From flying foxes to show launches, Ed Tranter tells the story of the unconventional world of MA Exhibitions.
In the leafy London district of Herne Hill, behind the doors of an old converted church, a giant is awakening, and we’re not talking about Ed Tranter, the 6’7.5” managing director of MA Exhibitions.
We’re talking about the company itself: the fast-growing exhibitions arm of publisher Mark Allen Group. It’s impossible to talk about the rapid growth of MA Exhibitions without talking about Tranter himself.
Tall, bald and tattooed, Tranter is far from the average smartly-suited exhibition industry MD and in his senior role, he has applied his exhibition philosophy to each and every show the company runs throughout the year.
It all started back in 2012, when Tranter’s previous company, Findlay Media, launched the Engineering Design Show (“the acronym EDS is purely coincidental,” says Tranter).
“Our process for launching something is just what I thought was the most obvious thing to do,” he tells EN.
“I’ve worked at big companies before, and what you end up doing is having three or four people in a room saying, ‘We know the market, and the market needs this’.
“That, to me, is crazy. The first thing you have to do is ask the audience what they want. And also, you have to ask what does good look like?”
If you’re thinking ‘Who is this guy?’, Tranter wonders the same.
“Obviously, we know that we’ve grown quite quickly, and I’m sure that when we appear in this cover feature, it’ll seem like we’ve come out of nowhere,” he remarks.
“Two years ago we were tasked with building a large-scale exhibitions business and back then, we were turning over less than a million pounds and we had two events.
“This budget year, in terms of confexes, we’re on four continents, we are producing 16 international events and running 26 events in total and we’ll be turning over the best part of £12m.”
JOINING THE FAMILY BUSINESS
In 2014, Findlay Media was acquired by family-run publisher Mark Allen Group.
Findlay Media already had 11 titles and 30 small events in manufacturing and engineering.
The organiser now runs a wide variety of UK and international trade shows, including Manufacturing & Engineering North East, Optrafair, the Nursery World Shows and the newly-launched PrintWeekLive!
When the 75-strong Findlay Media team joined the family-run business, which had more than 200 employees, the two groups quickly found a way to mesh together.
“As with everything, you learn cultures,” says Tranter. "We had to learn all their processes and they learned ours. We found that there were some things that they were stronger on and some things that we were stronger on.”
Tasked with building a large exhibitions business, Tranter and his team were given the budget and the freedom to maintain their self-imposed high standards.
“They let me decide what the right thing is, because I’m the one with experience and knowledge in that area,” he explains. They don’t squeeze you, whereas in a larger company the bottom line is the bottom line. We are known for our quality of execution and the quality of content, and the approach that we bring. I want us to continue to be known for that.
“We don’t cut costs; we don’t do things on the cheap. All our registration areas are always purpose-built; all the feature areas are always purpose-built. We don’t put a shell scheme up and hope for the best. We do things to an exacting level, even though that in some cases can be seen as profit being spent.”
In other words, this unconventional organiser doesn't do things by halves.
In 2016, MA Exhibitions won the EN Award for Show Rising Star for its Manufacturing & Engineering North East event, and this year, the organiser's Ed Wyre was shortlisted in the Best Event Director award category.
Furthermore, the Engineering Design Show was named a Best Trade Show finalist in the 2017 awards – a testament to how far the show has come since its launch in 2012.
Back then, the first thing Tranter and his team did to prepare for the show was to carry out research involving 600 design engineers, from every sector and every region.
“They were notoriously difficult to get to turn up to things,” he adds.
With the majority of engineers reacting positively to the idea of the show, they went to key sponsors and got them on board before the show was even announced. Then, and only then, did they begin to approach exhibitors.
“Before we introduced the show to the market we had testimonials from all the sponsors, on the strength of the data we’d got,” Tranter explains.
Under-promise and over-deliver might have become a somewhat hackneyed phrase over the years, but clichés often become so because they have a ring of truth.
“I was talking to our sales guys and they wanted to promise 3,000-4,000 people. I said, ‘we can’t guarantee that, how do you even know that’s the right number?’” continues Tranter. "So we actually asked them. I said, ‘I can’t guarantee an audience, but I can guarantee that we will build it to the best quality, we will do everything properly, and the content will be extremely good.
“We can’t control everything, but what we can control will be brilliant. I asked them, just out of interest, what good would look like. We went to one of the headline sponsors and they said, ‘If you can get 1,000 design engineers over two days then we’ll be amazed.”
The first edition of the Engineering Design Show welcomed 1,338 visitors through the doors of Ricoh Arena, and has since grown into a sell-out show, taking up 6,000sqm at the venue.
“I could’ve grown it,” adds Tranter. “I could’ve moved it to the NEC. But what I’ve chosen to do is build something and keep it at that size, because it’s fit for purpose. We now get about 4,500 design engineers, which is a huge proportion of the UK’s design engineering community. We get more than anyone else gets, but I don’t think you could get more than that.”
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
What Tranter cares deeply about is the reputation of the business, and about the attitude of his employees in general.
“I firmly believe 90 per cent of the success of a show on-site is attitude,” he explains. "It’s about how we are with our customers, and how we are with our visitors. It’s about how we are in everything that we do.
“Exhibitions are complicated beasts,” he says. “Shows have a level of complexity where at some point something might go wrong, and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. It’s not about trying to make everything perfect and avoid these situations. It’s about how you deal with them and the attitude with which you approach it, and respond to exhibitors or visitors.”
This attitude translates into the type of people Tranter likes to bring into the company.
“We’re always looking to bring in people who have the energy, the excitement and the positivity,” he explains.
“The most important thing for me is team fit. You can get someone who’s really good at their job, but who pisses off 18 other people and they then become crap at their jobs. So the mean benefit is less.
“Team fit is my first port of call for anyone we bring in. Then it’s about what new experience they can bring in. I’m far from believing that I know the answers to everything – I barely know the answers to anything – but if we get the right kind of people involved then together we can really make a difference.”
“I’ve given up my office so we can fit more desks in,” laughs Tranter. “We’re restructuring at the moment, and we’re recruiting quite extensively.”
“I live just outside Tunbridge Wells, with fields on three sides,” he tells EN.
“Our next-door neighbour has a 300-acre garden, with a big house down the valley. She rides past on her horse with her hounds running behind her shouting, ‘Darling!' When I turned up – with the tattoos and all the rest of it – she probably thought I was either in witness protection or a lottery winner.”
Tranter spends much of his life travelling, on-site, or commuting two hours each way to his south London office.
How does he let off steam?
“I play the guitar, badly. I play in the church band, which is as rock’n’roll as it gets. My mates and I have formed a band called Guns’n’Moses,” he laughs. "I decided to learn the guitar when I was 40, which was a couple of years ago now. I went to Denmark Street and walked in and bought a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp. I told the guy I couldn't play the guitar and he looked at me like I was mental, because I was about to drop £1,700. But it was a childhood ambition.”
In addition to loving his family, his home, his work and his guitar, Tranter has one more passion.
“One of my favourite things, if I’m honest, are my chickens,” he admits.
The Tranter family are temporarily (due to a recent bird flu outbreak) sharing their home with six chickens: Badger, Arwen, Hope, Faith, Phoenix and Daisy.
“I’ve built them a run with giant eight-foot posts and mesh wiring and everything,” explains Tranter. "In true exhibition style, it’s technically a 4x3 shell scheme, open on three sides.”
Several years ago, a chicken-related incident suddenly shattered the peace and serenity of the Tranter household.
“One day I heard all this squawking and I ran outside and found a fox,” he tells EN. “Maria had attacked the fox; she was the top chicken. The fox killed her, and then went into the small run to get the other two. I grabbed it by the back legs – didn’t know what I was doing, new to country life – picked it up and began to spin it around. When I completed the arc I let go and it went flying over the hedge. I looked over the hedge and there was a stunned looking fox, limping off.
“It then struck me that I’d just thrown a fox over a hedge. Any animal rights people reading – I was protecting my chickens. We had to have a whole service for Maria. Even now my son Toby doesn’t talk about it and he became vegetarian as a result.”
Attempted chicken massacres aside, Tranter’s countryside home is a refuge from the craziness of the exhibition industry. That’s not to say that he doesn’t love the industry, and all the opportunities it can bring.
“I would happily be at home more, but I also love what I do,” he explains. “I love the opportunities that we have. We have the entire world, and every piece of subject matter ever; we can look at any of them and we can do anything anywhere. I love that. You can come in the door aged 22, and now here’s me at 43, and the excitement doesn’t lessen. You’re out there doing all these different things; building things and making stuff happen.”
So, what does the future hold?
“I’m assuming a heart attack in a spectacular fashion, probably at the NEC,” jokes Tranter. "Probably during build, or during my speech at an exhibitor drinks on the first night. I’m thinking go out in an explosive fashion; take the tablecloth off, beer on the floor. That’s how I want to go out.”
More practically, when Tranter and his team joined Mark Allen Group they were tasked with achieving an annual turnover of £15m by 2020.
“We’re going to smash that, we’ll get that next year I think,” he says. “Long-term, as a KPI I’d like to get to £20m, but most of all we just want to keep growing.”
MA Exhibitions is composed of three parts: they’ve bought some shows, won some contracts to run shows on other people’s behalf, and launched a lot of shows.
Having initially looked at creating shows based around the business's 66 magazine titles, the organiser is increasingly branching out into launching pure-play events.
“I love show launches,” enthuses Tranter. “I get really excited about acquisitions of course, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as when you come up with an idea and sit with a group of people to talk through it and research it. It takes you about a year to get there and suddenly the doors are open, and you’re at an event that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I find that particularly exciting.”
When EN first sits down with Tranter, he points out that people in the exhibition industry might not have heard of MA Exhibitions.
“No one will know who I am, or who the company is, it’ll seem like we’ve come out of nowhere.”
That may be true. But, as American author Brian Tracy once said, it doesn't matter where you’re coming from, all that matters is where you’re going.
And, if the last three years are anything to go by, it seems like MA Exhibitions is definitely going in the right direction.