Making an exhibition work

Nigel Smith, chief executive of Tourism South East, discusses the appeal of groups exhibitions and what the future holds for Excursions.

Having just come out of the other side of another Excursions exhibition – the 41st! – I continue to be amazed at how, in our connected yet disconnected paradox of a world, these gatherings are still an important part of doing business in the groups market.
Excursions is like one of those big old fashioned bazaars with suppliers on their stalls trying to catch the eye, while buyers cram the aisles looking for new inspiration or simply renewing old acquaintances. It’s busy, it buzzes and business gets done.
From pre to post visit there is a higher level of communication and tailoring in the group travel market than in any other sector. As a supplier, the degree of trust between you and your client and the building of long-term relationships is fundamental to being successful.
It is a simple fact that the groups market has an older profile of organiser, operator and customer and although they are increasingly digitally literate they do still like the touchy feely approach. Hence, exhibitions are ideal, as the trade can look into the whites of your eyes, shake your hand and take your free gonks!
We take particular care to make sure the show is well laid out and have always felt that a layout based on geography works the best in this market. Some shows have gone down the routes of grouping exhibitors by particular themes such as gardens or heritage and we have toyed with these in recent years. However, we always end up back with our destination areas.
This not only makes it easy for organisers to select where they want to visit but also provides opportunities for exhibitors to collaborate to cross and upsell their own group offerings around, say, their county.
We have consistently sustained visitor numbers over the years and we do this not just through database marketing and traditional advertising but also by putting on VIP coaches, coach transfers and fam trips. All added value ways of getting the trade to visit. This year we also co-ordinated with AGTO on holding its AGM at the show.
One thing we tend not do, which has been increasingly the case at other shows I attend, is put on seminars and workshops. Our view is that we want to maximise the time for interaction between buyer and supplier.
Food and drink is also increasingly popular and our tickets for the Denbies wine tasting this year went like hot cakes although, again, at some venues you have to balance up the restrictions on what you can and can’t offer catering wise so as not to upset the in-house caterers or franchisees. Small portions or samplers tend to be the way to do it and avoids mass drunkenness too!
The trade media are always important partners and we have successfully combined with different media partners through a mix of contra deals – I’ll give you this, if you give me that, back to the old bazaar again. This has helped us get to new audiences and indeed, this year, 48% of visitors were at the show for the first time which is remarkable in view of its longevity.
So what’s the future for exhibitions? We do see Excursions, fittingly, as having a much longer journey ahead of it but like all successful businesses we have to understand our customers’ needs and react accordingly. We take surveys and feedback from exhibitors and visitors every year and can see views are changing over time. Keeping it fresh is good but it’s important not to forget that this market values familiarity, reliability and good old fashioned customer service.