When buildings collapse

"What happens in a recession is that the start of new buildings, particularly private house buildings, drops through the floor. It's gone from being, by a multiple of three, the largest sector in the built environment to being pretty much level pegging with some of the others. It really has collapsed that quickly." The event organiser of Emap's Interbuild UK exhibition, David Pierpoint, paints a bleak picture of the severity of the sector's decline in the UK.

His view, far from being restricted to the UK or indeed the housing sector, resonates throughout the global construction sector. Event organisers on every continent are busy adapting their exhibitions to cope with the downturn: co-locating, diversifying and marketing towards previously untapped markets.

Interbuild, a 102-year-old stalwart of the building and construction marketplace, taking place at Birmingham's NEC at the end of October, switched from a biennial to an annual event this year. The pressures of an increasingly fragmented marketplace, new specialist players and a diminishing pool forced the switch, which includes running the market over four-days rather than the previous five. The newly annualised event took 32,000 visitors compared with 44,000; the figure for its final biennial outing.

"Interbuild was often described as a bit of a dinosaur, says Pierpoint. "Many saw it as quite an easy target, something that was easy to attack because it covers the whole built environment, which is a broad place. With people launching niche shows into that market on an annual basis we try to focus on the issues which are most up-to-date," says Pierpoint.

For the first time in the exhibition's extensive lifespan, the organiser has split the event into two distinct areas: Interbuild Specifier and Interbuild Onsite. Specifier is all about construction products, the building blocks and what goes into them. As the name suggests, it's aimed at building specifiers; architects and engineers. "It's the first time we've used that brand. The show has been doing that for quite some time but it's not been marketed in that way," says Pierpoint. The other part of the show, Interbuild Onsite, is aimed at builders, plumbers, electricians and fabricators: "The people interested in what van they are driving and what tools they carry in their kit bag, the practical stuff," says Pierpoint.

By offering a clearer distinction between individual components at Interbuild, perhaps Pierpoint and his team's strategy is to persuade specialised buyers to return to his show and forgo the smaller, specialist start-ups.

Hosted buyers in HK

In Hong Kong, the Building and Decoration Material Fair is also trying to diversify, albeit by geographic region rather than market sector. The event, run by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council at the AsiaWorld-Expo exhibition centre, attracts around 300 exhibitors and 30,000 buyers; a mix of building and construction players, as well as interior decorators and eco-enthusiasts.

"The financial crisis has had quite an impact on both Hong Kong and the world market," says HKTDC assistant executive director, Raymond Yip. "So we've launched a sponsorship programme to attract more buyers from the emerging and new markets."

The programme, worth HK$80 million across all trade fairs organised by HKTDC, will tempt new buyers through subsidised hotels and air tickets. "In Europe and the US the economy is not so good, so we're changing our target to areas such as Russia, Africa and Eastern Europe. This is a good opportunity for the exhibitors because they can get more orders from the new markets, which are new business markets from them," says Yip.

The home market is also receiving a form of financial aid from the HKTDC. In addition to bringing in more buyers, exhibitors are also being encouraged to put more effort into promoting their products and brands. Every Hong Kong company that joins the HKBDM is entitled to HK$2,000 worth of coupons to place advertisements on its website or other publications, or to improve the stand facilities and join workshops. The coupons are offered to exhibitors across all HKTDC events.

In terms of diversifying what's on offer inside the exhibition, a lot of energy is being pumped into the Eco Expo that operates alongside HKBDM. This targets issues such as dealing with wastage, energy saving and making the most of renewable energy sources. "These two fairs are held at the same time to give exhibitors two places to showcase their products. The two shows have a kind of synergy and the green theme is very strong," says Yip.

The green dollar is one that Interbuild's Pierpoint is also keen to bring in. The most striking example of this is a new exhibition area titled Sustainability Street, a street that runs the length of floor five at the NEC. "We've redesigned the show around Sustainability Street. It's populated by buildings from various different market sectors, all of which have our manufacturers products in them," says Pierpoint, adding that he hopes the feature will draw in the specifiers that the show needs.

Visitors to the Budma International Construction Fair in Poznan, Poland, will also have an opportunity to walk down a green street of sustainability. The 2010 event, run by Poznan International Fair, features its own wooden house village. It's a growth area in a flagging sector, as according to Budma's project manager Violetta Pastwa, housebuilding now represents just 20 per cent of the Polish construction market.

Budma recorded 65,000 visitors last year and Pastwa forecasts similar numbers at next year's event. She attributes at least some of the market's strength to the weakness of the west European construction markets.

"The fact is that a few companies have pulled out from participating in the next edition of Budma," she says. "However, we have some new companies that see the chance to improve their position in the market in this time of change. A significant part of these new companies are from outside of Poland. That is because the recession is much more serious in western Europe than in our part of the continent. Producers and distributors of products and solutions for construction are searching for new trade customers in Poland."

There is no such sign of sustainability or eco-sound housing in Africa. Green issues comes a distant second to lowest-cost development at Ace Event Management's West Africa Building and Construction. The event, which took place at Accra, Ghana in April, saw 70 exhibitors and
3,800 visitors, figures expected to be bettered when the pairing moves to Abuja, Nigeria, next year.

ACE Event Management MD, Tracey Nolan-Shaw, says that in West Africa the market is still much about competing over lowest price and competing closely with providers from the Far East. "Obviously, if you're looking at West Africa, green and sustainability issues are lower down the agenda because they're just getting the infrastructure sorted. They'll worry about green stuff later, especially with the influx of stuff in from China as well. China is highly competitive with their prices, so in times of difficulty you can see why people would go for the cheaper option.

Nolan-Shaw says although the market is feeling the pinch out in West Africa, it's different to the situation in the UK, due largely to the region's sizeable oil deposits. "There's still development anywhere where there is oil, so there's plenty of work going on and people are still willing to exhibit. It's still the right place for investment.

According to Nolan-Shaw, enquiries are now starting to come in from the US. "We haven't had any exhibitors from the US for a few years, but their market is down and for this one we've had 20 enquiries."

As for how the situation can be helped elsewhere in the world, Nolan-Shaw believes much of the damage being done to the exhibition industry stems from an imprudent reduction in corporate marketing budgets. "Companies putting a halt on their marketing budget are making a mistake. In times like this there's more of a reason to be aggressive," she says.

Interbuild's Pierpoint sums up the risk of companies digging in when they should be building. "What I've found is that in a recession, if you do what you've always done, you don't get what you always got, because you can't stand still. Rather than assume that just because last year you had 3,000 square metres of people selling taps, there's any reason that that naturally would happen again."

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