Window shopping

The worst thing about the British Educational Technology and Training Show is the name. It conjures up images of anoraks and those carefree days before high tech hijacked every aspect of education. In the spirit of the miniaturisation which has characterised the industry, the name of the show has been abbreviated to BETT, with the last two digits of the year apostrophed on.

But even as the name shrunk, BETT has grown and grown. It now entices about 15,000 visitors - mostly teachers - who risk the January weather and the London Underground to make their annual pilgrimage to Olympia.

In exchange for their free entry tickets, visitors have to fill in lengthy questionnaires. After the show, thousands are asked what they thought of it. Their responses are turned into statistics which are mulled over by members of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), who make up most of the exhibitors.

They will be perturbed by this year's small drop in attendance. Arctic conditions? The flu epidemic? Problems in financing supply cover? Or - horror of horrors - the IT bubble is beginning to burst? They will be comforted to discover that 90 per cent of those questioned were satisfied or very satisfied by their visit and that 24 per cent found it was better than they expected. But 11 per cent were disappointed and 1 per cent have no intention of ever making the trip again. But, perhaps, they are among the 18 per cent who surf along to BETT's web site and find it a more amenable place to visit than dear old Olympia with its old and dear coffee.

Visitors recognise that the exhibitors treat them with a respect that verges on reverence. Be they ordinary teachers (31 per cent), IT co-ordinators (15 per cent) or headteachers and deputies (9 per cent), it is these visitors who will have the major say on how their schools spend the IT allocation. Although only 10 per cent place an order, nearly 80 per cent come "with a view to buying in future". Over half of the visitors discover a new source of supply as a result.

It is not surprising, then, that the 350 or so suppliers pull out all the stops for the four days of the show. It is a mammoth undertaking and a major investment: renting floor space (at #163;238 per square metre), building a stand, staffing it; transport, hotel accommodation, flyers, carrier bags, insurance, Paracetamol and so on.

Phil Hemmings, head of corporate communications at RM, says that the company's commitment to BETT - it involves more than 100 employees - costs "a six-figure sum". Is it worth it? "We're glad we've only got to do it once a year, but it is a great shop window," he says. And the bottom line? This year RM has picked up sales leads which are likely to result in #163;14 million of new business.

It isn't only the giants who benefit from BETT. SoftEase, for example, is a small company with only one product to sell - the award-winning TextEase word processor. But director Danny Young says: "Although we don't take much money during the four days, being there drives our sales throughout the year. It might be 10 or 11 months later before people make their orders but they tell us they found out about TextEase at the show."

Exhibitors know that, if they are to succeed at BETT, they must sell more than their products. They must sell the idea that IT has a crucial role to play in the classroom. They have to demonstrate that a product isn't only technically sound, but that it will improve the quality of children's learning. BESA runs workshops to help its members to develop the right approach. It seems to be paying off: more than 80 per cent of visitors described the presentations as good or very good.

A visit to BETT is, in effect, a long (and singularly exhausting) in-service training session. As well as the efforts made by the suppliers, the show hosts a programme of seminars, often with distinguished speakers, which cover the use of IT in most aspects of the curriculum. Only 7 per cent of those who attended the seminars were disappointed.

Indeed, a visit to BETT must be the one sure way of gaining an accurate overview of what is really happening in the world of educational IT. This accounts for the growing number of overseas visitors (785 came this year from 54 countries). It's good news, of course. Increased exports means a thriving British IT industry which should result in an improved service for the home market.

So BETT 98 (January 14-17) promises to be better than ever. But they are going to have to do something about the coffee.

Details of BETT 98 from EMAP Education, Greater London House, Hampstead Road, London NW1 7QZ, tel: 0171 388 2430. It's not too late to "visit" this year's show at http:www. emap.combett

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