PCS Expo switches emphasis to agency

Copyright: David Lawson

Published in Property Week September 2008

In hindsight, 1986 was a dark year for technology. Chernobyl melted down and the Challenger shuttle exploded, shattering confidence in a new age driven by sophisticated electronics. But while dreams of cheap power and holidays on the Moon evaporated, less momentous events heralded a quiet revolution which was to have far more impact on everyday life.

   Alan Sugar’s Amstrad bought out small computer pioneer Clive Sinclair that year, accelerating moves to cheap PCs. While names like IBM and Wang had already launched business models, they were still rare and expensive. But seeds were being sown for mammoth changes. In the same year half a dozen desks were set up in a London hotel to promote software for property professionals. Within a decade this transformed into an annual orgy of new technology. The Property Computer Show – more recently called PCS Expo – became a symbol of the way the industry adopted new ways of working, eventually attracting more than 100 suppliers and thousands of visitors in the last few years.

  But a new chapter will open next month, again reflecting fundamental industry changes.  Big commercial property names have been pushed to the sidelines as the focus shifts to mainly residential high street firms. The name has switched to Agency Expo to mark the change.  Henri Cash, head of organiser VCM, dismissed any suggestion of a fallout with big names that dominate the commercial sector. ‘We have been talking to each other for a couple of years and decided on the change because the market has moved on,’ he said.

  Commercial property software has gone through a series of revolutions since those first few desks were set up 22 years ago, moving from backroom mainframes to PCs, from DOS to Windows and recently to handsets and online services. The annual gathering helped users keep up with those changes.  Focus shifted to chief executives and department heads a few years ago as software was increasingly recognized as a business tool. That led to the first name change, to PCS Expo, and a wider range of conference and seminars topics.

  Now the whole picture has altered.  Commercial management and valuation software is more settled and changes tend to be subtle and incremental. High street agents are now being engulfed by new demands and Cash says they are a better focus for attention.Many high street firms slow to appreciate the speed of technical change are running to catch up with issues such as online services, mapping and letting software. HIPs are a universal challenge and a complete day is being given to explaining them.

   Heavyweight speakers this year will also reflect the shift in emphasis, including housing minister Iain Wright, government adviser Sir Bryan Carlsberg and Estate Agents Ombudsman Christopher Hamer.  More than 40 workshops and seminars are geared to advising small firms how to combat recession. Subjects will include franchising, finance, portfolio management, staff motivation and agency mergers.

Agency Expo will run on 14th  and 15th October at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London N1.  Full programme at www.agencyexpo.co.uk

Big commercial property software suppliers are relatively laid back about the change of direction at Agency Expo. Many say they were already developing more direct contacts with customers or shifting emphasis to business shows. 

   Yardi, which won a Digie, the top award for technology innovation, at this year’s Realcomm in the US, will be at Agency Expo because the international giant is bidding to move into the UK residential market.  Qube, a hardy perennial exhibitor, will not. The firm will launch its own event called Open Doors in November to talk directly with potential customers.

   Aperio director Angus MacFadyen says he was never keen on ‘computer’ events anyway. ‘Our buyers are not IT guys but property professionals so our hunting grounds are forums such as PISCES, ExpoReal and Realcomm.  In view of the shift towards residential, it doesn't make sense for us to exhibit.  Our discussions with prospective clients tend to be concerned with addressing needs brought about by structural changes in the commercial property industry rather than led by changes in technology.’

   Raindrop MD Steve Vatidis, another long-term fixture promoting Manhattan management software, is more critical of the changes.  ‘The commercial property downturn started ahead of the credit crunch and it may have appeared that concentrating on residential would attract more interest. But the residential market has since gone into serious reversal, whereas commercial property investors seem to be weathering the storm much better. We are certainly making a much greater investment in software than suppliers in the residential sector.’

   Raindrop will reallocate its budget to other events and other kinds of marketing. ‘The change of focus has strengthened overseas events such as MIPIM and ExpoReal and left a gap in the UK likely to be filled by events such as property forums,’ he says.  ‘More clients are talking to us directly anyway about the new generation of property software products we have developed.’