Three years ago the Fleet Motor Show was a major date in Britain's exhibition calendar as Nigel Lawson's consumer boom swung with full, unstoppable, momentum. Wembley was crowded with buyers from a company car was the badge of success to 'Thatcher's Children.' Sales that year were at an all-time high, and with half the 2.3 million models sold in 1989 going to company buyers, the world's car makers flocked to the show.
But times have changed. After two disappointing years at Earl's Court Olympia, next March's show is to be held at Silverstone. The show's organiser, EMAP, claims rather limply that the new venue is an exciting development, but few outsiders are convinced. 'It's effectively dead,' claims one rival. 'Two or three of the big manufacturers pulled out -- they didn't see the point in a special show when most potential buyers go to the dealer on the corner to see models.'
It has been a bad year generally for shows. The Exhibitions Industries Association estimates that visitors to events last year were down to 9 million from 10.6 million the previous year. And spending dropped too, falling by 7% (excluding inflation) from 537 million pounds to 502 million pounds. Several major shows have disappeared and many organisers have quietly slipped out of sight. Not surprisingly, an industry which has seen such a wonderful period of growth in the last decade has looked for a scapegoat. The recession and the Gulf War seemed the obvious targets for bemused organisers, but the truth is more prosaic.
By 1989 the conference industry as in poor shape, with too many companies offering too wide a range of events. The scale of events offer arranged from the multimillion pound international events, where serious exhibitors could easily spend up to 30 million pounds on a stand, through the major domestic dates, such as the Motor Show (up to 3 million pounds), to a small environmental display at a local school (25 pounds).
It was inevitable that as the recession began to bite that company accountants began to question the value of individual events. Most firms have cut back on the number of shows that they used to invest in and are now concentrating their efforts on one or two.
'This doesn't necessarily involve cutting expenditure,' says Peter Berners-Price, executive chairman of Spectrum, a company specialising in audio-visual communication. 'There's just a realisation that executive time is limited,' he says. As a result, with the trend towards costing staff time, any trip has to be justified. The five-day events of the early '80s are now a rarity.
According to the Exhibition Marketing Group (a consortium of six of the biggest organisers) a major problem for the domestic exhibitions is a traditional British undervaluing of shows as a marketing tool. The Group points out that Britain spends proportionately only half that of German competitors (roughly a fifth of German marketing expenditure is on exhibitions). The Germans staff stands with top executives, so that potential customers can talk to important decision-makers on the spot, saving time and money. British events are small and underpowered in comparison.
Not that Britain has been blind to the threat. This spring Birmingham City Council unveiled its International Conference Centre, built at a cost of 160 million pounds, while the National Exhibition Centre is about to launch a 100 million pounds expansion programme. Not to be outdone, Earl's Court Olympia is investing 80 million pounds on its facilities. Unfortunately, none of these investments will create a venue to rival Munich or Dusseldorf.
Most UK shows are tiny in comparison with the big European events. Phil Soar, chief executive of the Blenheim Group says that the average Dusseldorf show is twice the size of the biggest event that Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre can cope with. This means that in spite of the ultra-modern facilities on offer in Birmingham, some events are forced abroad. …