Fair play

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All’s fair in love and… exhibitions. Melville’s CEO, Nick Marshall and Steve Barratt, CEO, SO Group, go head to head and talk margins, markets and metreage…

How do you see the UK exhibitions industry shaping up now that there are two large players vying for organisers’ work?

Marshall: I think the competition amongst exhibition service suppliers is just as fierce as it has ever been. Both the SO Group and Melville are fighting for market share and Melville is certainly working hard to provide clients with strong reasons to use us apart from just price. I don’t see this changing in the foreseeable future.

Barratt: I don’t see that there will be much change. As individual organisations, EAG, Stanco and Melville were all big enough to work on any contract. That three becomes two, doesn’t change the fact that the commercial process is still very much the same and we still have to go out to tender.

Does this change in dynamic in the market leave a gap for the smaller contractor to service the needs of small, niche exhibitions?

Marshall: I am sure smaller contractors see the merger that formed the SO Group as a good thing and they will sell on the back of a perceived lack of choice. Melville services many smaller shows and our challenge is to ensure that the services we provide to smaller clients are both relevant and competitive.

Barratt: Not any more than it did before. The modern contracting world isn’t just about the kit that’s needed to supply a show. It’s about the ability of a contractor to fulfil all the needs of the client and venue. All organisers need accredited suppliers that are able to offer strength in depth, contingency planning, HR, health and safety and so on and to offer their services not to just one event but to multiple events, of any size. Just saying you have the equipment is not sufficient anymore; you need proven ability to supply no matter what. The components that go into making a successful event are the same, regardless of the size, and we want to ensure that we can create outstanding experiences by challenging the limits of what is possible so our clients can throw open their doors with confidence – regardless of the square metreage.

Phil Soar is on record at the ESSA G50 as saying that the UK exhibition industry has seen a troubled few years and is set to contract further. Is there sufficient space for two large contractors or are we destined to return to the days of price wars based upon an ever decreasing square metre price?

Marshall: If you looked at contractor pricing over the past 10 years, it would show a similar picture to that depicted
by Phil’s industry volume figures. Price has been and still is a major driver of appointment decisions. The challenge for contractors is to create propositions that add value to our clients and encourage them to pay us more for core services. Prices can’t go any lower in the medium term. Contractors are working on wafer thin margins and any further significant price reduction is likely to lead to questions about the ongoing viability of suppliers.

Barratt: I don’t disagree with Phil but we don’t view ourselves as solely UK- based contractors. We provide our services wherever our clients may need them, planning local to deliver global, if you will. We also get a little hooked up on the price of shell scheme. Shell has become such a commodity. Its price detracts from the real core of what SO Group can offer nine services plus our people, our ingenuity and our strategic planning.

If I were to ask you for a view on the exhibition industry in 2020 what would your reply be?

Marshall: I have been with Melville for over 25 years and in general, exhibitions haven’t changed much over this period and at the basic level, they will still be the same in 2020. I’m sure technology will support exhibitions in terms of visit planning, data collection, websites, etc, etc, but the fundamental uniqueness of exhibitions putting people face to face will remain. How the UK will fare compared to the international exhibition market is the interesting question. The market is becoming global and, with many major organising companies investing in the Far East and the emerging markets, the danger is that the UK may not be the key focus for organisers. The ability to serve clients on a global basis will be critical, having proven ability will be key and we are fortunate to have this through Melville’s existing overseas operations and through our parent company GES. That having been said, the likes of David Wood and Ecobuild have shown that where you create a compelling proposition with relevant strong content, you can still be very successful in the UK.

Barratt: From SO Group’s point of view, we will have grown internationally and into many new sectors. We think we’ll see multiple shows in a venue, 20 shows at the same time rather than one, 20-hall show. We also anticipate the huge growth of the Congrex market. In short, the market will be different, but vibrant. The key thing is not to sell ourselves short, as a UK-based industry we’re high on skills and the ability to deliver, we just need to support our local market and suppliers.