Another year another Wigan Business Expo, the ninth in fact, and we’ve been delighted to exhibit at each and every one of them. It started at the DW Stadium, followed by an ill-judged year at Leigh Sports Village, before returning to the DW for a few years before eventually outgrowing it and moving across the road to the Robin Sports Centre. It’s now moved on again to Wigan’s newest venue ‘The Edge’ which is owned by The Community Church and undoubtedly provided the best venue to date by far.

This is partially due I think to it simply being new, as everything’s got that 'minty fresh' feel, but mostly it’s the building’s design which outperforms the previous Sports Hall in almost every way. The car park’s are large, adjacent and dedicated whereas there was never enough available spaces at Robin Park as they serviced several venues; the imposing glazed entrance is three or four storeys tall, light and airy with a huge open atrium that leads to the main hall and all the additional meeting rooms, unlike Robin Park where the entrance was mixed use and was, therefore, slightly confusing with a long and gloomy corridor leading to the sports hall which housed the event; the main auditorium at The Edge is an excellent space, one we used for the Beyond Wigan Pier musical, and provides a much better balance of space for the stands which often seemed lost in the much larger sports hall - certainly in the first year when the layout was completely wrong and it felt very empty creating an underwhelming atmosphere. In contrast to this year, which had a busy feel creating a good ‘vibe’ but with plenty of space to get around; on the opposite side of the entrance atrium lies all the other meeting rooms, cafe and utilities again all much closer, easier to get to and generally a much better layout than the Sports Centre.

The largest of these ancillary rooms lies at the end of a wide, open corridor, and is itself a pretty good-sized auditorium. This housed various break out events and seminars during the day and the kick-off session commencing as usual with Councillor David Molyneux, now Council Leader, with his customary and natural pro-Wigan bias and gently humourous delivery. The next two speakers focused on transport and infrastructure the first being a lady from HS2 who provided a fairly lightweight overview of what’s coming and the implications and opportunities for the town. The next, was an overly long talk about work in progress and the plans for improving transport links on rail and road, from new road builds, bus lanes, trams and trains. These are all desperately needed of course but sometimes hard to take seriously especially with the ongoing trial of simply trying to get to and from Manchester on a train, which currently takes nearly two hours at the weekend because of bus replacements or doesn’t happen at all because of strikes. It’s great to see inward investment and the potential resolution this brings, but maybe we could start by getting the timetables right and putting a few more carriages on the existing trains so you don’t have to be packed in like a sardines in a tin and stand with your head under someone’s armpit 

The last talk came from a slightly quirky Steve Connor, CEO of Manchester agency Creative Concern, who are currently working on a strategy for the town’s vision. This too is desperately needed if Wigan is to harness the opportunities that HS2 promises. Wigan has a strong identity, but this is often more about its heritage than its future, if Wigan wants to attract and retain the talent that might choose to live here, instead of the arguably more attractive propositions of say Didsbury or Altrincham, and to take advantage of the new connectivity, it needs to provide a really compelling proposition. This could of course emphasise connectivity but you don’t want to over egg this and make the town purely about commuting - we want people to come and work here too. There are clear advantages especially in terms of accommodation costs but people naturally want to live in vibrant communities, where there’s cultural and recreational draws, interesting things to do, nice places to go. The town already does have plenty to offer, such as a surprisingly large amount of green spaces for example, but equally some big issues to address although plans are afoot to tackle some of these and it will be interesting to see how the Wigan Pier Quarter and the town centre’s Galleries shopping centre specifically are redeveloped. It will be interesting too, to see what Creative Concern come up with once they’ve finished their consultative and research based phase.

Throughout the day, this room was used for various presentations and discussions on subjects including employment, collaboration, digital marketing and start ups. Of these, I attended the Digital Marketing session presented by Mike Pye of Mike Pye Marketing and copywriter Helen Dibble of Incredible Marketing although it seems she also works within Mike Pye Marketing. They presented some common sense marketing advice such as understanding your audience and the channels they use before you start to market to them, before moving onto content creation with specific focus on copywriting styles and techniques. They focused primarily on using email and social media marketing channels, given the potential reach of and low costs of using them, with some good tips and advice. They did, however, ignore the implications of GDPR in respect of using emails to generate leads - you can’t send unsolicited emails anymore. Using social media has great potential, but there is a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum about reaching an audience when you haven’t got an audience.

In review, the presentation content itself was all solid enough, but the style and quality of it disappointing given that they are marketers themselves. This wasn’t helped by the slightly awkward handovers between them as they took turns to stand to one side to let the other talk about a slide before reverting - it might have worked better if they’d split things between them and swapped half way through? The slide deck itself was a fairly uninspiring series of statements and bullet points using rather unimaginative stock images in a standard half image half text format - no transitions, no animation, no colour, no style. I don’t think creativity was their strong point though as they recommended template based solutions such as Canva as tools for creative. What the presentation really lacked though was some strong case studies or examples to illustrate their advice, this would have enlivened the talk and provided some evidence to the audience of what good marketing looks like.

Before summarising this years’ Expo, I have to get a four gripes of my chest - it’s cathartic!

The first dates back to well before the event and the invite to take some exhibition space. We duly logged onto the site to book a stand to find well over half of them already taken. As mentioned, we’ve taken space at every expo and often taken several stands [8 in one year], so we’ve comfortably been the biggest customer. Now I don’t want or expect any special priority or anything like that, but equally I don’t understand how so many other businesses seem to get first pick? First come first served is fine, but clearly there’s some queue jumping going on.

My second grumble, which unfortunately happens every year, is those cheeky and cheap so-and-sos who come over to talk to you but then start to pitch their businesses to you. We paid to be there both by buying the space and in producing the stand, you just walked in - BUY A STAND you cheapskates!

Point three - a small one, but the brews are too dear. It’s only self-serve hot water and coffee from flasks. This should either be free or much cheaper, or get someone in to make proper coffee and then charge £1.90 for it.

My final and main issue is that this is WIGAN expo, for WIGAN businesses, ran by WIGAN Council, so why on earth is a Manchester based agency being brought in to deliver the digital marketing seminar? I might understand this if the agency was some mind-blowingly brilliant award-winning industry-leading exemplar or guru like Simon Sinek, but honestly these guys were bang average and of course they did use the opportunity to punt their services - as per point above, I didn’t notice their stand. As well as ourselves, local agencies Attain and Reflex Creative were paying exhibitors at the event, and I venture to suggest any one of us would’ve done a better job.

With my little rant over, and yes, I do feel better for it, I’d like to summarise by saying that this year’s Expo was the best so far. I think the venue is really excellent, the layout and all the logistics work really well from the parking to the entrance, and from the main auditorium to the break out rooms. The exhibition area was well laid out, the car dealership area and the cars on display added something - made it feel like a bigger event. There was a good number of stands, enough space for walkways but not too spaced out creating a really good feel, and there’s a bit of room for expansion in the future. There’s always a good atmosphere among the exhibitors too, many of us know each other both because we’ve worked together but also because we’re are at the Expo every year so it’s great chance for a chat and catch up with old friends.