Got back on Friday from VisitScotland Expo 2012 in the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre and on the drive back had a whole host of conflicting thoughts about how beneficial and effective it had been.
The thoughts had at least partially triggered by the question asked by the ebullient VS Chair, Mike Cantlay, who must have bounced about the whole hall fired up on caffeine for the whole two days asking exhibitors how it had been for them and what could we do better.
So both questions seemed pertinent and worth further in depth responses.
How Was It For You?
Always a leading question to ask at any time or in any situation I guess! The answer "Wow that was great darling, it's never been like that before" seemed however highly inappropriate when directed at the bekilted Mr Cantlay but so also did the "very good, very good" of one of my colleagues (sorry H!)
As always seems to be the case it felt as though it hadn't achieved too much of the primary objective - generating business with the potential buyers - but scored highly in a string of secondary objectives that included positive networking with exhibiting businesses, product ideas from other exhibiting businesses and in all honesty a feeling of overall positivity to take forward for our own businesses. I actually therefore left the AECC actually feeling more positive and motivated than I had when I had entered.
Therefore Expo should continue...
Well yes but many of the positives felt were unrelated to the actually reason for being there and if many exhibitors looked at it in the same way they may find the same.
Expo remains in my mind one of the things that VisitScotland do best and should continue to do well in the future. The caveat however is that it is now time for change in execution and analysis of the goals and objectives. Here's my own personal thoughts based on what I did actually say to the Chair and his stressed PA at the time.
One Combined Scottish Tourism Week
We need to be more cost effective in how industry and public sector collaborations work. With the increasing (and potentially destructive) number of stand alone DMOs and sectoral bodies floating around Scotland (and "floating", as in little isolated unconnected bodies is deliberate) there is a need to be more focused and cost effective about how we do things.
Is there really a need for a business to business Scottish Tourism Week to be held in March with a business to business Scottish Tourism Expo Week held in April? There seems to be a lot of common sense in bringing together the two largest B2B tourism events into a much more impactful joint slot.
Surely if we can get broadband access into lampposts in the Western Islands (tired of the man to the moon analogy) we can create a much more effective and single Scottish Tourism Week that would then incorporate Expo, political debate, product development seminars, fam trips and product and industry awareness as a whole across Scotland. It would integrate the public and private sectors to a common aim and reduce the time spent away from businesses and in all likelihood increase industry participation across the geographic and sectoral spectrum.
Is this beyond STF and VisitScotland to navigate towards? I would hope not.
One Day or Two?
The current formula just does not fit and when the only people wandering around the show on the second afternoon are green badge wearing exhibitors (and of course the aforementioned VS Chair) then you know it is time for change.
There is no single answer or offering here but open lateral thinking.
An earlier start with sit down appointments as the Irish do with their event? Earlier finish in the afternoons to facilitate fam trips and networking events.Increase satellite events and discussions, workshops, marketing and product development seminars from both public and private sectors?
The options are, whilst not endless, certainly many. I cannot believe that with the way the Internet has changed B2B buying and selling habits that the status quo for Expo is an option. For sure there are still brochure collectors who will fill their bags to bursting but the overall distribution of information and product knowledge has altered irrevocably and Expo needs to reflect the changing methods of matching supply with demand. It is a common statement at Expo at the end of day one that "tomorrow will be dead" as they're all way on fam trips/flying back home/completed their appointments. This clearly indicates that something is wrong with the structure of the two day format and that more effective options are required.
This one annoyed me (and others) greatly at Expo. We have an increased online marketing team at VisitScotland.com charged with the task of improving the online offering of Scotland's tourism and hospitality offering; we have a government going on about greater digital promotion; we have continual criticism from the visitor about the limited (and chargeable) wifi access in our hotels.
So what happens at Expo? What example is set? Well, the exhibitor and the buyer are discincentivised from promoting their digital offering because wifi broadband access is £20 per day. This is not about the cost this is about the statement we're giving out. The wifi access should have been freely available setting the example for the rest of the sector.
Online is important we're constantly being told by everyone at VS and by social media gurus alike. So why are we not making the simple statement that it is also freely available and not something to be used to offset costs or contribute to the bottom line.
How did we (not only VisitScotland but the exhibitors) utilise social media during the event? Facebook pages inviting comments live form the buyers? A blog featuring the aspirations and wants of the travel trade? YouTube interviews of the visitors expressing their delight at the variety of product options on offer? In short did we use the digital medium to anywhere near capacity. A rhetorical question.
Yes it's a rant but for once it appears like a perfectly rational one.
Oh yes and while ranting what about the effects of charging £30 a ticket for the Networking evening? The answer that will fly back is again one of cost. Agreed and fully understood but if it's a networking event it should be free; if it's a social event drop the pseudo business nomenclature and don't promote as a networking evening.
It was a very positive move I think to tie the end of the show with the event (if it had been free of course) but really now may be the time to look at the way this is done. Someone suggested to me that there was more than enough room in the hall to create a staged area with a bar that could have hosted a two hour session with live music, entertainment and off stand networking opportunities at a much reduced cost (to the taxpayer!)
And there's location itself.
It's never comfortable to say that a city is not the right place for Expo but someone has to say that Aberdeen is not the right place for this event. And for sure that will drive Aberdeen City and Shire councillors apoplectic but it remains a fact. The cost to the public purse of holding such an event must be a major, if not primary, factor in deciding a venue and it must be considerably more expensive to host like for like events in Glasgow or Aberdeen.
A previous post/rant about hotel room prices for the event highlighted the cost to fellow exhibitors of accommodation in the city for the two nights of Expo. The cost to VisitScotland who pay for the buyers' accommodation must be similarly high. It was for sure the last time it was in the city.
The arguments for hosting it in Aberdeen are understood but it doesn't make them right. The North East needs a showcase? Agreed. Scotland needs to show its wares but so does the West Highlands, South West Scotland, The Borders and the Northern Highlands. That however is not an argument for hosting Expo in Skye or Dumfries or Hawick. Those destinations must be showcased utilising the fam trips and promotional methods at our disposal not by taking an event to them for what some see as for political purposes.
Aberdeen is a great city and business and tourism destination; the north east is an equal to any for golf, culture and quality accommodation. It's dining and local produce as good as any in Scotland.
That should not however override the greater benefits of a central fixed location for Expo from which hub we can then have the spokes of regional destination showcasing.
The SECC has, in a very personal opinion, consistently provided the best most cost effective Expo's in the past fifteen years. Tying a Glasgow based Expo within a wider Scottish Tourism Week makes even more sense in this locational context.
The danger in passing comment about issues such as these is that they are then taken personally by those involved in the process and that then undermines the relevance of the arguments being put forward. To reiterate VisitScotland manage this event as well as anyone could and their role in developing travel trade connections not only through expo but by ongoing press and fam trips is one of the roles that should in our opinion be beefed up.
Improving product knowledge to the trade is important and will remain a short to medium term necessity particularly in nurturing new markets and regenerating old.
But the measures of success are changing, the methods of delivery are changing, distribution channels are increasingly fast moving.
Our offering as a country to the travel trade must move just as quickly and Expo with it.