John Galloway on the BETT Show's growing global profile
BETT has a "richly deserved reputation as the global ‘must attend’ event for everyone interested in the crucial role of ICT in education", according to Debbie French, EMAP event director. But that may not be a cause for celebration for all those taking part.
"It is a far different show to what it used to be," says Ian Skeels, managing director of Stream2Schools, who recalls a time when it was dominated by visitors from UK schools. "When I first went to BETT in the early 1990s," he says, "it was much more for network managers and ICT co-ordinators."
With visitors from overseas making up 29 per cent of the total footfall at BETT 2011, British exhibitors are now starting to vie for space with those from abroad. Eleven companies under the umbrella of France Digital were back for their fourth year, as the exposure provided is far greater than the 3-4,000 attending their own, "Educatiste" event. Nearly 400 of their compatriots came as visitors too.
The Brazilian exhibitors were back as well, and not particularly concerned with talking to attendees from the UK. "We are mainly interested in sales to foreign visitors," admitted Giordano Cabral from Daccord Music, one of the five companies who had made the trip. "We are even selling to Brazilians."
As well as the returners, international debutants were in evidence, with eight companies from Singapore exhibiting. "The UK has one of the strongest creative industries in Europe," according to Thomas Lin, a senior director from their Media Development Authority. He says that participation offers "opportunities for collaboration", and an anonymous press officer described progress as "so far, so good".
Government agencies swelled the ranks
It was not only overseas commercial interests who were present. Government agencies swelled the ranks. Down the road at the Westminster Conference Centre, BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association) had managed to rescue the invite-only Education World Forum which had been threatened by the Coalition Government's execution of its ICT agency Becta.
A buoyant event despite Becta's absence, it attracted 50 ministers and representatives of some 70 foreign governments, most of whom would have moseyed over to Olympia to tour the BETT stands. This would have upped the foreign visitors statistics while creating a positive business opportunity for UK plc.
Of course it wasn't only BESA driving up numbers. Our own UK Trade and Investment was helping to export "knowledge and expertise throughout the world", and The Norwegian Centre for ICT in Education helped raised the Scandinavian profile. This is an organisation with a threefold remit to support schools through: the development of infrastructure; research and dissemination into effective practice; and to provide a respository for digital learning resources. It was perhaps ironic that its stand was very close to the space previously occupied by the aforementioned domestic agency with a similar remit. They were at BETT, said Susan Koch, to meet their own teachers. "There were 1,000 Norwegians here," she explained. "At a conference in Norway we only had 400."
'This is the best ICT event in Sweden'
Their neighbours from the Baltic were even more in evidence, with more than 2,000 Swedes turning up, rumoured to have arrived on specially chartered planes, and attending seminars in venues across the capital, including Apple's exclusive three-day event in a Mayfair hotel. As Lennart Ulin, of Stockholm-based Frolunda Data (developers of Lexion) joked, "This is the best ICT event in Sweden."
Which underlines the problem for exhibitors such as Ian Skeels. "The complexion of the show is changing," he points out. "The industry has to be aware of it and make a decision about whether they want to be there." Although he acknowledges that, regardless of the outcomes, many companies feel it is necessary to attend the show if only "to have a presence".
"It is no longer the British Education Technology and Training Show [the original title of this now redundant acronym]," agrees Amanda Peck of Dynavox Mayer-Johnson, "but a European one." She believes that it is "transitioning between one thing and something else - a UK-focused education trade show into an international one". A shift that will change her strategy for the show. "Next year I will go and represent Dynavox Mayer-Johnson Europe, not just UK. I will invite partners from Europe to attend and capture more information." There may be plenty to capture, too, as Amanda estimates that more than 70 per cent of software demonstrations on the Wednesday were to overseas visitors.
It was a similar story for another special needs company, Widgit, although it provided an added opportunity to show off its software in the different languages available. Widgit's Simon Thompson acknowledges one drawback: "We had no one on the stand who could converse if the visitors' English was not good." Although he found they could fall back on their software and use symbols to get their message across. "It worked well," he says.
International market could help make up UK shortfall
Simon also acknowledges that the increasingly international dimension of the show may provide some respite in these difficult times. "There is a shortfall in the UK, so the international market will help make it up."
"Some people can connect to the international market," believes Ian Skeels, "But it is not for all exhibitors." While he welcomes the opportunities that are opening up for others, it is, for him, "very difficult, with my product set, to get into those markets".
Ray Barker of BESA acknowledges the shift, and wonders whether a "tipping point has happened" which means that BETT is now a truly international exhibition. A situation which, Ian Skeels thinks, "Is good for BETT. Good for EMAP. But is it good for the smaller UK exhibitor? Perhaps not."
One thing, however, is certain, BETT Week has made London a truly international destination. This year it started on a Sunday with the dynamic and instantly popular Learning Without Frontiers three-day event, at the Barbican before moving on through the Education World Forum event in Westminster to BETT 2001. It's a pity that Apple's Cupertino influence could not have been more collegiate and sharing so it could dovetail its event into a BETT Week that holds something for everyone.
John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.