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Building services exhibitions – all balls?

The recent £51 million sale of Ecobuild, the London-based exhibition for sustainable design, construction and the built environment, reminds us that exhibitions are big business - but are they always good for business? I confess my doubts after finding no crowd to jostle with at the NEC this week, where the trade show Installer Live was billed as being about "low carbon" but gave the stronger impression of being low-visitor. Walking around the eerily quiet exhibition hall, I couldn't help concluding that marketing platforms for the building services industry are changing faster than many of its traditional-thinking businesses have anticipated.

The recent £51 million sale of Ecobuild, the London-based exhibition for sustainable design, construction and the built environment, reminds us that exhibitions are big business – but are they always good for business? I confess my doubts after finding no crowd to jostle with at the NEC this week, where the trade show Installer Live was billed as being about “low carbon” but gave the stronger impression of being low-visitor. Walking around the eerily quiet exhibition hall, I couldn’t help concluding that marketing platforms for the building services industry are changing faster than many of its traditional-thinking businesses have anticipated.

Installer Live’s promoter, Emap Connect, has tried to paint this annual exhibition a trendy shade of green, telling the world its aim is “to equip the modern installer with the practical skills, training and products they can trust as they transition to low carbon ways of working.”  But even solar PV, the one renewable technology currently being installed in any significant numbers, was conspicuous by its absence.

Prominent, of course, were the bigger boiler manufacturers, their smart-looking stands competing for the attention of heating and plumbing engineers by giving them opportunities to kick footballs, crash racing car simulators, throw darts, and drink free beer – all, ahem, without any need to queue.

When Installer Live was staged at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry last year, it looked moderately well attended, but the attempt to go bigger and better by moving to the NEC turns out to have been horribly mistimed. Since the decision was made to move, economic confidence has fallen to new lows. Installers would much rather be installing than traipsing out to the NEC for a day without income – they need to work while the work is there because goodness knows what tomorrow might not bring.

In contrast, the Renewables Roadshow – or at least, what I saw last month from the Wembley leg of the tour – seemed to prosper because of its modesty, and because it made the effort to go to installers, visiting six cities nationwide.  The Roadshow demonstrated a mix of traditional and new technologies, boilers and solar, and enough visitors jammed onto the small stands to give the event a buzz.

At the other end of the scale, Ecobuild is booming because it has found a way of appealing to both consumer and trade audiences and has a much broader story to tell.

But wouldn’t the marketing budgets previously spent on Installer Live be better invested in customer relationship management programmes communicated by advertising and social media? That would be a more meaningful form of engagement than expecting people to drive miles to kick balls at holes in nets.

Phillip Bingham, Account Director 


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