How did you get into the exhibition industry?
I finished my education in 1973 and thought I was god’s gift to advertising. But I was stymied by the UK facing the most phenomenal recession, when the miners took on Prime Minister Ted Heath and the three-day week was introduced. Having been on the shortlist for five London advertising agencies, they all declared they weren’t taking any graduate trainees that year and I found myself stuck. It so happened that during my time at university, I franked the mail for the Hemming Group. Rather touchingly, the chairman Harold Hemming called me for an interview at the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall, which led to me being made a production manager on one of Hemming’s magazines.
After a few months I was promoted to a sales role selling classified advertising on a motoring trade magazine and within a year, someone higher up the tree left. Although there was a recession, the Hemming Group was taking a lot of advertising in The Municipal Journal because local government was being restructured. Rather than give the profits to the Inland Revenue, the group MD decided to double everyone’s salary. When I decided to go for other interviews, the employers couldn’t begin to equal the salary. That is probably one of the reasons I’m still here. Of course, various other things came into play and my role has changed considerably over the years.
Brintex was formed in 1963 as a joint venture between Hemming and the Thomson Organisation, which in those days published many titles including The Times, but also had a business-to-business division, the rump of which is now part of Emap Connect [i2i Events Group]. The Brintex calendar was partly born out of Thomson’s publications. I wanted to join our exhibition division so applied whenever a vacancy occurred. Three opportunities came up before I was finally accepted. In 1978 Richard West, the show manager on the flagship show Public Works and Municipal Services Exhibition left and I succeeded him.What was a major highlight during your time as a show manager?
In 1979 I had the best year of my life. My first exhibition was the World Mining Exhibition, a management contract for the Turkish Ministry of Energy. The Turks won the bid to host the event in Istanbul not knowing how to organise shows, but knew Brintex did because we ran the big underground mining shows at The NEC for the Association of British Mining Equipment Companies. They offered us the contract for a healthy fee, little knowing they’d get a whippersnapper like me organising it. After that, I was paired up with the marvellous Jack Mitchell, and the two of us ran Brintex’s series of triennial construction equipment shows, which were a partnership with the Federation of Manufacturers of Construction Equipment and Cranes. Another highlight was being appointed to the Brintex board when I was 33. I succeeded my mentor Jack Mitchell as MD in 1989. What is the biggest challenge Brintex has faced?
The early 1990s was the biggest test, but it also gave me a great chance to reshape the business. In the 1970s and 1980s, we ran events I called ‘local government funnies’. They were small annual shows for local government bodies mostly held at seaside resorts. These events removed a lot of the risk for the organiser, because the associations were strong, they would deliver the audience, and we’d get the exhibitors. You spent relatively little on visitor promotion, and it was a formula that worked. When the recession hit in the 1990s, we had a change in group management and called a halt on these events. They needed a lot of staff, and in the recession it was becoming much harder to sell them in. I took Brintex down to seven employees in 1994 and we started again. That’s a huge decision to make. Have you ever regretted it?
We have been much better for it, as we were left with the profitable brands. We cherrypicked our events and the people joining us had incredible spirit such as Simon Burton, Frazer Chesterman, Andrew Evans, Amanda Mansergh and Jo Smith.
Most exhibition businesses typically have a cash cow, followed by smaller brands that add to the whole. In the 1970s and much of the 1980s our cash cow was the construction plant show. The last one was in 1990, because by then there were so few construction equipment manufacturers in the UK, and Bauma in Germany and Intermat in Paris had become more significant. We gave up on this major category and although it was still a big show, waiting three years for the next one wasn’t going to work. The other difficulty is keeping sufficient staff resources for a major triennial event. In the 1980s, we’d also been building up the womenswear fashion exhibition in Harrogate and within three years were using every inch of Harrogate’s halls, had tents on the Majestic lawn and took over a lot of the hotel space. That carried on until Blenheim and Brian Wiseman targeted us with Premier Collections in the early 1990s, and we were knocked out of the ring. Our London Wine Fair built up too following its launch in 1981. We lost money on it for the first three years, but that had grown up in the 1990s to become one of our most important events. How would you describe Brintex’s show focus today?
Many of the shows are run in partnership with trade bodies, so the number we own outright is not great. It has always been the way and stems from the fact that a lot of our publications focus on public sector such as local government and emergency services. What achievement are you most proud of?
In the 1990s, Brintex acquired a magazine covering the hair and beauty sector and with that came a small exhibition. I became friendly with the National Hairdressers Federation secretariat, which bid to host the World Hairdressing Championships in 1994 in London and won. It had to find someone to organise it, but the only two companies with any experience was Reed, with its Salon International and Hairdresser’s Journal, and Brintex with its smaller offerings. Financially, the association probably would’ve been better off with Reed, but chose us because it felt we were a business it could get on well with. Plus we didn’t have an event viewed as competitive. That gave us a £4m turnover boost and considerable profit.Many other organisers have chosen to acquire to grow but Brintex has traditionally been partnership focused. Why is that?
We did potentially have the money to make big acquisitions, however missed our chance in the 1980s when we should have been more acquisitive and our senior management wasn’t willing to put out its tentacles. When I took over as MD, we were up against it and acquisitions were almost out of the question. Spurred on by growth in the mid-1990s, we made a successful bid for Printerhall, which organised the biennial Traffex show for the traffic engineering industry and owned Traffic Engineering and Control magazine. In more recent times this has become our most profitable market sector, and Traffex alternates with Amsterdam RAI’s Intertraffic. Through that we’ve also become involved with the Intelligent Transport Systems series of events.
We’ve since made the occasional acquisition, such as the DIY Show, and more recently Road Expo off Faversham House, but our primary focus continues to be bidding for management contracts. During the early 1990s, the group MD did look at getting venture capital, but the Hemming family shied away from it. It would undoubtedly have transformed this company if we’d had access to bigger funds and I’m sometimes jealous of those that do.
When do we know if a show has had its day?
Certainly shows come and go. We do extensive research on our exhibitors and visitors, and although you can sometimes cure negativity, it’s a good indicator of a show’s health. You also find selling something becomes harder and more time consuming, and starts making less financial sense. That was certainly the case with our lingerie shows, on which we lost money in our last two editions. Things have also popped up and we’d try it. In 2008 for instance, we started talking to the British Association of Landscape Industries, which was keen to have a show for members. I refused to launch the show when there was a recession going on, but we decided to give it a go in 2011. It didn’t wash its face but was quite well received, so we tried again in 2012 and doubled the size of the show, but the visitor attendance was lamentable. Fortunately it brought us to the attention of the Institute of Groundsmanship, which wanted to change the management of its Saltex show. In turn that has attracted the attention of another body, which is considering us because we can handle an event of that scale. Any new partnerships coming online in 2013?
We have won a new partnership with the Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE], which has more than 100,000 members worldwide and an active conference/exhibition programme in the US. SAE has also put on smaller events in Europe but found it difficult to manage these from Pennsylvania and issued a public tender for organising services last year. We threw our cap in the ring and prevailed, and have a partner in France to help us deliver that. The deal has allowed us to enter a new sector, and we have the SAE brand helping to deliver visitors and delegates. The partnership kicks off in 2013 with seven events. Every UK organiser is trying to break into international markets. How important has this been for Brintex’s development?
We have always had overseas shows in our calendar since late 1970s. In the 1980s, we partnered with an American company and ran two construction shows, but running shows in the US can be highly regional. We then ran a swimwear show in Nice, France, with a French individual who knew that market, but only did that once. The mid-1990s was our most ambitious time, when the group MD was looking at venture capital. I was instructed to establish our business in Southeast Asia, so we set-up a Hong Kong office with a couple of staff and in 1994 ran a commercial property show.
Just having one event in the programme wasn’t sufficient so we kept trying to find other shows but found it quite difficult. With hindsight, we should have acquired a suitable and affordable exhibition business already in operation.
This was first published in the February edition of EN. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org