Happy Birthday NEC

8th August 2006

The thirtieth birthday of the NEC seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the national press and exhibition industry trade press.
OK, I admit that some of the trade magazines ran the oh-so-predictable time-lines that illustrated the development of the venue, but nobody seized the opportunity to consider what the anniversary really means.
A couple of years ago I was sitting in one of the large entrances enjoying an early morning cup of tea while watching large numbers of people coming into the building to visit one of the six or seven shows that were on that day. I was with an employee of the NEC and I remember saying to him that I was quite excited by what I was seeing.
“This will sound really daft to you,” I said, “but this is the national exhibition centre.”
“Yes,” he said, wiping the idiot grin from his face, “that’s right, the NEC.”
I then pointed out that what I meant was that it was the site in the UK that was designated the place where people would come for exhibitions, the national exhibition centre. It was a hark back to the early seventies when people of vision, be they members of national government or Birmingham City Council, had the idea of building a large complex that could house several exhibitions at one time.
Crucially, it showed that in those days of 30 years ago, people thought that exhibitions were a worthy media form, worthy enough, at least, to deserve enormous investment.
The question is, if the NEC didn’t already exist now, in 2006, would it be built? My hunch is that it wouldn’t simply because the people who, thirty years ago, saw exhibitions as a relevant medium would nowadays scoff at the idea of devoting so much space to them.
You can argue that the building of Excel shows that there is still healthy interest in exhibitions and to a certain extent you’d be right. However, although Excel was originally intended to be solely an exhibition venue, it was soon realised that it had to be available for a raft of different live events in order to pull in the loot.
And, to be fair to Excel, you only have to look at every other venue in the country that poses as an exhibition venue to realise that they all have to be open for other things in order to make ends meet.
Remember, thirty years ago no-one thought it was daft to build a huge place that would only be used for exhibitions.
So, where did it all go wrong? Is that actually a fair question to ask? I say that because exhibitions are not alone in having an impact that maybe isn’t as exciting as in previous years. People don’t watch as much TV now or read as many newspapers, for example. There is no doubt that the internet is assuming an all powerful media position.
And yet, we continue to beat ourselves up about our industry. There is even a debate now about whether the term ‘exhibition’ should be scrapped, in the US it is already an outdated word.
Concerned by the negative imagery of rows and rows of shell scheme that the word apparently conjures, even some UK organisers are now abandoning its use.
Now, here’s the most obvious thing anyone has ever said: Exhibitions do work.
One only needs to look at the excitement that clearly accompanied the Motor Show at Excel a couple of weeks ago to see that well run shows are still a draw. To this can be added a number of events such as World Travel Market and London Wine and Spirit Fair to name but two, that consistently see rising visitor numbers and which continue to develop their offer.
The NEC, or a place like it, will never be built again, but the reasons for building it remain as strong as ever. There is no better place to do business than at an exhibition. It is our duty to trumpet this small but crucial fact to the world.
Happy Birthday NEC