ASE Journalist Bronwen Largier gains a valuable perspective on the exhibitions industry at the Exhibition and Event Association of Australasia’s Leaders Forum held on Global Exhibitions Day.
The Leaders Forum was my first experience of an EEAA event. As a relatively fresh recruit to ASE, I’m having a fascinating time doing the introductory rounds of the events industry associations’ various meetings and events. (Remaining associations take note – additional media passes are most welcome.)
The Forum was well-attended but not full to bursting, which in some ways surprised me, because of the calibre of the people who were in the room – CEOs and directors of many of the largest expo related companies in Australia. If you wanted to get the ear of a decision maker in this section of the industry, this was an ideal place to do it.
Prior to the day, I had been surprised to find very little in way of timings on the program. What happens if you wanted to pick and choose what you attended? Once I arrived, I realised that this was not that kind of event. It seemed both Impolite and, more importantly, unwise to miss any of the speakers and panel sessions. Everything was relevant. There were no “nice-to-have” sessions.
I was also surprised to discover I was the only media representative in attendance – I walked away from the day with a bunch of story ideas about issues in the exhibitions space which will be like Christmas for me to investigate and a sense that ASE would be the only news outlet covering them. On the other hand, I was somewhat alarmed to discover that other industry media were not sufficiently interested in the issues at hand to accept EEAA’s invitation to attend.
Chief Executive of the EEAA, Joyce DiMascio, began the day with a call-to-arms for the exhibitions industry; those of you who read my editorial in last week’s newsletter will know I’m particularly fond of these (if you’re not a subscriber – tut tut – you can fix that here).
“Everybody’s a leader in our industry,” she said. “We should all embrace the opportunity to lead in whatever field of endeavour we work in.”
“We all have a job to try to position ourselves as leaders who are staying on top of the changes that are occurring in our business environment, in our consumer environment, in our homes. We are in the middle of an industrial revolution. It’s not about to come – it is here.
“And I think everyone – whether you’re a leader in inverted commas or a non-leader – we all must embrace the opportunity to learn, to upskill and to work with all of the changes that will ensure the future success of our industry.”
That sense of change and the need to adapt to it, to harness it, pervaded much of the day which was opened by Professor Toby Walsh, an expert in artificial intelligence and, as it turned out, an eloquent and engaging speaker with an inclination for graphs.
I discovered that we have more computing power in our smartphones than took us to the moon and back, but that it took a specially designed robot 25 minutes to fold its first towel in 2010. Also, that people-focused professions like those in exhibition space are not about to fall victim to the threat of automation. However we should have fully autonomous vehicles by 2025.
The session by Sophie Holt, Explori’s Global Strategy Director, illuminating the outcomes of the research Explori conducted for the EEAA was an example of the essential work associations can do to advance their niches – the EEAA’s own article on the research covers the results best.
CEO John O’Sullivan gave a Tourism Australia update, but I found the session very much preaching to the converted – all the people in the room are already acutely aware of the value of business events; however I suppose as an update of what the company is doing and thinking, it served its purpose. What I would love to see from Tourism Australia is a piece on how the business events sector could work with Tourism Australia for the benefit of one or other or both. This was touched on in the following session – a panel with O’Sullivan and Harvey Lister, CEO of AEG Ogden, but not explored much further than highlighting the recently announced government Business Events Bid Fund being managed by Tourism Australia.
During the panel, Lister briefly alluded to one of the most difficult issues for venues, which is the time lag between compiling the functional briefs for venues in development and the delivery of the completed building.
“There’s a lot of retrofit things for every venue that we’re in in catching up,” he explained. “We change our thinking about things and I think that’s an important thing. We’re not an organisation that says ‘It only happens this way’, he said, explaining that the brief for the ICC Sydney was written five years prior to the building coming into service.
I was particularly pleased to hear this come out in a public forum as I feel too often companies are unwilling to admit imperfection, even when perfection is impractical and admission of flaw could be the quickest way to significant improvement. I guess this is the catch-22 for businesses trying to drive profit out of their products and services so that they have the funds to deliver upgrades to their offerings. However, I urge, once again, a more collaborative approach; even if it means charging a lower fee, it may actually be best for profit margins and company integrity in the long run.
Discovering that 30 percent of people now request special meals was an interesting factoid learned from Lister, particularly in the way that it’s affecting food prep for venues, but the suggestions that food at exhibitions is becoming more important – and better – does not tally with my recent experience at an exhibition for the events industry; meanwhile a number of the ideas raised during the panel seemed basic and common sense; but I suppose, given that the culinary issue is also, to a degree, so essentially obvious, yet clearly not fully implemented yet, we have to keep talking about them until they reach saturation in the market; until they become second nature for all exhibition producers (and of course, the issue for some may indeed be financial; it is easier to produce more bells and whistles with more dollars up one’s sleeve, but as Belle Laide’s work on TEDxSydney proved in 2017, there are ways of working around a lack of budget surplus).
One of the most noteworthy points of the panel came during the Q and A when Melbourne Convention Bureau CEO Karen Bollinger suggested to the panelists that the innovation message is not being leveraged enough particularly in the realm of bidding for international conferences.
In later sessions, the idea of “festivalisation” was a continuing theme, with several panelists, including Bollinger and Harvey Stockbridge, CEO of Hannover Fairs Australia, across more than one session suggesting that more performance and entertainment elements needed to be incorporated into the exhibition experience – that it could no longer be a purely transactional, booth-based exercise.
Associations’ lack of willingness to take risk, particularly in terms of a more festival style in their events came up more than once. Associations Forum CEO John Peacock said there was an opportunity for those in the events industry to help associations deliver events and conferences with a greater wow factor.
“They’re [associations] not really on the leading edge,” he said.
“I think they tend to be more conservative because they have boards of directors … associations are not particularly entrepreneurial. I think there’s a great way … a meeting between the suppliers who know the latest trends working with the associations to bring those modern ideas in.
“There’s great opportunities for partnering with suppliers who’ve got the latest ideas.”
Meanwhile, Tamara Kavalec, CEO of Arinex, said PCOs should play a role in proving the value of festivalisation in events to associations, in order to drive greater delegate numbers and membership.
“We need the suppliers to help us in that selling as well,” she said.
Kavalec also suggested that procurement of business needed to change.
“The model of how we actually procure business at the moment … is not necessarily working for the PCO.
“For me, the concern is the investment as an organiser that we’re putting into procuring business is not sustainable.”
Meanwhile the skills shortage and education landscape were presented in one of the final sessions of the day on the future of work, delivered by Carly Rogowski, General Manager, Marketing and Communications at TAFE NSW. She dealt with the way millennials learn and how this is changing the way they are taught, the surprising number of people over 60 enrolled in TAFE (16,000 in 2017) and the issues tied to the skills shortage, for example that it’s easier to import workers with skills than to train them up.
DiMascio took a very hands-on role throughout the day and her journalism background showed through in the asking of difficult questions. The feeling of unity was palpable and I got a real sense that coming together as the community that we are and tackling sometimes thorny issues has a real value.