From ballet, scotch eggs to working with the Top Gear gang, Chris Hughes, tells the story of how he started Brand Events and made the business a key player in the industry.
If Chris Hughes was to be compared to a savoury snack, the Brand Events chief would probably see himself as a scotch egg; perhaps not the prettiest to look at, but full of goodness inside.
Of course, unlike his favourite bread-crumbed confectionary treat, Hughes isn’t made up of one part egg and one part sausage meat, rather, he is full of a relentless drive to be highly successful while having fun and sharing in that success with all those around him.
Without question, Hughes is someone who likes to laugh a lot with people and is serious about not taking himself too seriously. The Brand Events boss is equipped with an almost irritating charm that whether he is sat behind his desk fiddling with the air con controls in his office while having a chat with EN, or on stage interviewing his own hologram in front of a few hundred people, he will have your attention whether you like it or not.
It is his character and standing in the industry that made Hughes the right person to lead Events for Namuwongo. The charity project provided a slum community on the edge of Kampala, Uganda with clean, free water, essential health care and education resources – Hughes’ leadership in this project was rightfully recognised this summer when he received the AEO Personality of the Year Award. This desire to lead, make a difference and to have fun in whatever he does, started long before he took his first steps on the career ladder.
“The truth is, the path that led me into this industry started through my unwavering desire to impress the opposite sex,” says Hughes, midway through eating (yes, you guessed it) a scotch egg. “It started out in the playground at school, where I organised parties to impress girls. This then progressed at university where I booked bands to play gigs in the hope that it would, again, make me attractive to the ladies.”
At university, through his character and natural know-how, Hughes quickly became president of Birmingham University’s student union. “I liked organising the parties at the union, so much so that it got me interested in being an organiser as a full time job.” His first gig saw Hughes starting out his career working in theatre management in establishments he describes as ‘funny little sh*tty theatres that had low rent ballet one day and wrestling the next’.
Through working for a theatre in Hillingdon and one in Northampton, Hughes learned how to book acts and how to be a promoter. He also saw how soul destroying a lot of show business is. “Mostly, these small theatres have failing people playing in them,” says Hughes.
“In the first theatre I worked in, there was only two kinds of acts; occasionally people on the way up, but in the main I was booking people like the Nolan Sisters who by then, were on the long tail of failure.”
Hughes continued to book acts for theatres for three years, honing his talents of managing, promoting and selling tickets, until one job led him to the Business Design Centre.
Welcome to Islington
“The BDC had just opened, and I was asked to come and help them stage the ballet for a couple of weeks and during that time, I met the Morris family who said to me ‘you seem good, why don’t you stick around?’”
Hughes arrived at the BDC in 1987, and before long, his talent and can-do attitude was quickly recognised. “When I started out at the wonderful family business that is the BDC, I was a boy in short trousers learning from Andrew, Jack and Dominic Jones,” reflects Hughes.
“It was fantastic working for the Morris family. They made me a director of the business at 26 years old, at a time when I was playing around with the idea of going into broadcasting. “I was just about to get married and they made me feel utterly fantastic by making me a director – that was it for me, I was hooked. There was no way I was going to leave this industry.”
For Hughes and the team at the BDC, a problem for the business at the time, was that the venue just wasn’t getting the bookings it desired. But this problem of having an empty venue was quickly turned on its head, with Andrew Morris deciding that the BDC would start to launch and run its own events.
“These were the golden days where we grew the BDC into being a very successful venue,” says Hughes. “Together we started on a journey into the unknown of launching exhibitions and quickly became serial launchers of shows.”
By 1997 after a number of highly successful and profitable launches, including the Art Show and Country Living Show, Hughes decided it was time to move on.
“I sat back and realised that I had made the BDC quite a bit of money through these shows and that I was ready to start doing my own thing.”
However, during this time, Hughes was approached by BBC Haymarket to be their deputy MD. A job he took where he got heavily involved in running a number of events including, BBC Good Food and Autosport. But for Hughes, the move, albeit to what he thought was his dream job, didn’t feel quite right. “After coming from a brilliant family business at the BDC, I didn’t really like the culture at Haymarket. The difference was noticeable.
“It was a seminal moment in my life. I had discovered that I had gone to my dream job and that I hated it, while my mates were nagging me to start my own business.”
Eventually Hughes heeded their advice, and after plucking up the courage to do it, was given £100K from two friends to start an exhibition company. “I was absolutely raring to go,” says Hughes. But any thoughts of jumping straight into his own business were quickly extinguished. “Haymarket demanded that I served my six months notice, which I was a little put out by, but I agreed to do it.”
Little did he know at the time, but those six months would prove to be absolutely vital to the start and success of Brand Events.
“If I had started Brand Events on that £100K I would have gone bust within a matter of months.” It is an honest reflection. “That six months notice period really was the saving of me.”
While Hughes sat there at Haymarket kicking his heels, Tim Etchells put Hughes in touch with Richard Copley Smith. “When we met, I went on and on at him about consumer shows and brands. I remember he turned and said to me, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about but I like the sound of you’. He gave me £150K and became my chairman and that is how we started.”
Hughes was 36 years old, had a wife expecting their third child, had re-mortgaged the house and was about to take the biggest risk of his life.
In the first twelve months Brand Events ran the Tomorrow’s World Show for the BBC, and launched the Vitality Show, which Hughes had hoped would break even – it lost a a sobering £250K. “I expected that original money to last three launches but we blew it all on the first one.” The Vitality Show, did however find its legs and along with the also launched Outdoor Show, was sold to the Daily Mail in 2004 for £6m. “We had performed the magic trick of turning £250K into £6m in under four years… which was nice.”
For Hughes, a short period of enjoying his newfound wealth ensued before he went back to the drawing board to work out what shows to launch next. “Admittedly, after the sale of the two shows, I got a bit cocky and spent six months acting like I was a multi-billionaire,” he says with a wry smile.
“Thankfully I quickly realised I was the poorest playboy in the world and once I calmed down and came to my senses, we launched MPH (which later turned into Top Gear Live) and Taste of London.”
Further launches of Tastes around the world followed, along with among others, a dating show called Chemistry and Toast – a wine festival that was a victim of its own success. “We sold so many tickets and so much wine that there was a bit of a riot on Clapham Common where the event was being held. After that we had to keep moving the event because unsurprisingly, no one wanted it!”
In order to find inspiration on what shows to launch next, Hughes would spend hours trawling the shelves of WH Smiths, searching for niche magazines that he could spin off into event ideas. It was during this time that he noticed the number of lads’ mags on the shelves.
“We had this idea of a show that we called ‘Weekend at Dave’s’. The premise was that this guy called Dave wins the lottery and invites all his mates round for the ultimate boys weekend.
“We worked with Nuts magazine on the project and had page 3 girls, famous models like Abbey Clancy, lots of cars, sport, music and gambling.” He continues; “On paper it, withNuts’ huge readership and promotion of the event, it was a sure thing… except we couldn’t sell the tickets. It had everything a boy could dream of - that’s probably why it’s the only show I’ve not told my mum about!”
Although enjoying success with the magazine spin-off show, Country Living, Hughes believes it is incredibly hard for print titles to transfer their editorial onto the show floor.
"Magazines that think that they can just turn themselves into a show often have a fall,” says Hughes. “I will be watching with interest how Stylist and Shortlist do now they have an events arm. It will be interesting to see how Stylist get on with their show at the BDC as it’s a fantastic venue and a brilliant magazine, but will the content in print transfer to a show floor? I hope so.”
The Big Squeeze
Brand Events’ second phase of ‘let’s just try everything’ led to a number of highly successful launches and also offers for joint ventures abroad. Taste was launched in Dublin, which was followed by an opportunity to launch MPH in South Africa. Helped by venture capitalist firm Ingenious, Brand Events set about rapidly growing globally. But when the world’s finances collapsed, everything shrunk.
“We were massively over-extended and lost about £4m,” admits Hughes. “Our investors were saying to us, ‘how are we going to get out of this?’”
Hughes bought back out Ingenious and took full control of the business, which allowed him to make the necessary changes to keep Brand Events moving forward.
“It was a stressful time, but if you know beneath the surface you have enough assets to get you through it is manageable.”
2011 was Brand Events’ toughest year, but in 2012 the company were doing more Top Gears and creating more than ever. “There was always enough good stuff to know that it was still a great business,” says Hughes. “Even though we found ourselves in a bit of a mess.”
“It was a tough era for us, but we got out of it by selling the Taste business to IMG,” Hughes continues. “Taste and Top Gear had been our two big successes in this era, and Taste of London was obviously the mothership. We sold it in 2013 to IMG, who I am delighted to see are doing really well with the show.”
Hughes isn’t sure whether Brand Events were lucky or a key part of the movement with pop up food, but in 2004 when Hughes and co started Taste, the idea of pop up restaurants was very much in its infancy. With a smile on his face Hughes claims the success of the shows has however come at a cost. “Through running Taste globally, I have probably organised more pop up restaurants than anyone in the world, which is possibly why I look like this – I’ve eaten in most of them!”
Away from the success of Taste, it is negligent to write about the history and growth of Brand Events without mentioning their cars shows, particularly, Top Gear.
Through a chance encounter between Hughes and Jeremy Clarkson, the idea was sprung to start a car show where the cars moved and the visitors sat down. “Up until then, car shows were full of stationary vehicles. Jeremy had the vision of bringing car shows to arenas.”
Starting in 2003 as MPH, the show lost money for the first couple of years.
However, concerns about the future of the show were nipped in the bud by Simon Kimble - a partner of the show. “Kimble is such a ballsy character and a brilliant entrepreneur,” enthuses Hughes. “He kept saying, ‘no keep going, it’s going to be good’.” Kimble was right and big things started happening for MPH.
The growing success of the TV show, turned the tide, with the trio becoming more popular, the adventures abroad and also Hammond’s very well publicised brush with death, in a serious crash – “all these things coincided,” says Hughes.
In 2007, MPH turned into Top Gear Live in a JV with the BBC. Top Gear Live went worldwide, with each tour more successful and ambitious. However, there was trouble ahead. “Obviously this year there has been a tricky situation in the press,” notes Hughes.
The on-going success of the show and its format, will be hard to better, but in CarFest, a creation made between TV presenter Chris Evans and Brand Events, Hughes has enjoyed another hugely successful launch. “I think after Glastonbury, it is the fastest selling festival in Britain,” says Hughes. “There are 100,000 people who come to the North and South shows and we sell out in under an hour.”
“Working with Chris is fantastic - he is so creative and is a remarkable person. He earns nothing from the shows, which make £2m for Children In Need.”
CarFest has enjoyed great success since it started in 2012, but suffered a terrible tragedy this summer after the death of Kevin Whyman, who died when his plane crashed at the show.
“It was one of the hardest, most complicated and difficult days of my event life,” reflects Hughes. “As an event organiser, it’s the sort of nightmare scenario you hope never occurs which makes the stresses of this business totally trivial.”
Part of the success of CarFest has been the music offering. When EN asks whether Hughes would consider a standalone festival the answer is simple. “There are a few festival ideas I would like to do which are shows plus music, but to take on all the big music festivals without an angle? I’d feel a bit naked.”
Likewise, going into tradeshows, is also not on the agenda. “I did tradeshows with the BDC and know they are much more sensible and profitable. However, the problem for me is that I think they are a bit boring.”
A field that Brand Events feels more comfortable in is pet shows, with DogFest a particular favourite. “DogFest, spun out of the London and the National Pet Show, and has proven a big hit with dog owners and their canine friends. We envisage 20,000 people coming to each of the shows next year.”
With a remarkable list of shows in the Brand Events stable and previous events collectively sold for in excess of £22m, Hughes firmly believes Brand Events’ success is down to the excellent team he has. “Brand Events attracts a certain kind of person and tends to keep them here,” he says. “They tend to be people who don’t take themselves too seriously who have an incredibly strong work ethic.”
“Maybe it is also that we are not doing tradeshows,” he continues. “Our shows are not full of business people talking at each other in grey suits. How can you not enjoy your job when it is all about racing cars, delicious food and fields full of 8000 wagging tails that are attached to 8000 very happy dogs? – it’s great to be around.”
“The great thing about us, is we have an idea and we do it. We see leftfield ideas through. We don’t have lots of spreadsheets. I think people like that freedom.”
With a smile, Hughes adds: “I know I am treading very much into David Brent territory, as the boss of a company always says how good their business is to work for, but I really think at Brand Events, it is true.”
It seems Hughes and his team have big plans for 2016, with one show in particular he is very excited about. “We have a big new deal with a Hollywood film studio that will see a brand new event go on a massive tour of the world. It will be by far the biggest thing we have ever done.”
Hollywood? Now that would have impressed on the playground.
This article was first published in the November issue of EN. Any comments? Email Jamie Wallis