The International Maritime Purchasing Association (IMPA) doubled attendance at its annual flagship event this year after changing venues to The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – the first time in 16 years. Moving an event with a successful history is a challenge and not one to be taken lightly by any association.
The IMPA represents the interests of the purchasing profession within shipping, promoting close cooperation between buyers and suppliers. The association was established in 1978 and its annual flagship conference and exhibition, IMPA London, is the leading event of its kind in the world, attracting visitors from all four continents.
Will Bixby is event manager and commercial director of Alexony Maritime Ltd – the company that organised the event on behalf of the IMPA. He explains: "After 16 years, we had outgrown the Kensington Town Hall and had a waiting list of companies, but didn’t have the space to accommodate them.
"Moving venue was such a nerve-wracking prospect that it took the IMPA council a few years to warm to the idea; the event was so successful, they simply didn’t want to risk ruining a successful formula."
The first challenge was to find the perfect venue – but not one too big. "We didn’t want a big barn of a venue," continues Bixby. "We needed a venue that would adequately serve our current requirements, but would grow with us over the next five years. We certainly didn’t want to move again."
The IMPA’s objectives included having enough exhibition floor space to take all exhibitors on one level (previously, they were split up) and to have the space and facilities to grow the conference.
"There were not many London venues that fitted our brief so The QEIICC was the logical choice: It has the space but isn’t a cavernous shell. It’s a business-focused venue and the Westminster location was a huge draw too," adds Bixby.
Getting read ahead of schedule
The next step was to ensure the new exhibition floor plan was ready for the 2011 event so the move could be communicated to exhibitors. Bixby explains: "The exhibition space was doubled and included lots of small ‘entry level’ stands.
"We had chosen a prestigious venue so we had to pass the extra cost onto our exhibitors. But the entry level stands were priced at only a few hundred pounds more, and exhibitors knew that the expected increase in visitors would more than compensate the small rise."
The IMPA team created a sales video and also gathered accommodation and travel information for exhibitors to make the transition as easy as possible. Bixby continues: "We ensured all staff had visited The QEIICC so that they could answer any queries and enthuse about our new venue."
The hard work and planning paid off; 100 per cent of exhibitors signed up for the move to The QEIICC.
"It was astounding, and we were now in the enviable position of having a whole year to attract new exhibitors and to focus on the visitor marketing plan. We drew up a ‘hit list’ of companies that we wanted to exhibit because they would draw more visitors in. With these on board, the number of exhibitors almost doubled – from 75 stands to 138."
The conference was split into two different streams to serve the two very different sets of buyers the event attracts. "The choice of venue also helped us to attract better speakers, including a keynote from Michael Portillo. And where some companies may only have sent a junior person before, this year they sent the MD."
The event attracted nigh on double the number of visitors previously seen – from 750 in 2011 to 1,300, of which around 700 were brand new to the association.
The IMPA has contracted The QEIICC for five years and Bixby is keen to explore further growth, he says: "I would like to see IMPA London fill all floors of The QEIICC. We now have the opportunity to be the main event in the shipping industry calendar and to attract further events and companies to hold events with us. We have lots of ideas – watch this space!"