In conversation with…Trevor Foley

31st May 2006

After eight years of discussion, negotiation and argument, the Exhibition Industry alliance has finally opened for business. Heading it up is Trevor Foley, previously in charge of the Association of Exhibition Organisers, who tells John Spain about the benefits of the exhibition industry pooling its resources.

TSNN: It’s an obvious thing to say, but you must be excited that, after several years of plans coming together, the EIA is finally up and running.

Foley: I’m delighted, it has been a mission since day one, which is eight years ago now. With EVA recently joining in, and hopefully BECA soon, the plan of pulling the industry together is nearly complete.

TSNN: How likely is it that BECA will give 100 per cent support?

Foley: I think it will happen, maybe not willingly, but I think they’ll end up having to join in.

TSNN: Why do you think it was the organisers rather than the contractors or venues that first had the idea and then the desire to do this?

Foley: There had been a lot of work behind the scenes beforehand and they wouldn’t necessarily have thought about it, I was driving the agenda really. Of course, it had some supporters because if you don’t have support you’re knocking your head against a brick wall. Why organisers first? I suppose they’re the creative people, it starts with the creative.

TSNN: Let’s put to bed once and for all the ‘Trevor Foley for world domination’ assertion that certain people in the industry have made in recent years. The ideas would have been based on conversations you had with people.

Foley: Partly that but also seeing how other media works, be it newspapers, radio, magazines, posters or direct marketing. They have all been through the same growing pains and learning curves. The Direct Marketing Association is a really good example of how an industry brought together its different components. I looked at, and copied, other models. If trade associations didn’t exist now in the exhibition industry and you brought the organisers, contractors and venues together to discuss it, you wouldn’t end up with three different associations. If you had said ‘hey, let’s look at research or sustainability or the part we play in the industry and we’ll have three different offices, three different sets of staff and three sets of overheads’, you just wouldn’t do it. All I have done is get it to a position where it’s sensible for the industry.

TSNN: You are keen that the EIA actively goes into the outside world to promote exhibitions and live events. However, a problem that some people have encountered is that the outside world, especially the financial press, is simply not interested in exhibitions or conferences. For some reason they don’t see live events as an important medium. What can the EIA do to help change this view?

Foley: What it can best do is speak their language. That sounds bland but agencies are saying ‘give us a media currency’, so we need to give them a media currency. Clients are saying ‘don’t talk to us about exhibitions and conferences because that’s very passé, ‘exhibitions’ mean rows and rows of shell scheme and plastic carrier bags. Talk to us about events, talk to us about experiential, talk to us about face to face and we’ll be interested’. We have to give them something different.

TSNN: It sounds like a load of buzzwords to me but I suppose if that’s the language they want to talk then we have to talk it.

Foley: Absolutely, we looked at what could be the one buzzword, the one label that we needed and the honest answer was that there is no one size fits all. The word ‘exhibition’ has a diminishing role to play in event terminology though.

TSNN: Will the AEV and AEC still be able to run their own events such as the annual conference that EVA used to stage? There are still issues that are specific to venues and contractors that in years gone by would have been discussed at their own associations’ events.

Foley: There is still definitely a platform for them to do that. There are a couple of possibilities. Firstly, at some point in the future the AEO conference could remain the same or it could become an EIA event in which there would be content relevant to the whole industry as well as content that applied specifically to the individual components. Anything is possible. Now, and this is the second option, the AEC has launched a conference which is going to run in conjunction with The Exhibiting Show and the AEV is interested in running its own, though whether this is a half day or a full day event remains to be seen. Certainly they do have their own particular issues but they also have the same issues so they will get together when they need to and stay apart when they need to.

TSNN. There have been some notable cause célèbres in the industry over the years where venues, contractors and organisers have fallen out with each other over a given issue. No umbrella association is ever going to stop disputes like this happening but do you think its presence will be able to make finding a solution to the problem easier than it was before?

Foley: There are always going to be disputes and you’ll never be able to stop them but a solution will be much easier to find with the EIA because you’ll be able to get the relevant parties around the table that much quicker. They won’t be forced round the table but the gathering of them around that table will be easier when they are part of one organisation. History has shown that when one party has wanted to talk to another party in the last ten to twenty years, one of them has just blankly refused to do so. This won’t happen now, it’s more grown up. What the EIA has successfully achieved, even before being fully operational, is that it has maintained the Chinese walls so that conflict of interest isn’t an issue, and when something has come up that needs them to get together, they have all been brought together by the one secretariat.

TSNN: I suppose the beauty of one secretariat is that communication is far easier with its all being under one roof.

Foley: It’s partly that but it doesn’t just begin and end at HQ. A current example of this is that through the structure of the EIA I have very easy and direct lines of communication with the directors of the AEO, AEV and AEC. At the same time I can’t get hold of the chairman of BECA, by phone or by email, he won’t respond.

TSNN: A number of people have mentioned the problem of sustainability. Once there were three associations that usually had one or two people on the payroll, the rest of the positions being filled by volunteers from the industry. There seems to be quite a large team at HQ now so will members’ subs be enough to keep this going? Will membership fees need to rise faster than they may otherwise have done?

Foley: Members’ fees have only risen with inflation in the last seven years and I can’t see that changing because the entrepreneurial spirit inside the associations has meant that revenue is now coming from other streams. When I joined the AEO, it was 98 per cent subscription dependant, now this figure is 29 per cent. The extra revenue is coming from a range of products such as events, sponsorship and partnership. The reality is that for all the things that the industry both wants to do and needs to do, the secretariat isn’t big enough. There are so many things on the agenda and we are competing with other media, which are all much bigger than us, both in terms of the size of their industry and the size of their secretariat.

TSNN: Now that it’s up and running, what specific projects is the EIA working on at the moment?

Foley: It’s making excellent forays into government at all sorts of levels including the deputy prime minister’s office and the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, in fact, we’ve just appointed a government lobbyist and a PR manager for the first time. The fact that we have all three organisations together means that we can afford that. So, we’re hitting press and government and we’re now working out how to hit academia.

(Related categories of interest see Exhibition Stands or Modular Stands)