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Interview: PLASA’s Chris Toulmin says Olympia move will inject new life into show

The new show will "match the changing landscape"

UPDATE: As the November issue of PSNEurope went to print, it emerged that PLASA had taken steps to ameliorate a “crisis cash-flow problem” by reducing staff and putting the Eastbourne office up for sale, in addition to the cessation of operations in the USA. PLASA has also “asked for members’ feedback on its next steps as it moves forward into a new phase of its existence”.

The PLASA Show, the annual entertainment technology event, ran for three days instead of the usual four this month (Sunday 4 October to Tuesday 6 October). While the quality and quantity of audio-related sessions and panels was high, the number of exhibitors from the pro-sound industry remained low. PSNEurope encountered several exhibitors who were happy with the show, but an equal, if not greater, number of visitors who weren’t.

Dave Robinson spoke with PLASA’s director of the event division, Chris Toulmin (pictured), as its three-year contract with the Docklands ExCeL venue expires and the association looks to refresh and reform the show for 2016.

PSNEurope: How was the PLASA Show, Chris?
Chris Toulmin: I think it went it surprisingly well. We were concerned because sales have been challenging this year. Coming down from four to three is fairly nerve-racking; finding out if that third day is going to be a tumbleweed day – and, surprisingly, it wasn’t! Not that the numbers were significantly greater [on Tuesday], but the difference was we were literally having to push people out of the door at closing time. Normally there are not many people left other than the exhibitors, so we’re definitely pleased about that going forward as a three-day show.

And the mood on the floor was pretty good: everyone was positive, business was going well. The bottom line is that if they are seeing the right people, then exhibitors are having a good show.

PSN: There seemed to be as many negative comments as there were positive ones. One of these being that the audio representation was the smallest its ever been…
CT: In terms of level of content, brand- or exhibitor-wise, this year wasn’t much different from last year: there’ve been a couple of gains and a couple of losses. [But] particularly on the audio side, there’s no dispute that this has been in long-term decline; it’s not something that’s happened overnight.

Through our dialogue with companies, we get various opinions on how they see the profile of the show and which budget the show comes out of. As it has moved away from the international budget for most of them, then they don’t have the money to spend doing a show on this scale in the UK. That’s one issue we have had to deal with.

Also, there’s become an “agreement” not to become involved – “If he does it, we’ll do it” sort of thing – which is frustrating…

What PLASA has continued to do is invest in the educational content for audio, which again has been because we want to retain that audio market as part of the overall PLASA picture. It’s frustrating because we invest in, and deliver, the [session programme] – and it doesn’t come for free, even though we offer it free to the visitors – and I think that was stronger than ever this year. But I fully appreciate that, while [the sessions are] great – and we know the visitors enjoy them because a lot of them were full – [visitors] are obviously disappointed when they don’t get to see the brands on the floor.

PSN: Do you think the lack of attraction for audio brands has been too many shows, that PLASA is too expensive, the ExCeL location, a lack of ‘local’ pubs and bars, or what?
CT: It’s almost all of the above. We have gone through a significant amount of change over the last three/four years – the venue is a fantastic venue but the location has been a problem. From a wider point of view – and this is not just the audio section – the show thrives on a sense of community; it is one of those times when the industry comes together. ExCeL doesn’t lend itself to that sort of feeling as it did when it was based in west London.

PSN: And now your three-year contract with ExCeL is up and you’re heading back there?
CT: We are taking it to Olympia [in West Kensington, Sunday 18–Tuesday 20 September 2016]. It’s not just about a change of location, it’s a change of how the show will be, to match the changing landscape and expectation of our exhibitors. We are scaling down the event, to about 50 per cent of the current one – that doesn’t mean 50 per cent less companies, just half the space. We’re taking what we learned from PLASA Focus in Leeds and bringing that into to a London event. It won’t all be small shell schemes – it’s about significantly reducing the cost to exhibit with us, and the important thing is that we expect to bring the same [number] of visitors; because of the location, because of the type of show it still will be. That can only be a good thing.

We’ve had some exhibitors who’ve taken a very large presence at the show, down to the very small booths – so we’re levelling that playing field a lot more. Which is what Focus has always has been about. Also, moving to Olympia gives us the flexibility that we haven’t had at ExCeL: more opportunities to do something ‘hands-on’, something more ‘experiential’ than before.

OPINION: Paul Hinkly, LMC Audio Systems

For our part at LMC, this PLASA was unexpectedly one of the very best ever, with audio visitors being condensed towards the existing audio exhibits evidenced by LMC sales leads taken being very significantly up over previous recent years. Our fear for future years is that this apparent intensification of audio visitors is not sustainable without an ongoing increasing presence from the remaining audio manufacturers and distributors. Manufacturer participation as independent exhibitors this year was so poor – hats off to Cadac, d&b, FBT, Nexo and Yamaha on their own stands – that I heard audio visitors describing manufacturers that made no show at all as “disrespecting their customers” by not contributing at least at some sort of level. And I echo that sentiment, and add that manufacturers making no show at all are also disrespecting LMC and other dealers by staying away. Cause for optimism is next year’s [plans , which] should persuade more overseas visitors and consequently manufacturers to attend and exhibit, so bring it on.

PSN: But! Marked Events’ rival BPM/PRO show in Birmingham will be held the week before, 11-13 September, at the Genting Arena at the NEC.
CT: Well… [Pause] That wasn’t done by design. We did want to get back into September because the majority of our exhibitors were telling us that.

PSN: This is so that engineers and PA companies, tipping out of the festival season and ahead of the autumn touring calendar, could visit PLASA.
CT: That’s exactly it. If you look at something like the Knights of Illumination event [held during the PLASA show on Sunday 4 October], one thing that became immediately noticeable was that all sorts of awards were being given out but a lot of the designers were already on the road again.

PSN: When you took that decision three years ago to move the show into October, you reasoned that the festival season and autumn touring were pushing back to later dates too?
CT: We believed that was an appropriate thing to do. In the course of making that change, BPM took the opportunity to relocate themselves into that dateline and set themselves up in competition to the PLASA Show. So we’ve gone from two separate shows in different directions, to two where clearly there is some crossover – which is, you know, a challenge.

In terms of why have we ended up a week apart, it was the only time that was available at Olympia. We have spoken to PRO – [the situation’s] not ideal – and we’re also having those conversations with exhibitors – and some of those, for 2016, will have to make a decision as to which show is most valuable. It’s not ideal having all your marketing spend going out at one time. But it’s an inevitable thing for 2016.

As I say, we are having a dialogue and looking at ways around this in the long run, and from our point of view, from 2017 onwards we will be looking to create as much space as we reasonably can between us and BPM if that’s the way forward – but we want to stay in September, as are the wants of our constituents.

PSN: What of PLASA in the USA?
CT: The decision has been taken for PLASA to de-merge Europe and North America – that is now official as of a couple of weeks ago. [PLASA and ESTA, a trade association representing entertainment industries in North America, joined forces officially on 1 January 2011. The new association went on to host several PLASA Focus-style events in Orlando and Austin.]

I think it was decided it was in the best interests of both territories. One of the things that had become evident is that, in effect, we all speak the same language but culturally we are different in how we approach business. And bringing those two organisations together involved too much compromise which didn’t best serve either side. We had a five-year contract and tried to make a success of it. But it would better serve if we separated again. It’s all about a refocus for the benefit of the membership. PLASA will remain as PLASA, all the media and properties still belong to PLASA, but we will be concentrating on the core business and taking a hiatus from events over there for at least a year.

PSN: What about the Scottish show?
CT: PLASA Focus will be held in Glasgow on 20-21 January 2016. We ran it in December 2014 and that wasn’t ideal. So we’ve pushed it back to January, and that’s received a remarkably good response: we’ve already arrived at the [bookings] point when we ran the show the first time, so we expect to see some growth this year. Not to the extent of Leeds, but there is a marketplace in Scotland. We keep close track of the crossover to ensure we aren’t doubling up, and that is remarkably low: between London and Leeds it’s about 350 visitors; between Glasgow and Leeds, 50 visitors. So it’s certainly proved the point that it is worth running these things.

PSN: And finally: CEO Matthew Griffiths is leaving PLASA.
CT: He is! After 17 years. Having shaped and reshaped the organisation it’s come time to reshape it again, and he took the decision it was someone else’s turn to take that on. He’s stepping aside in the new year, and then he’s off into the sunset.

PSN: Will you be stepping into the role?
CT: From my point of view, I’m focussing on the challenge I’ve got ahead. In terms of stability, members of the regional board and the governing body have stepped up to support people such as myself to make sure we can continue to run things smoothly. As the organisation is scaled down, when we have a better idea of who we need to run that then we shall make the appointment.