Many will tell you that exhibitions are not a media platform but Jacqui Reynolds makes the case for seriously considering them for marketing purposes.
What does a cherry picker, a fascia and backlighting have in common? These are some of the bizarre words exhibition industry people use in their daily lives. Every industry has its own jargon and the exhibition space is no different. For decades the world of exhibitions has been largely misunderstood by marketers who’ve steered towards more accessible, ‘easier’ forms of company promotion but this seems to be changing in South Africa.
Over the past century, exhibitions have developed from mass-audience agricultural and entertainment fairs into highly specialised trade and consumer events. The concept of exhibitions, developed in Europe and the continent, is still home to major international trading events. Did you know that the Eiffel Tower was constructed to mark the opening of the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889? Did you know that Germany rebuilt its economy after World War II through the medium of exhibitions?
In South Africa, the role of exhibitions has increased significantly in recent years with notable growth occurring since 1994. Political change, new venues and an increased awareness of exhibitions as a marketing medium are the three primary factors contributing to the development of the industry.
According to UFI – the global association of the exhibition industry – the 2014 Global Barometer survey, canvassing 55 countries, showed that the outlook for the industry is positive. The majority of companies in all regions declared turnover increases and most respondents (aside from Europe) have a sense that the recent economic crisis is no longer impacting on their business. South Africa is particularly optimistic about the year ahead, with 90% of companies surveyed projecting an increase in turnover for 2015.
So, how do you know if exhibitions are right for your business? Exhibitions and events are the best medium for face-to-face communication and direct networking opportunities. This personal time with industry colleagues and clients means you can have a conversation with your customers. Exhibitions give exhibitors exposure and an opportunity to interact with customers about their product and to understand customer needs.
While adverts, telesales and direct mail tend to intrude on customers’ time, those who come to an exhibition have already made the decision to give their time, have done their research and are often ready to buy.
Exhibitions come in all shapes and sizes but the two main types are trade shows and consumer shows. Sometimes referred to as the MICE industry (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) or ‘business tourism’, exhibitions in South Africa are part of the business events industry.
While there are many fly-by-night companies who believe they’ll make their fortune by organising a show, few succeed. This specialised industry is divided into companies that organise the shows, the venues that host the events and the myriad of suppliers providing their expertise, which combine to create a highly interactive marketing platform.
Exhibitions are a focused field of marketing, not widely understood and not easy to study. Most marketing courses and textbooks give little more than a short chapter on the medium, meaning that knowledge has to be gained through experience and dedication.
Exhibitions and conferences are often grouped together, as the two are allied and have similar characteristics. Yet, for people working in the industry, this combination is only applicable for a confex (an exhibition alongside a conference). Where there is a gathering of people from the same industry for a conference, an adjacent exhibition provides a good platform to distribute marketing material, promote products and to assess competitors. Self-sustaining exhibitions can carry a large portion of a confex budget. Consumer shows tend towards stand-alone exhibitions catering for families and groups as social outings, a separate entity to conferences.
The local governing body is the Exhibition and Association of Southern Africa (Exsa). Exsa’s role is to promote the exhibition medium within the marketing community and to raise the profile of its members, who include organisers, venues and suppliers. Interestingly, exhibitions fall into two Setas, with some components classified in the Services Seta and others fitting into Cathsseta, under business travel and tourism.
Research has attempted to get an overview of the South African exhibition industry and its contribution to tourism. However, for various reasons, such as a lack of reliable data and resistance to supplying confidential information, the sector has been largely ignored. Exsa is aware that an in-depth economic impact study is essential to clarify the monetary value and impact of exhibitions, but effective research is expensive and complicated. International findings show the same result.
In 2002, South African Tourism’s research unit identified a trend that the majority of international exhibition visitors at that time were regional. South Africa would need to look towards South African Development Community and the rest of Africa to draw visitors for international exhibitions, which wasn’t considered viable at that stage. The number of long-haul visitors was not deemed significant enough to warrant further attention. A better understanding of the industry could show how this effective marketing medium is capable of being a useful tool to grow and promote South Africa’s business tourism sector.
Exhibitions have a direct spin-off in the demand for accommodation, flights, restaurants and entertainment, with the numbers of visitors going up to tens of thousands. This spin-off is not limited to visitors, exhibitors and media, as suppliers and service providers also have an impact. Several exhibitions combine the event with pre- or post-show tours, allowing visitors an opportunity to experience more of the country, assisting with geographical spread to smaller cities and rural areas, which may not be able to service the exhibition business directly.
Exhibitions can be used strategically as a channel to increase tourist spend during the exhibition/confex as well as through repeat visits. An estimated 37% of business travellers return with their friends or family within the first five years of their business-related visit, boosting the tourism industry.
In the most recent study conducted by Grant Thornton in 2006, the total direct expenditure of the exhibition industry in South Africa was calculated at R74.3 billion. It was estimated that, in an annual cycle, the industry contributed R159.5 billion to the national economy, of which R98.5 billion (61.8%) was from trade deals and purchases; R56.8 billion was in the wholesale and retail, catering and accommodation sector and R4.2 billion in the transport sector. It is believed the industry sustains approximately 924 000 jobs each year, of which 350 000 are sustained by the exhibition activity itself and 508 000 are in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations.
A booming exhibition industry is a sign of a healthy economy and brings a multitude of spin-offs. Provided exhibitions are well executed and marketers buy into their value, they can play a key role in positioning South Africa internationally.
Jacqui Reynolds is co-owner of On Show Solutions and has 19 years of experience in exhibition and event management – both locally and internationally.
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