ExCel, the tarantula-like exhibition centre, squats threateningly on the Thames in London's Docklands. Your first visit can be an intimidating experience. When I attended the recent World Travel Market - the biggest annual trade fair held in London - I found each of the three DLR stations that serve ExCel awash with people, babbling away in a multitude of languages.
By the time the hordes converged on an entrance, they'd been besieged by exhibitors handing out bags in a pre-emptive strike, making the process of fumbling around for barcoded entry badges chaotic.
Yet despite attracting 42,000 visitors and fielding 18,000 exhibitor personnel, WTM is a relative minnow in a global trade exhibition market now worth upwards of $30 billion annually (Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Michigan, US). The biggest international IT and telecoms fair, CeBIT, resembles a thriving modern city, created in various locations around the world each year and inhabited by hundreds of thousands of besuited, tech-savvy uber-networkers.
The origins of such events can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and Rome, when journeying traders met local producers in marketplaces and bazaars.
But the term 'trading fair' was first used in the Middle Ages. The first known fair was the Foire de Saint Denis, founded by King Dagobert in 629; by 710, it regularly attracted more than 700 merchants.
By the 13th century these events had became more formalised. The Leipzig Mustermesse Fair - now the site of the Leipzig Automobil International show and the Leipzig Book Fair - dates back to 1268. It was set up to guarantee traders protection for 'the right to buy and sell in the city without hindrance', irrespective of where they came from. And Germany has maintained its pedigree in the discipline. Its National Tourism Office claims: 'Today, two out of three industries hold their global trade fair in Germany, while three of the four largest trade fair centres in the world are based here.'
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade fair, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, quickly evolved from a direct sales event to its present concept of a place where traders could display a broad range of available goods.
In the 20th century the trade fair became established as an essential element of the marketing mix.
'The trade fair is marketing using all the five senses,' according to the UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry. The irony is that the biggest and most successful examples - the computer and telecoms fairs - are based around technologies essentially designed to circumvent human contact.
The first notable trade fair in England was the Great Exhibition in 1851, which spread over 700,000 feet and drew six million visitors. At this time, Britain led the industrial revolution and was keen to show off.
Two of the first major trade fairs in the UK continue to flourish. Biennial construction show Interbuild first took place in 1895, while the annual environment and conservation fair CIWM, based in Paignton, Devon, made its debut in 1898.
A survey by IRN Research, published in October, shows that although the number of visitors to conferences in the UK between 2001 and 2003 declined by 15% (to 635,500), the number of overseas visitors to UK trade shows jumped by 60% to 333,000 in the same period. Indeed, 5.5% of the six million business visitors to the UK each year come to see an exhibition.
Such trends prompted the Mayoral Commission for an International Convention Centre in London, which reports to Ken Livingstone in March. Early research released by MCICC suggests the capital's lack of a truly world-class venue - the biggest is the Barbican with a 1,900 seat auditorium - means it turns away up to £27 million in potential conference business revenue every year.
Geoffrey Dixon, managing director of Vivid Interface, who has been benchmarking the industry for the past decade, says trade fairs have become much more attuned to the industries they serve: they are timed carefully to coincide with business cycles, are more serious and encourage senior networking.
'There are fewer tyre-kickers around than 10 years ago. Now it's about senior business people playing the power game and using the time out of the office efficiently. Successful organisers have shifted focus from selling floorspace to providing the required number of meeting areas.'
Alastair Gornall, CEO of Reed Exhibitions, believes the future of the trade fair lies in identifying niches, and investing in visitor experience and technology. 'At the International Luxury Travel Market in France,' he says, 'all visitors were handed Palm Pilots featuring names, photographs and profiles of everyone else at the show. As soon as appropriate contacts came within 20 yards of one another, an alert was sent to both parties.
This may not be appropriate in some markets, but it's pretty phenomenal for an industry like this.'
UK'S 10 BIGGEST TRADE FAIRS
EXHIBITION MARKET SECTOR ATTENDANCE
1 Spring Fair, Birmingham Retail & wholesale 80,065
2 Interbuild, Birmingham Construction 46,770
3 Hotelympia, London Catering & hospitality 45,836
4 World Travel Market, London Travel 41,376
5 Furniture Show, Birmingham Retail & wholesale 39,730
6 Autumn Fair, Birmingham Retail & wholesale 35,320
7 Total Processing &
Packaging, Birmingham Printing 30,083
8 Commercial Vehicle
Show, Birmingham Automotive 28,952
9 KBB, Birmingham Retail & wholesale 28,138
10 Design Interiors, Birmingham Retail & wholesale 27,639
SOURCE: AUDIT BUREAU OF CIRCULATION
THE 10 LARGEST UK VENUES SQ METRES
1 NEC Birmingham 202,000
2 ExCel, London 65,000
3 Earls Court, London 62,000
4 Olympia, London 38,000
5 SECC, Glasgow 23,000
6 Stoneleigh Park, Warks 21,000
7 Conference Centre, Harrogate 17,000
8 Wembley Arena, London 14,000
9 G-Mex, Manchester 13,000
10 Alexandra Palace, London 12,000
SOURCE: EXHIBITION VENUES ASSOCIATION
Two-thirds of leading international trade fairs are hosted in Germany.
Each year, the nation holds 140 trade fairs and exhibitions. They draw
9m-10m visitors, a quarter of the European market.
SOURCE: ASSOCIATION OF THE GERMAN TRADE FAIR INDUSTRY (AUMA)/EUROPEAN
ASSOCIATION OF TRADE FAIRS (EMECA)
SOME OF THE WORLD'S BIGGEST TRADE FAIRS
EXHIBITION MARKET SECTOR ATTENDANCE
IAA, Frankfurt Automotive 1,000,000
CeBIT, Hanover IT & telecoms 673,000
Int'l Consumer Electronics
Show, Las Vegas Technology 132,853
ITB, Berlin Travel & tourism 122,000
Magic Marketplace, Las Vegas Fashion & textiles 90,000
ITU Telecom World, Geneva IT & telecoms 80,000
Chinese Export Commodities
Fair, Guangdong Export 56,000
Singapore Expo, Singapore Industry 50,000
OVERSEAS VISITORS TO UK SHOWS
THE UK'S HOTTEST FAIRS
(MOST HITS ON EXPO24-7.COM WEBSITE)
1. Erotica Festival Olympia, London Adult entertainment for the
2. Max Power Live NEC, Birmingham The fastest, loudest car show
Europe Olympia, London Security and network management
Confex Earls Court, A conference for conference