LONDON/LEICESTER: After years without an industry conference, suddenly two come along at once. First up is the BMF, with its plans for an all-industry conference in Vilamoura, Portugal. Next is NMBS, with its 'independents-only' conference in Marbella, Spain. Both events are scheduled to take place in June 2012, one right after the other.

Both organisations want to gain the most publicity for their event by throwing as much information onto the marketplace as possible. Now, following its briefing on Tuesday, NMBS has stepped up the pace with a second announcement in which it said: "The merchant market in the UK has changed a great deal in the last three years, with many organisations having to radically change the way they do business and gear up for a new way of working. The board of NMBS recognised that with such change, that there was now a real need to focus on what could be delivered directly for independent merchants only.

"The need to discuss new ideas and strategies in a truly open forum has never been greater and the NMBS Conference will provide that opportunity for discussion on how to set the agenda for growth and gains in market share for independents, against a backdrop of constant market share erosion prior to the recession due to the acquisition strategy set by the nationals."

The buying society has booked 21-24 June 2012 for its 'independents-only' event at the five-star Don Carlos Hotel in Marbella, Spain.

NMBS managing director Chris Hayward said: "Feedback following the announcement of our conference has been very positive, with both merchant members and suppliers showing support and registering their interest in attending.

"There is a demand for such an event in the independent builders' merchant calendar and as it becomes clearer to our members what our objectives are from the conference, we are very confident of meeting all our targets for holding a very successful event.

"The decision to have our own 'independents-only' conference naturally flowed from us wishing to gain feedback on everything we do and engage more fully with our members to generate new ideas and thoughts and to see how we may use this to focus our energies in the future".

Mr Hayward pointed out that discussions between the NMBS and the BMF took place before the two organisations made an announcement and that the "dialogue continues".

He explained: "The market may not be very robust, however both merchants and suppliers have reacted positively to the downturn and are now planning strongly for the future. That is why the time is right for a conference.

"However, NMBS as a trading organisation, needs to ensure that the independents establish a even stronger footing in the future, which it feels is best served by our Conference purely for our own members.

"The BMF supports the entire industry and it offers a very valued service. However, the BMF is a broad church and, as a result, there was always going to be difficulty in us agreeing on the best way forward. At such times you have to agree to differ," he said, adding that "it shows real strength in our determination for both of us do our own thing. I am confident this will be amicably resolved and quickly become old news."

The BMF has been working to unite the entire merchant sector, across all aspects of the industry – both independent and national. It has been planning an all-industry conference since the beginning of this year.

The Federation had already secured availability at the Hotel Tivoli Marina in Vilamoura, Portugal, for 14-17 June and was already in discussions with sponsors about the event.

Managing Chris Pateman said: "Do we have one merchant industry, or do we have two? Do we have one merchant conference, or do we have two?

"Are independents really best served by a cynical refusal to acknowledge the immense influence of the national chains? Come to that, are nationals best served by using conference as a cynical excuse to network with potential acquisition prospects?

"Or have we all, maybe, grown up sufficiently in the last few years to acknowledge that a merchant's a merchant? If our whole industry is under threat as never before, then maybe our whole industry might be best served by working together as never before?

"NMBS has been quite open about what it's looking for: it wants its members to be part of what amounts to a corporate overseas brainstorming session which will help steer and develop its business plan.  That's entirely legitimate. Although it's probably not what most of us recognise as the conventional merchant industry conference experience," Mr Pateman commented. 

"Both organisations are trying to serve different needs; for our part the whole industry that we represent;  for NMBS its members alone. Both positions are understandable, I think. And discussions continue between the two organisations to see if there is a way forward that would suit both.

"We are not at war – indeed, on many issues have common ground," he added.

"But, the organisations are quite different. NMBS is a buying society looking after the buying needs of its independent members. And the BMF is a trade organisation looking out for the whole industry and representing it to other organisations and in particular the government both national and local on matters unrelated to buying. This inevitably means we do different things, and people have different expectations of us.

"The BMF's proposal simply reflects what our members and suppliers have asked us for:  the opportunity for delegates to interact with the broadest network of industry peers and challenging industry speakers, and to equip themselves with the most state of the art arguments upon which to base the judgments which will steer their businesses forward. 

"The market may or may not want two conferences so close together. As always, the market will decide;  as always, the BMF will strive to reflect that decision," Mr Pateman concluded. 

The problem now is which organisation's conference the industry will want to attend. With the economy still in a fragile state and recovery in the construction sector not expected to grow significantly, both BMF and NMBS might be taking a gamble by pitching two events in the same month.

Meanwhile, our poll, which starts today, is inviting readers to tick the event/venue they would wish to attend in 2012.