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The Leisure Review  went to talk to Jonny Sullens, the man in charge of making LIW happen and making it work. What, we wondered, counts as success in the world of exhibitions?

Jonny Sullens: making an exhibition

Jonny Sullens has been part of the LIW team since 2005 and as show director he has the responsibility of making the show work for exhibitors, visitors and perhaps the wider leisure sector.

We begin our conversation with a potted history of the show. Independent Exhibitions launched what they hoped would be the definitive industry exhibition for the sport and leisure sector in 1989. After a year in London it moved to the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham and began to establish itself as a focal point for the leisure market. As the RecMan conference and other industry exhibitions came and went, LIW’s position strengthened. Company takeovers ensued until a management buy-out in 2005 by what became Ithaca Media. Having shown a couple of years of good growth, LIW was one of the assets that made Ithaca attractive to United Business Media, who bought the company in 2007 just before that year’s show.

LIW 2008 represented the first complete cycle for the current show team, a team that now has the task of promoting and selling a trade exhibition in the teeth of the economic gale. Last year’s show saw some defections by major exhibitors, most notably Life Fitness, and news that FitPro, the health and fitness conference event that has used LIW as its base for a number of years, would be moving elsewhere. But apart from that, how was the show?

“With every show there are things that go well and don’t go well,” Sullens said. “There are elements of LIW 2008 we were really pleased with. We launched the new national sports conference, which had great attendances day one and day two, and a really good programme. Our overall attendance was down about 8 or 9 percent. I don’t know why actually and some of our clients don’t know. They liked the ad campaign, they heard us where they would expect to hear us. We didn’t spend any less promoting the show and probably got more bang for our buck. We researched that and it came back that a lot of companies still attended the show but they sent fewer people. We heard that from clients and the research seemed to bear that out but it’s a little bit disappointing.”

Exhibitors at trade shows are notoriously hard to please, demanding both a high footfall – the exhibition equivalent of ‘bums on seats’ – and a high percentage of visitors with money to spend. Is it possible to deliver both?

“I think LIW has always delivered buyers in a good number and the percentage of ‘tyre-kickers’ is dependent on the year or the economy,” Sullens said. “This year we had fewer tyre-kickers, just because it is difficult to take a day out of the office if you don’t have the budgets available. But numbers at exhibitions are a misnomer really. You get 13,000 people to the show but no one company can see 13,000 people. People get a bit misled [by the numbers] and it’s partly our fault because everyone sells on how many visitors you get.”

Put four people on an exhibition stand, each of whom can talk to, say, six people an hour, and the demand for footfall is put into a different perspective. By the time one has done the maths, between 500 and 600 visitors will keep a stand busy. But a show needs plenty of visitors to create a positive atmosphere – the elusive but powerful ‘buzz’ – for the event as a whole. Exhibition areas, such as the pool and fitness display features, are included with this in mind. Sullens is reassured by feedback from last year’s show which suggests exhibitors were positive about the numbers and the quality of visitors.

This year the challenge will be more arduous. Are UBM moving confidently into the 2009 LIW cycle?

“Confidence definitely tinged with nervousness,” Sullens says with a wry smile. “In the health and fitness sector I really want to know how the membership sales go in January. That’s key. A lot of the big equipment manufacturers are also waiting. A lot of the kit that would normally be ordered pre-Christmas to be installed at Christmas isn’t being ordered because people were waiting to see how their membership drives go in January. That has a knock-on effect and we are waiting on that to see what the feedback is. But I’m always excited about LIW. You can’t not be excited about that show. If you wanted to choose a trade show in the UK to run in my opinion you would choose LIW because as a day out the sort of things you can experience at LIW are so varied.”

Given that LIW seeks to serve as a focal point for the UK leisure sector, it has been suggested that the fact that LIW is not run by an organisation more directly connected to the sector mitigates this effort. Is such criticism valid? Does the fact that LIW is presented to, rather than by, the leisure industry preclude the creation of the critical buzz?

“I would say that we are part of the industry. We want to be within the industry 365 days a year rather than something that just sends tickets out, runs a show in September and then disappears again. This is why we invest in FIA Vanguard, why we invest in LIW TV: to try to be an all-round resource. We have a lot of resources and data that people should be able to use all-year round.

“The criticism is understandable but running trade shows is a science. You do need to have a skill-set that is different to the skills that exist in the wider leisure sector. As you walk into the job you might not know anything but you learn pretty quickly. We are talking to the market three hundred days a year and my knowledge of the market is pretty good. Seventy percent of visitors tell us they want to see new services and products. We have to go out and hunt those down, and you can only do that by going out and talking to the industry.”

Any glance at the LIW publicity over the years has illustrated how much effort is put into adding value to the visitor experience. Conference sessions, networking events and all manner of organisations taking the opportunity to come together at the NEC in September make for a packed programme. How important are these peripherals to the success of the exhibition?

Again Sullens thinks for a moment before answering. “If you read the research, probably not so important because everyone says that the show floor is the most important thing as a visitor. However, if you run a show with no education and no features would you still get the same number of visitors? No. It’s about justification. It’s about decision-makers who control budgets needing as many reasons as possible to leave their desk and come out to touch the products that they want. We need to give them the justification to do that. If that means that they have popped in to hear a Roger Black keynote, then great. If it’s because they’ve come to the Sporta meeting and then the lunchtime networking session, or to FitPro sessions, great.

“One criticism that has been levelled at us – and I think perhaps fairly – is that there is too much of that or that it doesn’t give people enough time on the show floor. Certainly this year where we are running education with our partners we are suggesting that they run half-day sessions and include show floor visit as part of their programme. We will facilitate that as a much more formal process than we have before.”

News that the Fitness Industry Association will be holding a new event in 2009 comprising the Fit Pro conference, the FLAME awards and the FIA industry summit put something of a hole in these plans. That the news followed the decision of Life Fitness not to attend LIW 2008 may well have made it rather harder to swallow at LIW Towers.

Sullens laughs at the memory of the situation. “The FIA said that FitPro would be co-locating with the Flame awards and to be run alongside the FIA Summit. At the time I thought, ‘This isn’t good news’ and I was definitely disappointed. The Fit Pro thing was less of a surprise. It’s an annual rolling agreement whereas our agreement with the FIA is a five-year agreement. I was concerned about that but now the dust has settled, we’ve sat down with the FIA and completely understand what they are wanting to do. I think it has opened up some real opportunities for us to shape what we do around the show. It wasn’t my decision and at the time I would have wanted them to stay but we’ve done some research about what people want from the show, what our exhibitors want and now I’m quite comfortable with it. We’ll be there at their event in June in Bolton to support it.”

He also concedes that having the biggest names at the event is important. “Of course it is. Absolutely. We would much prefer that the major manufacturers were at the show and Life Fitness is undoubtedly one of those. However, we have a really good relationship with Life Fitness and we still work with them on a number of projects. I’m hopeful that they’ll come back to the show in some form in 2009, although nothing has been agreed yet. Of course you want all the big names there but if they are not it does offer opportunities for the ambitious manufacturers who are looking to grow. I know that some of those companies had good shows this year and may have picked up some of the business that Life Fitness was not there to pick up.”

Sullens acknowledges that persuading exhibitors that they should be spending sizeable chunks of their marketing budgets on coming to LIW 2009 may be a tougher proposition than for previous shows but the LIW team is working on a number of packages that they hope will make exhibiting a cost-effective option. Negotiations are in hand with all the show’s suppliers, including the NEC, to make sure that exhibitors will be getting good value for their marketing money.

Given the wider economic pressures and the developments within the leisure sector, what will count as success for LIW 2009?

“There are a number of ways we would qualify success. One is how many companies have rebooked space for next year; that’s always a great barometer. Attendance: if we can maintain our audience and the quality of that audience I would be happy. The number of exhibitors on the show floor: you are not going to see the growth we have achieved in the last couple of years and it would be unrealistic of me to say that. It’s about maintaining the number of exhibiting companies. They may take less space or in a different format but for us it’s important to keep them in the habit of exhibiting, the habit of being seen by their clients, their potential clients and picking up those all-important business leads. That will be a barometer for us once the show is closed. Further down the track it’s how our research compares with previous years.

“One of the great challenges of LIW is how to freshen it up. The show will be twenty-one years old this year and in the past you could predict that you would walk through the door of hall seventeen and see Technogym there, Life Fitness there, Star Trac there. Last year people didn’t see that and I think that was great. They saw Star Trac with an enormous space at the show because they had that much new kit to show the market. I think that is really exciting and I think people notice that. As we go through the show cycle we want to encourage people to think about the show differently but that’s often quite challenging.”

A lot of water will flow under a great many bridges between now and September but there is very strong chance that the leisure industry calendar will still be looking towards the NEC in the autumn. Watch this space.


The Leisure Review, February 2009

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“You can’t not be excited about that show. If you wanted to choose a trade show in the UK to run in my opinion you would choose LIW because as a day out the sort of things you can experience at LIW are so varied.”

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