Alan Jenkins: A dying industry?

Organisers and venues are exporting the exhibition industry and jobs to mainland Europe, so says Alan Jenkins, managing director of Exhibit…

I cannot tell you how often my guys on-site are hearing the phrase “new rules mate”. The last time was yesterday at 6pm when the power went out at a well-known Midlands venue. We were busy completing three stands at a show, working to the organiser’s stated deadline of 8pm. Then the lights went out. Of course, we could have power but “it’ll cost yer mate” was the response.

This is a disturbing trend in our industry. The organisers and venues seem intent, when our economy is at its lowest ebb, on imposing ridiculous working restrictions and red tape on working in exhibition halls in the UK. On-site at all the major venues, we now routinely see groups of officials, who always hunt in packs, roaming from stand to stand, looking for electrical and “elf and safety” infringements. Nobody is suggesting that safety is not important, but the feeling is that petty-fogging rules and restrictions are being used to extort more money.

It’s interesting that health and safety seems to go out of the window when it costs the organisers. We are seeing many examples where the breakdowns of large exhibitions are being squeezed into tighter and tighter timeframes. So we are routinely witnessing manic, almost panicked breakdowns where large numbers of contractors are trying to get their gear from the halls within the few hours granted to them. Does this promote good safety standards? And all presumably to save a few bob on the venue hire.

You may argue that none of this would matter one jot if it were only the independent stand contractors that are suffering? The problem is that the financial costs involved in this Jobsworth nonsense eventually filter down to the exhibitor. Yes that’s right – the very people we all rely upon for the existence of the UK exhibition industry. Increasingly exhibitors are transporting their business to shows based in mainland Europe where red tape, restrictions and costs are significantly lower. Of course exhibitions in Europe also enjoy better infrastructure, transport links and a more central location for overseas visitors than our crowded island. In our own business we see direct evidence of this, with our clients pulling out of UK shows in favour of ones based in Dusseldorf and other mainland European cities.

Allow me to make a prediction: in five years time, when much of our industry and jobs have ebbed away; our venerable trade bodies, together with the venues and organisers, will commission some research on this puzzling phenomenon. This costly (and unnecessary) research will show that over a period of time, our industry has committed slow collective suicide by the imposition of strangling costs, rules and regulations. If they are particularly insightful they might add that, incredibly, this process was started during the last recession, when the UK exhibition industry was in need of urgent competitive measures … not the exact opposite. Remember the UK car industry?