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PLASA CEO: ExCeL move offers chance for “reworking” of trade show

There may have been moans and muttering on the showfloor at the UK’s recent audio and lighting event, but Matthew Griffiths says that exhibitors should embrace the change as PLASA prepares for a new east London home in 2013.

“No one likes change!” says PLASA CEO Matthew Griffiths. “Every time we’ve moved over the last 20 or so years, no one’s liked it. 
“On the other hand, it might be the best thing we’ve ever done for the show, which we all agree – universally – needs to look at itself, rework itself, start acting as a show for the 21st century, and start delivering a different package.”

Griffiths was speaking to PSNEurope’s Dave Robinson two days after this year’s end-of-an-era trade event at Earls Court, because it was next year’s planned relocation to the ExCeL venue in London’s Docklands (October 2013) which quickly emerged as one of the major talking points of the show – but not necessarily in a positive way.

During the interview, the PLASA CEO was quick to disperse any number of qualms surrounding the plans for 2013. He also admitted that the PLASA Show has not taken care of the pro-audio sector as well as it should over the last four years; and that the organisation is likely to announce co-operation and co-location with at least one other trade event at for ExCeL 2013.

Last week, PSNEurope spoke to several manufacturers at the PLASA Show who expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the proposed shift. Others were at best sanguine, suggesting they would “try it for one year and see how it goes”. Only one company said it was actively planning to increase its booth space, but this had more to do with the company’s technological growth plans rather than willingly embracing the advantages of the site.

“No one is looking forward to moving,” says Griffiths. “Everybody that we have spoken to understands the decision that’s had to be taken; that they will give it a go and see what the best way is to make it work for them.”

Griffiths insists that “a lot of companies” had booked bigger stand space because ExCeL offers a much better format to work within – a purpose-built exhibition space without the “stone columns and holes” found at Earls Court.

The requirement to find the PLASA Show a new home stems in no small part from a major redevelopment plan revealed in Mar 2010, detailing how the Earls Court site’s owner, Capital & Counties, was considering a 70-acre regeneration plan that would include the building of several thousand new homes but would require the demolition of the exhibition halls.

Part of the planning permission for the scheme was granted by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham last week. Cap&Co now awaits permission from Kensington and Chelsea borough.

Despite Griffiths suggesting that, because of the scale of the redevelopment, Earls Court would probably be still standing “in 2018”, it’s clear to him that the landlord “is beginning to run down the halls now”, so a move to ExCeL should be “embraced as an opportunity”.

Griffiths goes on to illustrate the sort of attitude he has been up against: “‘Good luck with that!’ said one lighting manufacturer to me about the move. And when I asked why, they said, ‘Because it is a crap place to get to’. And I asked when was the last time they went there, they said, ‘Well, I haven’t, it’s what people have told me’!

“That’s why we are going to be running twice-monthly exhibitor visits, to take small parties down there, and show them ExCeL’s in-house presentations, show them the hotels and the exhibition space itself, and the cafes and the restaurants, put them on the Emirates Air Line, over to the O2 Arena, then back into town on the Jubilee… and when they’ve done that, they’ll go, ‘Well, it’s not as bad as I thought it was!’

“Once people have a good experience of getting to ExCeL – and God knows we’ve had some moments dealing with logistics around west London – [convincing them] is going to be easier. And if they’ve got to sit on a tube for another 10 minutes, I don’t think that’s necessarily a deal-breaker.”

Griffiths says the venue is highly suitable, it’s based near a transport infrastrucure that was heavily improved in time for the Olympics, but – ultimately – the show’s future success will depend on “content”. And that segues suitably into a second criticism that surfaced at this year’s PLASA: the prevalence of lighting manufacturers, with an obvious decreased support from pro audio. It is content, appropriate for sound engineers and technicians, that will bring that sector back, says Griffiths.

“If we have to be honest and hold our hands up,” he reveals, “we have not looked after the pro-audio side of the market as well as we should have over the last few years, in terms of evolving where we, as an exhibition, are going.”

This would perhaps be, in part, why audio support has noticeably dwindled at PLASA, with exhibitors electing to invest their marketing euros elsewhere. But the move to ExCeL enables PLASA to address that issue.

“In the past, the audio manufacturers wanted to be among the lighting manufacturers so visitors can browse around a mixture of the two. It may be now that we need to have a [separate] pro-audio element. We have to speak to the exhibitors about it – but importantly we have that flexibility in the framework we have at ExCeL, without having to work around stone columns or weird-shaped holes!

“It lets people take a look at what they are doing, plus, it gives the audio industry something which they’ve been after for a long time, which are areas in which they can demo kit in proper surroundings.”

Griffiths remarks that he has received many encouraging reactions to the calendar shift from early September to early October. “Certainly from the audio and video side, people are very pleased it’s moved away from the IBC show.” When it comes to attracting technical teams from rental companies, he reckons it will be far easier to attract them when they are prepping gear for the start of the autumn touring season rather than when they are exhausted after the festival months, which has traditionally been the case with the September dates.

Finally, he hints once more that PLASA is actively seeking “other shows” to co-locate at ExCeL.

“There are other shows which are looking to target a very niche audience; we‘re saying, look, we’re here at ExCeL for this time zone, why don’t you come alongside us? That offers better value for the exhibitors.”

Griffiths couldn’t give any more details at press time but revealed he would expect PLASA to make an “announcement or two” about future exhibition partners “in the next six weeks”.