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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen A civil engineering Mecca

In two weeks time we shall all know if Civils 98 - NCE at the NEC - has been a hit. Will it be the start of something significant in the world's civil engineering calendar?

We all have our own criteria for judging conferences and exhibitions. When you've been to a good show, you know it; and a successful event goes on to breed further success.

The 80 seminars in four parallel sessions at Civils 98 look promising and will ensure that everyone can pick up something new and useful. With luck every visitor will meet old friends and have time to gossip. Fellowship is part of the recipe.

UK civil engineering owes itself a really effective international platform. Backed by the world's oldest learned body, the event could become a Mecca rivalling, for instance, the Society of Petroleum Engineers' Offshore Technology Conference, which is taking place this week in Houston. That will attract 45,000 registrants from the world's oil industry, many of them staying for four days.

Attendance numbers ensure that OTC remains the industry's premier annual event. Every engineer in oil is ambitious to get a paper chosen for presentation and the proceedings are the industry record; that has been the case for 30 years now.

Radio-controlled model gliders are my hobby and they consume time, money and my wife's patience. Each April I make the pilgrimage to Dortmund for the modellers' show which covers cars, boats and railways, as well as aeroplanes. This year I spent three days wandering around just one of seven halls. I was one of 30,000 who went and it is like visiting Father Christmas' grotto.

I am not likely to enthuse like that about Civils 98, but for many ICE members civil engineering is a passionate hobby as well as a profession. New techniques, equipment, materials and exciting ideas inspire thrills, and an essential part of the experience is to mingle with people of like minds.

The British have never succumbed to 'exhibition fever' in the same way as Americans or Germans. The prime reason is that Britain is geographically different and much smaller.

Many firms have regional branches, when they want to get the managers together, it is likely to be in London. When the Civils set up a committee, the odds are that it will meet at Great George Street. Our national transport system is geared to visiting the capital.

In the US or Germany, you can choose any of a dozen cities with all the necessary facilities. Crucially the distances travelled are expensive and time-consuming, so companies organise their get-together to coincide with the trade exhibitions. They hire hotels, run in-house sessions, visit the fair and entertain customers into the small hours. For all the extravagance, such shindigs are cost effective.

CEBIT is the world's biggest information technology exhibition and was held last month in Hanover. More than 7000 exhibitors filled the equivalent of 90 football pitches, attracting 600,000 visitors. A visiting friend found it exhausting and mind-boggling, but he couldn't afford not to be there. 'Keeping close to the leading edge is vital,' he says.

Deutsche Telekom had a stand of 8,000 square metres at the show, staffed by 600 people for the week with an office suite for each director of the management board. They had their own kitchens, and dining rooms were active in the middle of the night.

Somewhat OTT you might think, but others say they like to meet the potential customer, they want to shake his hand and look into his eyes to see if they can trust him. Professor Klaus Goehrmann, chairman of Deutsche Messe, which runs CEBIT, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: 'People think that exhibitions are about emotions. But they are very efficient. You are forced to negotiate fiercely because you don't have much time'.

Civils 98 is already twice the size expected when the event was announced at the beginning of last year. Success now depends on visitor support, on everyone encouraging everybody else to go in numbers.

Companies should set objectives for those going and target what is to be achieved. That way everyone - speakers, exhibitors, organisers and delegates - will enjoy a win-win formula.

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