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INDUSTRY VIEWwww.exhibitionnews.co.uk 35ATTENDANCE AUDITING: WASTE OF MONEY OR A NECESSARY TASK?The AEO's Austen Hawkins analyses the attitude towards auditing across the exhibition industry and why we need to move forward, not backwards, on reporting accurate visitor dataisitor attendance auditing is one of those funny subjects that, if we are honest, is an intensely boring one. Yet when this thorny issue is aired, it seems to stir the passions of anyone who joins the debate. Fill a room with 10 industry people no matter what they do or what sector they work in, light the blue 'audit' touch paper and stand well back because polar opposite views will soon explode onto the debating table.I suppose I should declare my hand right from the outset as it was I who re-launched and 'sold' ABC exhibition auditing into the industry 10 years ago. The scheme, which remains largely the same today, had a modicum of success with most of the large- and medium-sized organisers taking up the auditing mantle.This success was in no small part buoyed by the fact that the AEO, as a condition of membership, required all UK-based shows over 2,000sqm net stand space to undertake an audit. Contrary to popular belief, this AEO requirement remains in force today. But times have changed and with the onset of the deepest recession in living memory, many questioned the validity of being forced to undertake a costly visitor audit when, as far as they could see, it had no sales or marketing uplift. Many an organiser will say an exhibitor has never asked if their show is audited; in fact they go further and claim no exhibitor has ever heard of the ABC or the existence of attendance auditing. As a result, exhibitors are never going use the data as part of their buying decision. All of which I accept is absolutely true. So how on earth could I or anyone else for that matter think auditing is good idea? LITTLE WHITE LIESTen years ago when I was 'selling' the ABC's audit scheme, I would go to meeting after meeting with exhibition event directors who would gleefully and the vast majority of creditable organisers are transparent on their actual visitor numbers.MORE, NOT LESSIf we as an industry want to truly gain market share then ultimately we will have to provide more, not less data. The FaceTime media project is looking to provide brands with data on a range of shows that will allow the brand to properly analyse customer reach and allow those customers to book a series of shows in one go. This mirrors the highly successful formulas of other media. FaceTime's media project is at the start of a long journey where ultimately it will, hopefully, become a powerful sales tool/agency driving business and profi ts to all sides of the industry. But for this to be achieved it has to be underscored with powerfully accurate data.Attendances are reducing - this is a fact - but compared to the loss of audiences in other media we are not fairing too badly. We have to continually prove our case. To go back to the bad old days where visitor attendance data was produced by Pinocchio would be a complete disaster. The industry has come so far; let's not throw it all away.The AEO has recognised the need for a more cost-effective attendance verifi cation scheme and has produced the AVS Scheme. This costs £200 per show. Surely this level of investment is an absolute no-brainer for the sake of the credibility of the industry. - Austen Hawkins is the chief executive of the Association of Event Organisers (AEO). Editor's note: EN and a panel of industry luminaries will be debating the issue of falling visitor numbers at our fi rst EN Race Day. The event, supported by the AEO, will be held on 14 September at Sandown Park. To register for this exciting day, visit our website: www.exhibitionnews.co.ukVMany an organiser will say an exhibitor has never asked if their show is auditedtell me that they couldn't possibly audit because they had been lying about their attendance for such a long time. If they went back to the market and told the truth, they would be lynched.Many (most) organisers at that time regularly added 3 to 5 per cent to their attendance every year no matter if the real fi gures were up or down. After years of this 'creative' counting visitor attendance claims were becoming ludicrous. The result was exhibitors regarded the whole exhibition industry as a bunch of barrow boys trying their luck. EXHIBITOR FEEDBACKAt the time, the AEO conducted a series of workshops to research what exhibitor customers thought of the exhibition industry. During these meetings, exhibitors openly mocked the industry for the big fat whoopers they were continually being told on visitor numbers. They challenged the exhibition industry: If it wanted to be regarded as a creditable media and command a greater share of their marketing budgets, then it had to clean up its act. Another major diffi culty at this time was that longstanding and established successful shows suddenly found themselves competing against something launched by any old Tom, Dick or Harry who would make up extraordinary visitor numbers. This left the truthful organiser in a terrible dilemma. If they accused the other boys of lying it looked like sour grapes; if they did nothing they lost the sales battle; and if they lied too they would damage their hard-earned reputation.It was off the back of these market conditions that auditing started to gain prominence with established organisers needing a tool to differentiate themselves. Ten years on I would never be naive enough to say that creative accounting doesn't still go on, but the culture of lies no longer exists at the damaging level of the past

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