“There is a huge amount of opportunity for the events industry in 2022”
We talk to Iguana’s Managing Director, Ben Murphy, about his views on the past year, the opportunities in 2022 and the challenges that lay ahead for the industry
Now that the dust has settled on 2021, what are your thoughts when you look back on the year?
2021 was a year of mixed fortunes for the exhibitions and events industry. Obviously it was a huge blow to us when the country was placed in an extended lockdown in the first few months of the year. However, thanks to various support schemes (such as furlough) and the determination of our team, we soldiered on and did our best to keep the conversation going with our clients and suppliers. Where we could, we helped clients old and new with projects including virtual events, care home visiting pods, showroom interiors and other side-projects.
The second half of the year was much more promising, as we saw the return of in-person events proper. I was hugely impressed by the efforts of our show venues and organisers, who delivered safe environments without a significant additional burden on exhibitors or suppliers. We ourselves delivered a number of projects in the UK, but also abroad in cities including Paris, Milan and Monaco. I think it was a super-important period for the industry: certainly it wasn’t back to “normality”, but it was an opportunity for the tradeshow industry to show that – even in the context of the pandemic – it could hold successful, safe events that provide value for exhibitors and visitors alike.
How have exhibitions changed in the past year?
Obviously there are a number of precautions in place at exhibitions to prevent the spread of COVID. Most venues demand proof of vaccination or a negative test on entry. This is usually checked quickly and in an organised way at the entrance, and once you’re in the venue there are no further obstacles to navigate. Some venues require masks, others don’t – this usually depends on the country you’re working in. Also you’ll see many individual stands have their own precautions in place, including sanitising stations, social distancing etc.
One of the most interesting changes we’ve seen is that there has been a significant reduction in visitor footfall at almost every exhibition. You would think this would be a major issue for exhibitors, but all of our clients have fed back that the quality of visitor has been much better – there are far fewer “tire-kickers” and casual visitors and that the leads they have generated tend to be directly with the major decision makers. One of the first projects we delivered in September 2021 was for Woodmansterne at GLEE in Birmingham, who were very pleased with the quality of visitor and the discussions had at the show. I think shows will need to look at how they measure success going forward – traditionally it has been easy to publish figures on visitor footfall, but maybe now we need to find a better metric to measure the quality of discussions rather than the quantity.
How is 2022 looking so far?
In the past few months there has been a significant change in the content of discussions with our clients and potential clients. I personally think that companies are hungry to get back to in-person events. Virtual solutions certainly have a place in a company’s marketing strategy, but they can’t offer the same return on investment of face-to-face interactions in a dedicated environment. There has been a little bit of a “wobble” as the world gets to grips with Omnicron – for example ICE London, a major show in the gambling technology sector – has been postponed from February to mid-April, but many other shows seem to be scheduled to go ahead as planned. Our first exhibition of the spring will be at Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) in Barcelona, and we can’t wait to get over there.
Later in the year the calendar is just jam packed. April is going to be a huge month, as are May and June. I do wonder if the exhibition calendar will change permanently – with shows traditional held in the winter months now moved to spring / summer / autumn, when the potential for cancellation is lower.
What challenges will you face going into the new year?
The elephant in the room is, of course, show cancellations. However both suppliers and clients have been through the mill on this a few times, and in most cases an agreed approach can be put into place that limits liability for all parties. Most organisers continue to try and postpone rather than cancel, which is an easier problem to solve as any work completed already can usually be “rolled” to the later date.
A bigger challenge is capacity. Sadly, many suppliers voluntarily closed or were forced to liquidate over the past 2 years. The UK’s capacity to produce exhibition experiences is far lower than it was at the end of 2019. However the demand is as high as it has ever been. My advice to exhibitors is to get your brief in to agencies early to ensure that you don’t miss out!
Furthermore, we are finding recruitment a big challenge. Like many exhibition suppliers, we were left with no option but to scale back in 2020 / 2021. Many employees across the UK were left in a position where they had to find work elsewhere, and not all of them are interested in returning to the events industry – perhaps understandably given the rollercoaster we have had over the past two years. The talent pool is much reduced, and scaling back up will undoubtedly be a challenge.
How would you describe how you feel about this year in one word?
OPTIMISTIC! There is a huge amount of opportunity for the events industry in 2022, and I’ve never been more confident that we have the right team behind us to capitalise on that. Our clients are excited about the potential for growing their business through events in 2022, and so are we!