Thursday 24 October 2013

Exhibitions - Time to Ring the Changes?

I have lost count of how many shows I have done since I launched huddle & Bliss at a consumer show at Excel in 2008. What I do know is that as a small family business the commitment is not only financial but logistical, emotional and damned hard work before and after. Following ExCel in February 2014 I have decided that huddle & bliss will take a break from doing our usual exhibitions and explore new avenues. It seems I am not alone! For over a year now I have been having second thoughts and misgivings about shows and exhibitions. It was one of my nagging ‘gut feel’ things which seems to have been reinforced during the course of 2013. This time last year I had already planned not to rebook Earls Court /Olympia – this decision was reinforced when we and many others had a dismal show at Earls Court! We tried a few alternatives throughout the course of the year. I have always treated exhibitions as a marketing cost, never under the illusion that I will necessarily walk away with an immediate profit on the day. From the beginning I saw the bigger picture – publicity, exposure , networking and meeting your trade and consumer market directly. Essentials, particularly the latter for solely online businesses like mine. But 6 years in I really can now say that with a couple of exceptions they have always left me feeling a little disappointed, even taking the follow up business into consideration. The most recent exception was our presence at the Conservative Party Conference. It was a late booking and was an amazing experience all round. A great opportunity to showcase our wares, ethos and British-manufacturing to a completely different audience. It has paid dividends. At our usual exhibitions the number of new exhibitors who have approached me at shows to ask ‘is this normal’ ‘how is it going for you?’ and expressing general disappointment has increased considerably in the last year or two. Many of these people have invested their life-savings, their redundancy money, or borrowed funds from family to pay for their stand. This is in contrast to the larger brands for who this type of expenditure is just small change. Small business cannot simply compete with them on any number of fronts. This leads me onto one of my qualms about these events: big brands. None, if any of these events offer a special small business package to cater to the needs and budgets of new start-ups and truly small business. Yes they may negotiate a little on optional extras like lighting and power, or reduce stand costs at the last minute rather than have empty space. But on the whole the little guys pay the same per square metre as the big guys. You will be enticed into rebooking a year in advance at a preferential rate when you haven’t even really seen the full outcome. My advice, don’t do it! Wait analyse the event as a whole, including the 3 month follow up and make an informed decision. Visitors to our stand have mentioned numerous times in recent shows, how disappointed they are that there are so many big brands present. As a consumer I too would be very unhappy to have paid a considerable ticket price to enter one of these events to be confronted with Mammas & Pappas, Marks & Spencer or Babies R Us or sometimes all three and more! When we chat to clients they tell us they go to this type of event to find niche brands and something different from the average generic high street that we all have access to on a daily basis. I do not deny that the events management companies have a very difficult balancing act to achieve. They need to fill the venue, they need to attract the right balance of exhibitors and need to attract a large and eager consumer audience. But I really am not sure that this is the way forward, certainly for huddle & bliss. I cannot escape the feeling that the independent exhibitors are being somewhat short-changed. For what I have spent on shows & exhibitions in a year I could have rented a local high street shop. And although I know they say the high street is dead, I am confident the overall takings would have been far greater. In fact the cost of a mid-sized stand at Earls Court for 3 days is slightly less than a years local shop rental. Add in your hotel, travel, subsistence and marketing costs and they are fairly balanced. In my experience, advance-purchase ticketed shows are better rather than free or pay on the door kind. Note, you will be told how many thousands of visitors to expect. As event managers struggle to achieve the necessary balance we appear to have seen a plethora of free tickets being distributed to this type of consumer show. This is certainly not the only reason why this type of show may be in decline, but it does seem to be a contributory factor that hits the exhibitor’s pocket too. Perhaps increasing the number of browsers and bargain-hunters rather than indie-seeking shoppers looking to buy on the day? Do not underestimate the amount of hard work that you will need to put into such an event. The preparation is far greater than loading your van or car if you are to make the most of it. As a small business or independent trader think also about the disruption to your family life – for me in the past it has been a logistical nightmare arranging childcare etc. In the first 2 weeks of October alone I was away from home 9 nights. Had I been doing Olympia (thankfully I am not!) I would be off again in a week or so for further 3. Many of you I know have set up yourself in hope of achieving a better work/life balance, so this is a big consideration. What do you think? Do they work for you? I would love to hear your comments via @sherryhornagold on twitter. I am not saying not to do them, but do give each and every exhibition a lot of thought and consideration. Don’t rebook a year in advance, analyse your post show sales first. Check out the ratio of exhibitors to visitors – a very important factor. The best show I have ever done had a low number of exhibitors but high visitor rate (simple maths). Check out the competition, particularly in relation to your own best sellers and the big brands– they will be able to offer prices you cannot match. Ask about advance ticket sales numbers as opposed to overall visitors. Finally remember there is only one thing worse than having a grim show – an event where everyone denies the fact, which in my experience is often the case…… Please feel free to comment and let me know about your experiences, ideas and thoughts! Sherry Small Business Owner huddle & bliss @sherryhornagold @huddleandbliss #exhibitions4smallbusiness