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Ask the right questions

UFI MD Paul Woodward on making sure we’re going after the right game.

It’s just as well to start any column on this topic paying tribute to the anonymous Danish comedian who originally suggested that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Any association such as UFI, especially when its most senior members get together as they did in Seoul back in November, is obliged though to dig out the crystal ball from time to time and try to get a sense of where we are going.

I’m not sure how many new friends I made when I suggested that there is a degree of complacency about much of our industry discussion. We tend to be very willing to dismiss any existential threats with claims along the lines of “we’ve seen off the internet and the global financial crisis. What do we have to worry about?”. We are, after all, still a pretty successful and profitable industry in most places.

I should hasten to add that I think we can still be tremendously successful and profitable in the future. But, this will happen only if we seriously think about how we can continuously upgrade the service we offer. This is becoming increasingly true in the major emerging markets too as economic growth there slows to the mid-single digits and booming profits can no longer be achieved simply by riding a wave of economic development.

So continuously rebuilding our businesses is a global challenge. There are a number of ways in which we can do this and we spent much of the Seoul Congress discussing them. At the heart of it all, perhaps, is finding ways better to engage our participants, both exhibitors and visitors. And, in order to engage with them more effectively, we need to understand them better. In this we are lucky: one of the main assets of our industry is data. But several of our speakers suggested that we are coming nowhere near to taking much advantage of the business opportunity that data affords us. A number of CEOs to whom I spoke about this sheepishly concede that they should have a strategic plan for this, but don’t.

In order better to engage our participants, and to avoid the fate of traditional trade media, many newspapers and even the main TV channels, we’re probably going to have to reinvent the look and feel of many of our events. This could be crucial in making them attractive to the next generation. We’re onto Gen Y now and ‘Z’ is at school. I wonder what comes next? But whether they’re Gen ZZ or we go back to ‘A’, they will almost certainly want to meet with their peers at events, but not events that look and feel like the ones their grandparents attended.

At the beginning of the UFI Congress, Magnus Lindkvist encouraged us to “create, not compete”. There are so many ways to do this. As well as what we’ve talked about already, there are a thousand ways to integrate your community’s interests into the event using both live presentations and digital content, using remote locations and special interest groups, tailoring personalised experiences for your attendees and much, much more.

We don’t need to do it all today. Reed China’s Nat Wong suggested that “Change must be gradual,” but, he then went on to stress, “there must be change”.

This was first published in issue 1/2014 of EW. Email exhibitionworld@mashmedia.net