Completely Group never meant to be an exhibition organiser, which is why its events are breaking all the rules.
When you imagine a successful exhibition, what do you see?
An immense exhibition hall packed with visitors? Impressive, and hugely expensive, exhibition stands looming over the aisles? Theatres with keynote sessions that are simultaneously innovative, interesting and educational?
To put it mildly, the events organised by Completely Group offer none of these things.
“I don’t think anyone sees us as a threat,” laughs Dom Millar, CEO of Completely Group. “We do what we do. We don’t tread on too many toes.”
Meeting at Completely Group’s Guildford headquarters, Millar tells EN more about the Completely Retail Marketplace events, a series of B2B trade shows for the commercial and retail property sector.
The Marketplace events have earned Completely Group the Indy Award at the EN Awards for two years running, all while completely overturning the traditional exhibition format.
Beginning with a one-day London event in 2012, Completely Group are now preparing to launch their fifth in Stockholm later this year, but Millar says the move into the world of exhibitions wasn’t one he ever intended to make.
“My background is actually graphic design,” he explains. “I used to work as a digital retoucher, which is a fancy name for someone who takes the spots off models’ faces and retouches McDonalds burgers.”
After being made redundant – just as his wife was pregnant with twins – Millar took the opportunity to set up his own retouching business. A friend who worked for property broker Savills told Millar he had some retail park plans which needed to be drawn up, and Millar took his first step into the world of retail property.
Fast forward to 2017, and Completely Group has around 30 staff and works predominantly on marketing materials for commercial and retail property clients, while running a website called Completely Retail, which Millar describes as, “Kind of like RightMove for shops”.
Over the years the company has established itself as a successful marketing agency – with a readymade database of potential clients at its fingertips – so how did it end up running exhibitions?
An eventful recession
The answer, in a nutshell, is the global recession which hit in 2008.
“Naturally, the first thing that everyone did was half their marketing spend,” recalls Millar. “The company went down from 25 people to just 15. It was a really tough time.
“There were several property industry events which were continuing to charge fairly lucrative amounts, despite the recession. A lot of the agents couldn’t afford it, or at least couldn’t see the value in it.”
In 2011, the retail property industry as a whole came to Completely Group, as the company was seen as an independent body with ties to, and contact in, the industry. Millar and his colleagues were asked if they could put on a new one-day event in London. They agreed, little knowing how important the new event would become to their business.
“We thought we’d use it to promote the website,” Millar laughs.
The first ever Completely Retail Marketplace event took place in 2012, in London’s Old Spitalfields Market, welcoming around 600 visitors.
It was clear from the start that this was no ordinary trade show.
“One of the differences between our event and probably any other event is that we’re really picky about who attends it,” explains Millar. “From the very start we probably could’ve had around 1,000 people if we’d let in the lawyers, consultants and architects.
“But we decided to make it about leasing; all about letting shops. We just had the owners of retail parks and shopping centres, the investors, the brokers and agents and the retailers.”
Another major difference between Completely Retail Marketplace and other trade shows was the stands.
“We specified and built all the stands,” Millar tells EN. “We built a shell scheme, we provided the branding, a literature rack, all the furniture, and we were very prescriptive about what people could and couldn’t bring.
“It means that everyone is the same. You could have the UK’s biggest property company next to someone who only owns one shopping centre and they’ll have exactly the same stand.
“We’ve invested in our own shell scheme. Everyone said not to do it, but we’ve done it and now it’s totally under our control. It was a massive investment, but it’s already paying dividends and it makes our events a lot more profitable.”
Millar’s central approach was to bring together all the people necessary to make a specific type of deal, and to allow them to meet and interact on a level playing field.
Rather than attempting to attract as many visitors as possible, he decided to aim for precisely the right mix of visitors and exhibitors, which would enable deals to be made on the day, on the show floor.
Growing the marketplace
The effectiveness of this approach shows in the numbers. Retention rates for the Completely Retail Marketplace events are over 90 per cent, while the company found that 98 per cent of 50 people surveyed at the show had either done business as a result of attending, or would do a deal having met someone at the event.
“If you’re in the business of doing deals then you come to our event,” Millar says. “That’s what everyone’s there for, and because everyone’s there to do one type of business everyone does more.
“It’s like a stock exchange of deals; it’s frenetic. I get goosepimples when I see it. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve created.”
Due to the contacts Completely Group already had in the industry, and the affordability of the show, the first Completely Retail Marketplace event was an immediate hit.
“We very quickly went to two events in London in 2013,” continues Millar. “We outgrew Old Spitalfields and moved to Old Billingsgate, which is where we are at the moment.”
The location of the events in venues like Old Spitalfieds and Old Billingsgate is no accident; Millar feels that the atmosphere of the venue is hugely important to the overall feel of the Marketplace events.
“We haven’t got any more room at Old Billingsgate, and we could go to somewhere like ExCeL London, but it would lose the spirit of the marketplace, that Grade II-listed feeling,” he says. “It would lose its personality.
“If we could put hay and sawdust down on the floor then we would. We want people to feel that they’re in a marketplace. Everyone turns up in suits and ties, and if I could ban that then I would. They’re professional people coming to our events so it’s a sea of suits.”
The focus on building the marketplace feel of the events has resulted in an almost complete lack of content or sessions at the shows.
“We’ve done it in the past,” recalls Millar. “We’ve put on some talks on the state of the nation, how retail property is faring, whether it’s a good investment – that kind of stuff – and people just don’t bother. They’re too busy.
“The one bit of content we do is called Soapbox. Essentially we give retailers around five minutes to stand up on a soapbox in front of a whole load of people and pitch to a room full of shopping centre owners.”
Having exhibitors stand on stage and just pitch their product to visitors – the worst nightmare of many trade show organisers – is a deliberate strategy, and a successful one, at Completely Retail Marketplace.
“We’ll have about a dozen brands at each event, and there have been lots of success stories,” Millar tells EN. “One that sticks in my mind is restaurant chain Tortilla. When we put on our first event they had less than a dozen stores, and now they have 40.
“The then-MD cites us as one of the contributing factors to that. In a market where everyone is saying that retail’s dead and everything’s going on the internet it’s really nice to be part of people’s success stories.”
Against the norm
Turning the average exhibition organiser’s nightmare scenario into a success story seems to be a running theme for Completely Group. Keeping stands all the same size, and refusing to allow exhibitors to brand their own stands, is a decision that might feel extremely counterintuitive to many organisers.
“We’re a bit odd like that, I think the popular term is disruptors,” laughs Millar. “We are commercially minded, but we’re a marketing agency at heart and our brand is important to us. We’ve had some of the largest companies in the commercial property world saying they need more stands. And we’ve said no, because that’s not how we do it. I’ve had to say no to some quite major people in the industry.
“We’ve reaped the benefits, because there are strict rules. People don’t ever chip us on price; they know that the price is the price, and everyone pays the same, without exception. That makes it really easy to sell.
“With the established events we have such a high retention rate that we just pick up the phone and say, ‘do you want a stand at both events this year, or just one?’”
The combined popularity and exclusivity of the Completely Retail Marketplace events has reaped even more benefits for Completely Group, especially when it comes to the usually pricey area of catering.
“We have our own food court and some of the brands provide food free of charge,” explains Millar. “They want everyone in the room to touch and feel and eat their food, because it’ll help them expand and help their businesses.”
After the success of the London events, it was only natural that the next step for Completely Group was expanding Completely Retail Marketplace internationally.
The organiser launched a small event in Dublin in 2015, before following it up with its first venture into mainland Europe with Completely Retail Marketplace Amsterdam in 2016.
“We were very lucky,” explains Millar. “We got in with a Dutch retail property association with around 80-100 brands as their members.
"They had a need for an event. I approached the head guy there and they came over to London, saw the event and said, ‘this is what we need’.
“They were so supportive; they probably sold more stands than we did, which was very encouraging. Amsterdam is forecast to pretty much double in size this year.”
Following on from Dublin and Amsterdam, Completely Group is launching Marketplace in Stockholm for 2017. The organiser is also looking to expand the brand to Madrid in 2018 and to run a total of ten European events by 2020.
“The more events we do, the more noise we’re making, and the more our family grows,” says Millar. “It’s really exciting. I think there’s a massive opportunity for us. There seems to be an appetite to take our formula and bring it into other markets.”
“There are several niches that we could benefit from, and which could benefit from us. Even within the commercial property industry there are opportunities.”
The Completely Group way of putting on a show, comments EN, seems almost too straightforward to be true.
“It’s quite a simple thing,” laughs Millar. “It’s not complicated, but it’s taken an independent business like us. It may be that the big companies have looked at markets like this and decided it’s too small for them. They would chuck resources at it and it wouldn’t be profitable. Because we’re a tiny team we manage to make it work.
“We have one sales person, who is my brother. He runs sales for Dublin and Amsterdam. My mum does accounts. My wife sits next to me – she’s co-owner of the business. Our overheads are quite low, which in turn helps us keep our prices quite reasonable.”
Is it tempting to lower your guard, EN ponders, having struck on what seems like a winning formula?
“We make incremental changes and try to keep things fresh,” says Millar. “Sometimes the biggest criticism is about the ten-deep queue for the cloakroom as people are leaving. If that’s the biggest criticism they have about the event, then I think we’re doing a lot right.
“They’re small problems in the grand scheme of things, but we have a very conscientious events team who see problems and fix them.”
Whether it’s Completely Group’s marketing background, or perhaps the company’s degree of separation from rest of the exhibition industry, but its approach to problem solving is arguably unorthodox but undeniably effective.
The events side of the business is growing fast, transforming in just six years from a one-off event to promote the Completely Retail website to five sold-out events spanning Europe, and welcoming an international audience.
Whether any other exhibition organisers come round to the Completely Group way of thinking remains to be seen, but for the moment, the company is blazing a trail for a different type of exhibition.