The exhibition industry is particularly sensitive to emulation and in the past few years, similar sector exhibitions held within weeks of one another have emerged and at times even at the same venue. Helen Brewer of the MICE Academy investigates…

Over a century ago, John Ruskin, a leading English art critic said: “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.”

In the world of exhibitions in particular and conferences in general, this saying is becoming more pertinent, certainly in South Africa. It may not necessarily be worse or cheaper, yet there is a strong tendency to emulate a type of exhibition or conference theme within weeks of one another. Although the best form of flattery is said to be imitation, it can also be annoyingly frustrating and indeed expensive for the originators of the type of exhibition whose first reaction is to call their attorneys in haste as they perceive the attendee numbers being whittled down before their very eyes in favour of the rival exhibition.

There have been cries of foul play from a variety of quarters aimed at the venues, emulators, collective industry associations – you name it.

In dissecting who is to judge on this dilemma it is necessary to view the issue from a variety of stances. Bearing in mind that at the toe of Africa we need to take cognisance that this is not Europe or the US where one is generally spoilt for choice and variety with public transport accessibility and the like readily available.

Exhibition venues

Exhibition venues will make it clear that their purpose is to sell space with all the bells and whistles that make-up a successful exhibition venue. Their role is not to police or discern client’s booking needs based on the name of booking and it is unlikely venue management will either reveal a similar booking or be the ham in the sandwich on the ethics of a booking with similarities with other bookings. Some venue management profess to having policies in place if this situation does occur, yet the MICE Academy’s investigations, albeit limited, have shown that not all exhibition-organising clients take in these policy statements with a smile on their face.

Exhibition organiser

It is mainly the original exhibition organiser who has the real challenge of a sudden fellow interloper when all the pre-exhibition monies have been committed over a protracted period of time. If the exhibition organiser has a concern regarding a similar exhibition over the same period, it is surely the organiser’s prerogative to insist on an appropriate clause within the contract – especially if the bottom line is a significant six-figure amount. Would the venue accept a clause of that nature? It’s dubious. However, with expert negotiations of repeat bookings over a five-year period – all aspects being equal – may persuade the exhibition venue to have second thoughts.

The newcomers that decide to compete with a similarly themed long-standing show may have researched the weaknesses over a protracted period of time in observing both exhibitor as well as visitor dissatisfactions. Based on these repeat challenges, a gem of a much improved ‘mousetrap’ can grow into an overwhelming enthusiastic surge of ‘let’s do it!’

It could be argued that when two similar shows are held over a short space of time there are no winners as the exhibitors and indeed visitors may be split between loyalties and new enticing incentives.

Size of the market

The attendee population in a particular industry sector can be limited and unless the exhibition organiser finds more real incentives to draw visitors to their particular show, it can prove a devastating financial loss to the long-standing regular exhibition organiser if a similar market is enticed away from their regular show habitat, especially over a similar time period within the year.

It is this point organisers should constantly bear in mind: even though there was either limited choice of a similar exhibition in the past, resting on one’s laurels is not a good thing and constant well-researched improvements based on visitor feed-back should be a standard practice.  In other words, when this year’s show ends, the various admin systems kick-in on a much higher gear to take account of real-time show improvements with early motivations and serious build-ups to the next show.

Drawcard-hosted buyers

Some 30 years ago, Messrs Bloom and Flackett, the then-Geneva-based EIBTM owners at the time, realised the way to ensure an ever-growing exhibitor base was to establish a credible and effective range of potential buyers of exhibitor’s products. Over the years, this financed and convention bureau-sponsored programme has proved highly successful and hence has been copied over and over again by other trade show organisers. It is becoming more significant that the manner in which hosted buyers are researched and selected is likely to prove the make or break of future trade shows.

Annual exhibitors to trade shows that the MICE Academy made contact with made it clear that unless there is real authentic buyers with serious pre-show appointments, the likelihood is that most will find another channel or exhibition where the likelihood of a greater base of potential buyers is possible. Hence the shows in which friends and distant relatives of show organisers are discovered as a ‘personnel perk’ are surely becoming a thing of the past.

Collective industry associations

Various board chairmen and their members have attempted some kind of control over similar shows within a three-month time period and to the best of our knowledge, the attempted rules have been set to no avail. Both venues and organisers have dug in their heels in the true spirit of capitalism within a democratic society, which in the past may have alienated some members from their association. This appears to have been an unpopular rule that clearly did not gel.

Who are the real exhibition judges?

We are told that it takes three years to truly know whether an exhibition is a success or not.

With that in mind, it is the fickle show visitor who is surely the real judge as to an exhibition’s success. Without that real, dynamic, ‘need-to-be-there’ footfall and plenty of them – no other judge really enters the picture.

* Helen Brewer from The MICE Academy, is an independent contributor and articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Planner.