What it takes to organise the NEC Show

Published: 11 November 2001

The International Motorcycle show hasn’t always been such a massive event. And it hasn’t always been at the NEC. Back in 1931, when the first show was staged, it was held at London’s Olympia and attracted only 84,000 visitors – less than half the number that can be expected today.

Since then, it’s moved to London’s Earls Court, before finally settling at one of the most prestigious venues in the country in Birmingham. And in the process, it’s evolved into the biggest event in the British motorcycling calendar, attracting up to 200,000 visitors and hundred’s of exhibitors from around the world. It represents 10 days each year when virtually everybody who’s passionate about bikes in the UK, from scooter riding teenagers to ageing BSA Gold Star owners, gets together in one place to see almost every motorcycle product available in the country.

Organising something like that is the logistical equivalent of juggling chainsaws. We met the man who does it – show director Finley McAllen, of the Motor Cycle Industry Association – to find out what it’s taken to turn the show into what it is today – and what we can expect from it in the future.

MCN: What does your role involve?

McAllen: As the exhibition organiser, I’m responsible for pulling together the plans and organising the PR and advertising campaigns which go around the show.

MCN: Do you ride a bike?

McAllen: I do but I don’t own one. I ride one if there’s one available from our fleet.

MCN: How has the show changed since it first came to the NEC in 1981?

McAllen: When the show moved to the NEC, everybody said it was a big white elephant ever and wouldn’t be success. It was regarded as being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nothing around for miles. Now it could be more accessible by airport, rail or the M6 – although that’s not perhaps the best example.

MCN: How much money is involved in organising it today?

McAllen: Well, The turnover of the Motorcycle Industry Exhibitions company is £5 million.

MCN: How much manpower does it take to organise?

McAllen: MCI Exhibitions is made up of a team of five. Basically, we right off our free time for months before the show starts. In terms of everybody involved, it takes millions of man-hours to organise. It’s the exhibitors who bring it to life and you only have to look at their stands to see how much effort is involved. There are literally hundreds of bikes out there.

MCN: How far in advance do you start planning each show?

McAllen: I’ve already started drawing up next year’s floor plan. It takes all year.

MCN: How does it feel when it all comes together?

McAllen: Organising it is the strangest feel in the world. At 10pm on the night before the show starts, there’s rubbish everywhere. I look around and think " that show’s not going to be ready in the morning. " But by 7am, everything’s cleaned and polished and ready.

MCN: Has anything ever stopped the show happening?

McAllen: In 1990 it was cancelled due to snow. It was so bad that Birmingham came to a standstill. There were people stuck in the halls, having to sleep there, and all sorts. It was before the days of computers, so I’d hand written a record for every advance ticket that had been sold. I had to go through each one and send out refunds. There were tens of thousands of them.

We’ve had situations where the NEC has said we’ve reached capacity in the halls. That’s why we extended it to 10 days so that it includes two weekends. We’ve also widened the walkways.

MCN: What’s the record attendance figure?

McAllen: It was 201,602 in 1998.

MCN: Do you expect to beat that this year?

McAllen: I’m aiming to, yes. When we achieved that record attendance, advance ticket sales were 84,000. This year we’ve sold 93,000 advance tickets. But in the current climate, taking into account September 11, if we maintain last year’s attendance figure of 191,000, I would consider that an achievement. The success of the show shouldn’t just be judged on a number. What we’re trying to do is create quality platform for the exhibitors for them to present themselves to a good-quality of visitor.

MCN: What can we expect to see from the show in years to come?

McAllen: We want to make it not so much a show as an interactive experience We want more atmosphere, more entertainment, more things to do and more things to see. The show presents everything that’s good about motorcycling. We want it to be not just an exhibition, but an experience. Five years ago it was all just bolted down and stationary. There wasn’t really much to do except stand and look. What we’re trying to do now is introduce a variety of things other than motorcycles on stands that people can actually do. We want to build on the entertainment and make it even more of a day out. We want more audience interaction.

MCN: Can you be more specific?

McAllen: As far as changes to the show are concerned, we cut our cloth to suit, and as the market changes the show will change. I come in every year, thinking everything is right. But even by day one, I’m making notes about what could be better and how it could be improved. That’s how the show evolves. We have to evolve with it and we’re very keen to hear what everybody thinks. A visitor might come into the organisers office and say: " Have you ever though about doing this? " Where possible, we put the suggestions made into practice.

Take last year. We ran the supercross feature for the first time and it was extremely exciting, but we found the real wow factor for most visitors was the bit at the end where they do the freestyle jumps. You could hear people drawing their breath as they took off. So we sat down with Planet Promotions and decided to concentrate just on the freestyle jumps.

Just in terms of IT, I think we’ll see more interaction. We’ve already got the THQ interactive area. What we want to do is build on that. But not aiming at just one thing. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see supermoto.

MCN: Can we ever expect the NEC show to happen earlier in the year, so that it becomes a premier international show like Munich or Milan?

McAllen: We’d then be going head-to-head with them, which I don’t think would be healthy for anyone.

MCN: The Paris and Milan shows are within a month of each other in September. Why should we have to wait so much longer to see all the new bikes?

McAllen: There are other things to consider as well. We’re signed into a contract with the NEC. We can’t change just like that. We have tenancy agreements and rolling contracts. We also have to think about when new products will become available. The show is a launch pad. We may not get the kind of world launches which some people would like to see, but it’s not just about motorcycles. There are other products and accessories that are launched at this show. And consumers will see world bikes launches wherever they are by reading the motorcycles press. What this show gives them is an opportunity to see them in the metal.

MCN: What do you think the NEC show has that other shows don’t?

McAllen: It’s got everything. It’s got something for everyone. It’s the one place where you might find a vicar talking to a mechanic a bout how great a bike is. And as always, it’s the first place people can see each year’s new bikes.