19th October 2006

The future is passion

John Spain meets Brian Wiseman for a frank exchange of opinion

There will be few people in the UK exhibition industry who haven’t heard of Brian Wiseman. His lengthy career in exhibitions has taken in, among many others, the heady days of Blenheim and the launch of Erotica.
Wiseman is still an outspoken observer and critic of how the industry is being run and is not frightened to ‘tell it as it is’.
John Spain caught up with him to discuss the current state of things and was delighted to find that Wiseman remains as vocal as ever…

JS: The last time I interviewed you, about four years ago, you were very critical of the then current trend of referring to exhibitions as a medium similar to TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. You argued that exhibition organisers are precisely that, people who organise events where people come together to do business, they are facilitators rather than media tycoons. You profoundly felt it was dangerous to loose sight of this. Four years on, have your views modified or do you still believe that we should forget this preoccupation with media?

BW: In simple terms, four years on I have been to three AEO conferences and listened to the industry kid itself that it is a medium as opposed to a service industry. I am still totally convinced that we are a service platform that delivers the buyer to the seller. We all do business with people that we like. I can watch 20 different credit card adverts on TV in a week and all they tell you is what the APR is, they don’t tell you what service levels are, they don’t look you in the eyes and shake your hand and give you a trust in an individual. What we do is face to face, we look you in the eyes, shake hands and maybe have a drink, a coffee in some circumstances a glass of champagne in others. Let’s say that a visitor has five possible suppliers all of whom can give a similar price and a similar service, the one thing they get from looking potential suppliers in the eyes and shaking hands is a feeling of trust that they will deliver. We are a platform to deliver that trust.

JS: Going on from this, how do you react to the AEO’s recent decision to drop the term ‘exhibition’ from its name in order to become the Association of Events Organisers? Have you decided yet if you are an events or exhibition organiser?

BW: I believe that I have to move with the times along with the whole of the industry. The growth area in the industry is consumer events and only the strongest in the B2B sector will survive, in other words, the market leader out of ten globally. The weak will fall by the wayside. I do believe that we are event organisers but I believe that organising an event nowadays should have the same standards as organising an exhibition in Germany two centuries ago. The principles are still the same, the terminology has changed.

JS: It’s interesting that you mention the global scene. A growing number of UK events firms are involved in lucrative work in emerging markets abroad both running exhibitions and conferences by themselves or as part of a JV. Indeed, you have experience of this from your days at ITE. Is this still an area worth looking at?

BW: At the AEO conference a few years ago I remember listening to Phil Soar, a man whom I have great respect for, talk about ‘the definitive event in an industry’. There are global events in every industry and we have very few of these in the UK. We do have to look at the international market, whether that be emerging or existing markets. I believe that UK organisers who want to run the definitive event in a given sector must look at the location in the world where the event will work best. I’m involved with a major event that runs in Barcelona and have to admit that I’m not clear myself as to why it runs so well there. I am, sadly, clear that it wouldn’t run well in the UK.

JS: How do you think the ‘three associations under one umbrella’ initiative is now working? With EVA having finally gone onboard with the AEV and only BECA as an outsider to this are you worried that a traditional structure has been lost or are you pleased that a more streamlined organisation is in place to market the industry and deal with member disputes?

BW: I am probably being controversial here but I believe that the three different sections of the industry have different issues and problems. They have problems with each other and by putting it under one umbrella I believe they are losing their right and their strength to debate. I understand that in dealing with government it is the correct thing to have a united voice, but you can have a united voice with a committee from each sector that develops what we want to talk to government about. You can’t have them united under one banner though. I think the venues will lose some of their voice, but, being the wicked landlord, they will always have a voice. Without BECA, the contractors who have been beaten up by organisers will lose their voice and I’m extremely opposed to that happening. I think that the fact that this initiative came out of the organisation for organisers is just strengthening the organisers’ side of it where the organisers have been the greedy bastards for the last five to ten years.

JS: Looking back again to the last time we had a conversation like this, you were keen to point out that it takes people with passion to run exhibitions and you were worried that give or take three or four exceptions, there weren’t enough passionate people in the industry. Is this still the case or have you seen anything that has cheered you recently?

BW: I think that the independents that are trying to launch new events do have the passion. I’m very concerned, going forward, that we are not taking on passionate people. We’re taking on people with university degrees, giving them a computer, a desk, a phone and a database but we’re failing to train them. We’re failing to talk to them about passion at the interview. The only people who seem to have passion nowadays are the people who are trying to launch excellent projects with no money behind them. I’m extremely concerned that the bigger companies are not prepared to get themselves involved in launches with passionate people because they feel there is a risk. The big boys see the reality of delivery overruling the passion. I still believe that passion will deliver, it may not deliver the best profit in year one but it will deliver an event that will grow. We’ve got too many grey people running existing events who are allowing them to decline. The future of this industry is finding the youngsters with passion.