Hot Topic | New UK OP Event

Calls for a new single event for the UK OP industry have been met with an equal amount of welcome and suspicion. So why is it so divisive and will it happen?

When Spicers chief Alan Ball floated the idea of the return of a single OP industry event to the UK you might have thought this was a fairly benign idea.

Released through the medium of twitter, Ball challenged the industry to put its heads together and come up with an event in the belief that the timing and level of demand was right for a grandstanding two day show.

He said: “In these challenging times it is incumbent on the industry to join in unity to present the most cost-effective and efficient exhibition. I recognise that many wholesalers and buying groups rely on conferences and shows to stimulate interest and also funding, but in these difficult times all could be accommodated. Manufacturers are finding the market tough at the moment and the multiple payments are just not there anymore.”

Ball went on to say that he believed a single exhibition could work for all concerned with buying groups and wholesalers holding specific seminars for their members and partners alongside an exhibition at a single venue.

Following Ball’s tweet, OPI CEO Steve Hilleard contacted Ball and all key UK parties with the idea of convening a meeting to discuss the feasibility and issues of a single UK event for the benefit of all in the UK industry.

This had the desired effect of creating momentum behind the idea and put it firmly on the agenda. Subsequently, UK trade association BOSS Federation came to the table and it was discussed at the BOSS board meeting (including chair Alan Ball) on 19 September.

Following the board meeting, BOSS told OPI that a number of options were discussed, including a national conference linked to the annual BOSS Awards evening; a national conference linked to one of the current stationery events held in the UK (see Q&A with Chris Leonard-Morgan for a potential partner there) and a number of other additional ideas, such as widening the remit from B2B to B2C, retail and education in a national venue with breakout zones for market sectors and/or dealer groups.

An all-inclusive event would bring the big box players and retailers such as Rymans to the event and would certainly be something of a game-changer.

BOSS Chief Executive Michael Gardner told OPI: “At BOSS we are conscious that there are a number of parties and interests involved in this debate and that any national event would need the support of as many market sectors from the industry as possible.”

Over the next few months BOSS will hold a series of meetings with the dealer group heads, the BOSS manufacturers forum and current organisers of industry events.

Input will also be sought from wholeslaers, contract stationers and retailers with a view to gaining support for a possible event from 2015 onwards.

The project will be discussed further at the December BOSS board meeting.

Reacting to the news of BOSS’s interest in the event, OPI CEO Steve Hilleard said: “We’re delighted to see BOSS step up to the challenge of taking on this new event and have naturally assured them of our support and assistance where possible. As the UK trade association, BOSS is the natural home for an event of this kind and we hope and believe it has the potential, if executed correctly, to reenergise the UK market.”

Time will tell if the latest from BOSS will quell fears that many do have over the proposed new event. Perhaps seeking to circumvent any concerns over it being merely a Spicers-controlled event, Ball stressed from the outset that the event is not a Spicers initiative, but one to unite and showcase the industry as a whole.

Concerns

Nevertheless, it was easy to see what a potentially hot potato this idea could be when you started to get industry responses such as ‘I don’t think I’ll get involved in this debate’ and ‘I’d rather see how it pans out for now’

Consequently, there were a few negative off-the-record comments while others were more positive about the reasoning behind the call for a new UK event. One concerned dealer group member said: “I just think it’s Alan playing politics. It absolutely cannot be organised by one wholesaler alone but by an organisation like BOSS with support from the press and on totally neutral territory with dealer group meetings and the BOSS Awards put around it.”

Another dealer group representative echoed this saying: “Why have Spicers called for a new event when they host their own? I don’t know. And why do I want members talking to suppliers who don’t talk to us? I think suppliers would just like to circumvent dealer groups and it could be a vested interest exercise with wholesalers looking to set the agenda on an event.”

XPD’s David Langdown is another who is unsure about why Spicers called for the event.

“I think Alan (Ball) enjoys ruffling feathers and challenging the status quo. I’m not convinced he believes this is in everyone’s interest. I don’t think he has an anti-group agenda but maybe weakening them helps Spicers,” he said. “As to whether we need another industry exhibition, if that was the case there could be the option to broaden EFTOS (Everything for the Office Show)  or the Stationery Show, but EFTOS is very much a Spicers event and the Stationery Show has already moved away from broader office products in order to focus on more consumer stationery products.” 

Clearly there’s quite a split in dealer group opinion and it’s a view that some manufacturers are not surprised about either.

One prominent manufacturer accepted that some dealer groups would need considerable persuasion to support the event as they will see it as a threat to their independence. 

Langdown adds: “Group conferences are about getting closer together, in an exclusive environment, with an extended period of time that allows members to really engage with the culture, understand the strategy, absorb the messages and engage with new initiatives. Will they effectively do that in an industry-wide event?

“The UK office products market benefits from the fact that there are many diverse dealer groups. Our search for differentiation and innovation for our members is a key reason that the independent dealer channel has been as resilient as it has. Conferences are a big part of this and I would not want to see a homogenised, one-size-fits-all approach that suggests that we are all the same.”

As said previously, it’s clear that Ball foresaw this response thus deciding to stress it would not be a Spicers initiative but clearly there are still concerns certainly among dealer groups although not all as Chris Collinson from Superstat demonstrates.

The Superstat chief says: “I’m not sure what people’s concerns are. We have our own concerns that we will need to overcome, the fact that we have a contract with our venue for next year being one of many. We spend months planning our conference and do it to build great relationships with vendors and dealers and make a significant loss on the whole event – the majority of this loss is down to subsidising dealer attendances at a four-day event. Putting selfish reasons to one side, our main concern is that the organisation of such an industry event should be done by the BOSS Federation and all proceeds should be given to the BOSS Federation for the benefit of all.”

For others in the industry a new event would be the perfect way to energise the participants in an embattled market and draw fresh impetus. But, as Luke Chapman from The Business Performance Group points out, it will need buy-in from manufacturers and dealer groups for the initiative to succeed.

Chapman says: “The risk is if the manufacturers and dealer groups don’t fully support it. This will reduce the impact and the footfall of dealers and kill the idea pretty quickly. That would be a shame because I think the event would hopefully be a way for suppliers to have a more focussed event, save many days and weekends away from the business and home and ultimately reduce their overheads. If it can be managed properly (like the Trimega/IS event in the US) then it would have the ability for the groups to have a unique flavour to it, ring fenced break-out sessions and also elements of unique content.”

At this stage, manufacturer buy-in for the event looks pretty good with a quick poll of views from manufacturers showing broad support with clear ideas on what it should achieve (see box “The vendors’ view”).

Certainly for many in the UK industry the positives for vendors are pretty clear not least because of the time and cost savings they would make.

Collinson explains: “The biggest complaint I have heard is more about time than money. Many vendor executives have to give up seven, eight or nine weekends a year to cover the various exhibitions on the circuit. The down side for Superstat would be the less intimate and relevant offerings, but I personally think that we can work around this to make a single event work. Timing is critical as our next event is already booked (July 2014) with a huge cancellation fee so next year’s event will happen regardless of an industry wide event.”

Several major manufacturers have already concurred that justifying the investment in many of the smaller events they are invited to throughout the year is becoming tougher and as a result both exhibitor impact and the visitor experience has become watered down. 

 Clearing there’s a way to go in terms of sealing a deal for a single new UK event but at this stage it seems the spirit is certainly willing. So it’s a case of watch this space and keep your eyes on opi.net and OPI’ social media presence for updates on this major ongoing story in the UK market.  

Chris Leonard-Morgan, organiser, London Stationery Show

OPI: What do you think are the pros and cons of having a new UK event?

CLM: A single all-singing, all-dancing OP event would be good news for both dealers and suppliers as it would save them time and money IF there were no longer wholesaler and dealer group exhibitions.
 But based on our experience, that is the only way it would work.

 OPI: Why do you think Spicers in particular called for this?

CLM: Running exhibitions is incredibly time consuming and not as easy as some people like to think. It also carries risk. I would completely understand if Spicers wanted to allocate that time to their core business. The initiative for an inclusive event is a bold one, and would be good for today’s OP community.

OPI: What’s your view on the idea your own Stationery Show at the Business Design Centre could be effectively converted as a single UK OP event?

CLM: The London Stationery Show is not an OP show and makes no pretence to be, although many of its products are sold by the dealers and dealer groups who visit and could be sold by many more. It is a largely retail event. 

OPI: Can you tell me a bit more about your show and its success and if maybe you would you see a new UK event as in anyway competitive?

CLM: The Stationery Show is successful because of its focus on stationery, writing instruments and cost effectiveness. The buyers love it. Almost all the leading independent and multiple retailers visit it, from every walk of life, and even more so now that there is National Stationery Week. However, it does a completely different job to any other exhibition, and the new event being proposed wouldn’t change any of that.

 OPI: Do you understand the concerns that have been raised about a new UK event?

CLM: I don’t see why anyone should have any concerns if all the dealer groups and two major wholesalers come in, and discontinue their own exhibitions. It’s a big ask but if it happened… result.