative. Within the tourism industry for example, the prices charged for exhibition space in London are two or three times the rates in Berlin. And the bills for simple services here give much cause for complaint.

One Hungarian exhibitor at the World Travel Market event was amazed to be charged pounds 200 to have a flag put up. A comparison of the cost of essential on-stand washing facilities at food exhibitions in London and Cologne showed that London exhibitors were paying nearly three times as much for the same item.

Not that other European countries are beyond a little customer-unfriendly exploitation when it comes to exhibition visitors. According to Jim Wiseman of Coordinate Exhibition Services, which takes groups of UK exhibitors to overseas events, the hotels in Germany raise their prices whenever an exhibition comes to town, something that is illegal in the UK. A significant proportion of the money is also taken off the hoteliers in the form of a bed tax, which goes into the state coffers.

Overall, however, UK exhibitors like exhibiting outside the UK. Ted Jarvis, a director of modular display company Systems Freestyle comments: 'Other European halls are better to work in. There are not the restrictions on the services you can provide yourself, especially electrics, and the food is better and more available during the build-up days, when they bring round a trolley. Try getting a meal after 4.30 pm at the NEC.'

Despite the poor image our halls have overseas, there are ambitious plans to build more of them, in readiness for the surge in interest that some feel is sure to come. One plan, conceived by the UK Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) is to build a pounds 50m complex on a green field site on Rainham Marshes in Essex, to compete with the increasingly congested Earls Court Olympia. Financial backers however, are proving hard to find.

One AEO member, organiser John Clarke from FMJ Publications, feels that a central London site would be better and suggests that halls could be built on top of, or adjacent to, a railway station, such as St Pancras. In terms of transportation, hotel accommodation, things to do, and attraction of UK and overseas delegates the suggestion may be a good one. But does the UK really need any more exhibition halls?

In terms of existing UK halls many see them now fighting a losing battle as more of their business goes overseas. In fairness there is not a great deal that can be done to stop it as the attractions of the Single Market lure more away. There will be an inevitable loss of events overall and the cost to UK cities is likely to be high. The Trade Show Bureau in the US recently calculated that the loss of one 10,000 visitor event to a US city would cost around dollars 7m. Halls and organisers here might better concentrate on staging good events for the UK market and becoming more customer-friendly for those overseas exhibitors wishing to sell into it.

Overall, however, for the UK the trend towards overseas exhibiting is a healthy one. While it may be cold comfort to UK exhibition hall owners with empty spaces and unsold sandwiches the export orders won by British companies exhibiting overseas can only help the UK economy.

Peter Cotterell is secretary-general, National Exhibitors Association.

(Photograph omitted)