ANALYSIS: B2B exhibitions leader bucks marketing trend

Research published last week suggests that exhibitions are of declining importance in B2B profile-raising. It didn't feel like that at industry leader Confex, says Simon Ellery

Exhibitions have long been thought of by marketers as a perfect place for profile-raising, networking with industry figures and generating new business. But according to research published last week, large exhibitions increasingly fail to inspire marketing bosses.

The survey by MCC International involved around 150 marketing managers actively involved in events in December 2002. It found that 93 per cent of marketing heads see exhibitions as of declining importance. Only 18 per cent cite them as the most successful type of event for raising an organisation's profile, providing education and generating leads. Small, targeted conferences, the research claimed, were now the preferred channel for B2B comms.

And yet despite the MCC data, exhibitors at last week's exhibition for the exhibitions business, Confex, remained upbeat in the face of a dip in visitor numbers.

The UK exhibitions industry is worth £16bn a year and spans the breadth of commercial events, political party conferences and a variety of public sector exhibitions.

Indeed B2B PR specialist Sasha Hewitt, an account director at Attenborough Associates, says that despite their declining importance - which she attributes in part to the proliferation and sophistication of marketing methods - major trade exhibhitions remain of vital importance to those in the B2B market.

Hewitt says: 'Client PR strategies have changed but these exhibitions are still important to marketing and PR programmes. We have clients in the toy sector, for example, and if they are not seen to be at the Toy Fair, it sends a powerful PR message to competitors and observers.'

But Hewitt stresses that being at the exhibition is only the first step in deriving PR value from such events: 'Media relations support is vital.

You have to capitalise on every opportunity. It's not enough just to be there - you have to back it up, to publicise the fact you are there, and to be clear about what sets your stand apart from its peers.'

At Confex, the mood remained buoyant. One of the show's biggest exhibitors is Harrogate International Centre. Head of marketing and sales Stuart Mackay says exhibitions remain important in terms of B2B profile-raising: 'Some people have the wrong expectations. We invite a lot of customers here and give them good Yorkshire hospitality,' he adds.

One marketing boss who puts all her faith in exhibitions is Castle Ashby director of sales and marketing Andrea Fowkes. The stately home, in a 10,000 acre estate and available for corporate events, is represented at seven exhibitions a year. With four bookings already from Confex, Fowkes says the £4,000 stand fee and the extra spent this year on upgrading the stand has been worth it: 'We put all our money in exhibitions, as it's more difficult to judge the effectiveness of other marketing devices.'

Predictably, Confex director Paula Lorimer defends the value of exhibitions in the PR and marketing mix: 'There is a decline in the amount of marketing spend which focuses the mind. We are encouraging exhibitors to ask serious questions.'

She says that before clients commit to an exhibition they should evaluate it and decide whether the visitor profile meets their objectives. But drawn on the value of exhibitions she adds: 'There is no substitute for pressing the flesh one to one.'

Despite falling visitor numbers at many exhibitions, Lorimer claims to have held on to numbers, with 8,459 visitors last year. She then launches an attack on certain marketing managers claiming that they fail to do their job once at the exhibition: 'Our job is to bring the buyer and seller together - but many marketing managers think that our job is to sell their products.'

She points to exhibitors who fail to offer incentives such as novelties, food or drinks to come on to stands. But worse, she attacks those that don't update their stands as well as those that don't brief their stand workers properly so they chat among themselves, smoke or are always on their mobile phones.

But despite Lorimer's faith in her product, not all exhibitors were convinced.

A contingent from New York claims that not only is 'traffic' down but the quality has fallen, too. Doral Park Avenue Hotel sales and marketing director Tina Tait says: 'The quality of people has deteriorated. They do less business than previous visitors.'

Tait put the fall down to the looming war and the still high number of shows, adding that the £4,000 for the stand on top of travel and hotel costs made events such as Confex less attractive. But a forward salesman for Confex's exhibition support section echoes both the survey and comments from most of the exhibitors. He claims that stand sales for next year were 'surprisingly good' with the event almost sold out already.

It seems the art of holding successful exhibitions is more to do with common sense and buying in the right seduction techniques.

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