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At its 2011 AGM, ESSA announced the appointment of Steve Barratt, CEO of the EAG/OPEX Group of Companies, to the position of international ambassador – a calculated move to extend the reach of the association. This month’s Stand Out asks Barratt about ESSA moving onto the international stage and balances that with the views of an existing international operator – Jason Popp, executive vice president of GES …

At the AGM it was clearly stated during Barratt’s presentation that in his opinion the 22 miles of sea between the UK and Europe was still perceived by some as a barrier and that “overseas” was a much used but erroneous term. It was presented to the audience that the perceived international boundaries had already been overcome by many companies in the sector. With this in mind, has the international event market, specifically in Europe, now become a single market that is accessible and exploited by all companies?

Barratt: A single market? In many instances, yes. The majority of current ESSA members deliver significant volumes of their work outside the UK. The design and build community has been exploiting this work stream for years. With the extension of networks, speed of communication and willingness to venture further, full service providers can now more easily deliver whole shows. Geo cloning of shows by organisers has raised the point of why are we not delivering the same things to the same standard worldwide, geo cloning our expertise if you will – resourced globally, delivered locally.

Popp: I do partially agree with Steve here – the exhibition market is global. Many of the largest show organisers operate outside of their home markets and we know exhibitors often attend shows in multiple countries around the world. Due to the UK market being quite competitive, mature, and service-oriented, I have found that UK suppliers are well placed to take their product and service offering global. However, where I disagree, is that it isn’t erroneous to consider “overseas” operations a barrier. Operating outside of the UK is not something to underestimate and it is not simply an extension of the UK. Working practices, regulations, languages, and market participants are all different and therefore operating outside the UK requires significant research before embarking – be that as an organiser, contractor, supplier or exhibitor.

If it is a single market, and Europe is just an extension of the UK, is it right that organisers should pay differently for labour across “22 miles of salty water”?

Barratt: Is it labour or logistics? The regulation of the labour market varies from country to country. This regulation has an impact on cost, which may then be passed to the organiser. In addition, you must consider the accessibility of the labour and the distance between centres. The UK is relatively small and densely populated when compared to the mainland. Labour can and will move easily and cheaply here. It is as easy for a labour force in Luton, for example, to get to London as it is to get to the NEC. This leads to a standardisation of cost. So whilst the labour costs are one part of the equation, the logistical costs are another, possibly more, important part.

Popp: The beauty of global markets is they encourage healthy competition amongst the players. So in this example, show organisers will pay the labour rates that have been competitively set for the particular market. Therefore, for UK companies to be successful in taking their businesses over those 22 miles of salty water, they will have to provide a service that is competitive with the local options on both price and service levels.

If more and more ESSA members are becoming increasingly international, for example the relationship between GES and Melville, does this mean that there is room for a truly international trade association with an international membership base? Or is this one step too far from the UK industry’s comfort zone?

Barratt: There is an important distinction to be made. International ownership of ESSA member’s should not dictate the agenda of our national trade association. Most ESSA members are active in international markets. They’ve asked us through membership research to extend the support ESSA offers on the international stage. With the geo cloning trends, which have been prevalent for a number of years within the organising community taking root within the contracting community, this is more likely to lead to the natural progression of an international trade association than international ownership of our members.

Popp: The great news is there is certainly an appetite for international growth amongst ESSA’s members – I personally witnessed that last year at the G50, where Mayridge Group’s David Freeman and I spoke about international growth models. However we cannot lose sight of the fact that many of ESSA’s members may be first and foremost focused on the UK market and there is still plenty of value for ESSA to continue to add in the UK.

The appointment of an international ambassador sends out a clear message that ESSA is moving into the international arena where there are already international associations that represent members with a similar profile to those of ESSA. How do you both see ESSA fitting into this landscape and do you envisage any competition for members and/or co- operation between associations?

Barratt: We have historically been bad at communicating with these associations. ESSA is committed to international networking and with this, co-operation. Our aim is to support our current members in their plans for growth, if our activity coincides with the aspirations of other contractors based outside of the UK then we’re happy to welcome them should they comply with our entry stipulations. This isn’t competition. It’s co-operation!

Popp: There is indeed “association creep”, with the sheer number of associations available to the industry and the scope and scale of the associations. I think for ESSA to carve out a useful role here it really needs to help UK suppliers navigate the waters and be successful overseas. ESSA will be a useful starting point for UK companies but they may also wish to consider joining some of the broader global associations such as UFI or the International Federation of Exhibition and Event Services (IFES).

Finally, Steve, what are you hoping to achieve through this role as international ambassador, and Jason, what do you want ESSA’s new ambassador to deliver on the international stage?

Barratt: More air miles! Greater co- operation and dialogue between the trade associations with the aim of understanding the regulations and idiosyncrasies of the different international markets and by doing so, affording our members easier access to these markets.

Popp: The UK supplier base fundamentally needs someone fighting for its corner and representing its interests on the international stage. This undoubtedly includes active lobbying for open markets and level playing fields with transparent rules and regulations that increase competition and therefore improve service levels to show organisers and exhibitors wherever they operate around the world.