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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

I have had occasion already to engage in on-line debate with James Lancaster, a member of the team at CAT publications and editor of their magazine, Association Meetings International. He’s relatively new to our industry but brings us a fresh perspective and some great writing. Last week James posted a blog entitled “Trade Shows: who is kidding whom?” Following James’ original piece in italics below is my response to his gratuitous,  ill-informed and disrespectful attack on the Meetings Industry:

Who is kidding whom? by James Lancaster
The high frequency of trade shows catering for the meetings industry is testament to the herd mentality of human beings and the largesse of the public sector, which, even in times of austerity, seems capable of justifying the frittering away of taxpayers’ money with cheerful abandon.

In Europe alone there are two major shows a year – IMEX and EIBTM – interspersed with numerous smaller events, such as London-based rivals Confex and The Meetings Show UK, which both attract international exhibitors. There are other shows stretching from Italy to the Baltic. Even Africa has two international events now – despite a tiny (3.1 per cent) slice of the global market.  

Of course there are large numbers of private exhibitors – the AV firms, the hotel chains, the technology start-ups  – but the stands dominating the floor belong to the national tourism agencies and the international convention centres (or amalgams of both) and are usually either fully financed or heavily subsidised by the public purse. Somebody else’s money in other words.

Of course ‘somebody else’s money’ is why so many exhibitors grumble about footfall, or the quality of the buyers, yet turn up year after year. When pressed they mumble something about ‘brand recognition’. In other words, ‘If our rivals are going to be there, we had better be too’. Tradeshows, then, exploit two of the most basic human frailties: insecurity and vanity!

Certainly the speed and significance of innovation in the meetings industry doesn’t warrant so many shows. Some of the venues on display are decades old and besides a lick of paint and perhaps a new lobby haven’t changed much. In aerospace, motoring or technology the unveiling of a new piece of kit can be a game-changer for the industry and for the public at large. Can the same be said of conference facilities or destinations? No. But so long as somebody else is paying we can pretend…

As editor of AMI magazine, I get a buyer’s eye perspective of trade shows from the association side of things and that can be even more perplexing. For one thing, it’s extraordinary how many familiar faces crop up from one show to the next; the same hosted buyers chauffeured from hotel to convention centre to evening reception and back again. It’s all a bit of jolly. And yet, once the peer-to-peer networking is done, most of them look forward to the exhibition itself like a trip to the dentist. 

Trade shows have a momentum of their own and it’s great to catch up with familiar faces, but time and time again I am left wondering: who is kidding whom?

Fritter away taxpayers’ money?

In this scathing and far reaching attack on MICE industry tradeshows one comment stands head and shoulders above the rest for its gratuitousness and untruthfulness: that public sector funded National Tourist Offices “fritter away tax payers’ money with cheerful abandon”. This is a cheap shot dressed up in highly charged and emotive language depicting NTOs as irresponsible spendthrifts who disburse their budgets with the same strategic purpose as drunk 15 year olds who have just won the lottery. It’s gratuitous in the extreme but begs the question as to whether these NTOs – presuming they even exist – might also waste tax payers money on expensive display advertisements in print magazines with similar gay abandon?

Lack of understanding

Besides its gratuitousness, the comment is also untrue and displays a lack of understanding as to how Destination Marketing Organisations are funded and, in turn, pay for trade-show participation. Some DMO’s are not public entities at all but funded entirely from subscriptions by the local hospitality community. As such they are commercial enterprises and answer directly to their members. Others are indeed publically funded but act as a consolidator for vendors / suppliers in their destinations charging each business a fee to participate on their tradeshow stand. In many cases the full cost of the stand is simply divided amongst the number of exhibitors and the entire exercise is self-liquidating. In other cases the DMO itself may contribute financially to the fund but rarely is the DMO both 100% publically funded and 100% funding tradeshow participation from its own resources. Some DMOs, indeed, receive complimentary or heavily discounted space at tradeshows under the Wildcard initiative of the trade show promoter or because it’s a new and emerging destination.

Biting the hand that feeds …

There are more vulgar aphorisms than “Don’t bite the hand that feeds” to illustrate the central problem with James’ blog post and to explain why it’s both demeaning and irritating. Inter alia he characterizes us as an insecure, vain and sheepish lot, adverse to innovation and stupidly willing to waste our own money – and that of other taxpayers – on jollies for free loading “hosted buyers”. That’s the demeaning part. What make its irritating in the extreme – and this illustrates the extent of his arrogance – is that James’ own commercial viability depends on his ability to convince us to part with our hard earned cash (and that of other taxpayers if we’re a public body) in exchange for publicity in his magazine. A full page display advertisement might play to our insecurity and vanity but how can you generate content and craft a good story within an industry where nothing ever happens other than the “odd lick of paint and a new lobby”?

I greatly welcome James’ questioning of our industry. Every industry needs a Prophet Amos lest we get fat on self-satisfaction and start to believe our own lies. If this happens within our industry we will drown, like Narcissus, in a stagnant pool of our own creation. However, journalistic license aside, in this piece James is downright disrespectful and, as such, on behalf of the Meetings and Events industry, I must call for an apology.

Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique marketing agency working for destinations and global enterprises in the meetings, incentives, conferences and events sectors.





7 thoughts on “Hey MeetPie – don’t bite the hand that feeds!

  1. Hans Henrik Friis says:

    Excellent piece Padraic. I do think James shows his lack of understanding of “our” industry, I am sure the venues, particularly the privately owned centres which are being painted with the same general brush, will take offense. Is his point not something entirely different the fact that there are too many shows and not who is paying for participating in shows…..


    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks hans – you’re right, of course. There are 2 mixed up points here – the number of tradeshows in the MICE space and the payment modalities for booth space. James has a point about the number of tradeshows (there are probably too many to guarantee consistent performance and ROI) but he’s off the mark entirely regarding the payment modalities. Overall, however, I really admire his audacity and his faux self-righteous stance!

  2. Dan Tavrytzky says:

    Cheers Padraic for being our industry voice…well done! Having been on all sides of the meetings industry (Hotel, CVB, DMC) you are spot on with your feedback!
    Take care,

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Dan – hope all is well there!

  3. James says:

    Lots of fair points eloquently made Padraic. However I was careful not to mention CVBs/DMOs in my blog, so you’re taking me to task on something I didn’t say. My aim was not to show ‘gratuitous disrespect to the meetings industry’, but to question the ‘high-frequency’ of trade shows supported by this industry and provoke a debate about how/why this is sustainable. I accept this meant playing the agent provocateur, but that’s how I earn a living.
    Cheers (and great blog you’ve got here)

    1. padraicino says:

      Hi James – really appreciate your engagement. Being an Agent Provocateur is like being a pioneer. You’ll always end up with arrows in your back. My comment regarding DMOs extends to many NTOs too (although I didn’t see the relevance of your international convention centre reference at all – to whom are you referring?). Most adopt a charge back system for stand participation so I’m using the DMO epithet for its widest application.
      Thanks too for the kind comments about the blog. It’s a labour of love from which, unlike you, I don’t earn a living!

  4. Miha Kovacic says:


    Excellent reaction to such a comment of our industry. You hit the point. Being exhibitor as a country but also as a private company for more than a decade and also tradeshow organiser I can not agree with his article. Also his reply is not appropriate. Each industry is evolving and also our does. It depends only from professionals in our industry where and how it will evolve. Meetings business is about communication. It is about building personal relationships and trust. Tradeshows are excellent opportunity and enable highest ROI if they are organised professionaly.



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